‘Are Asian girls easy?’ – this question has been asked many times and it seems to be an obsession both with expat communities and Asian people themselves. From a personal point of view, I would argue that Asian girls are not – generally speaking – ‘easier’ than girls anywhere else. But even if they were, I don’t think anyone should blame them. We accept that men are ‘easy’, so why should women be blamed for the same behaviour? Whether we like it or not, it is in our common interest to respect everyone’s freedom, and even the freedom to act in a way we might ourselves dislike.
However, every individual also has the right to see the world through his own eyes, applying his own moral standards. For example, I can hardly expect from a Christian to accept casual sex, because Christians have their own moral standards. Everyone has the right to their own opinion as long as they do not impose it on others by force.
Yet I don’t think that Asian girls are considered ‘easy’ because, or exclusively because of their sexual behaviour. In this post, I would like to examine one specific aspect of the ‘myth of the easy Asian girl’, which is related to the concept of marriage in East Asia.
I would like to show that the idea of marriage in East and West was and is still based on principles that are different from those in the West, and that these different principles may create huge misunderstandings between Westerners and Asians. Before I begin, however, I’d like to point out again that I’m talking about certain segments of the population and about general phenomena, not about every single individual.
In traditional Chinese society, marriage was first and foremost a duty of children towards their parents. The purpose of marriage was to maintain the family lineage and the economic stability of the family nucleus. Parents often saw children as their old-age insurance, as the ones who would take care of them when they grew old. Children had to be subordinated to parents, obey them, serve and make them happy in their old age. Marriage was therefore based on the concepts of hierarchy, social duties and filial piety.
In many respects, the family represented a social security net that individuals could take advantage of. Within the family, there was a strict subordination of children to parents, wives to husbands, women to men (if you want to know more about marriage in Chinese culture, read my posts Family In Chinese Culture – Hierarchy, Harmony, Communication, and Love, Romance, Duty: Marriage in Chinese Culture).
The idea with which a Chinese man or woman entered marriage, was completely different from the one of his or her Western counterparts. For a Chinese man, for instance, marriage was an obligation towards his parents and his family lineage, and it was a strict social institution that maintained and expanded the net of social dependencies between him and other individuals. A large number of marriages used to be arranged, and bride and groom met only on their wedding day.
Love, on the other hand, didn’t play a major role in the choice of a spouse. Marriage and love were two different things; the first was a duty, the second a pleasure. A Chinese man, however, could still pursue pleasure in a way that was legitimate in the eyes of society: by having many spouses and concubines. As long as he had the financial means to provide for them, and as long as he treated his first wife as the second head of the household after himself, no one would condemn polygyny. I have given a few example of concubinage both in old and modern China in an earlier post. As a consequence, for a Chinese man marriage did not mean that he had to be faithful to one wife and love her; he could have concubines and extramarital affairs, as long as he provided for the family and respected social hierarchies. Though the old idea of marriage has changed and monogamy has been institutionalised, the custom of taking mistresses or of having extramarital affairs is still widespread, as we shall see later.
It is fundamental to understand the difference between the traditional Western and Eastern family. In the West, family was usually based on love and mutual consent. Although hierarchy or lineage concerns did exist, they were quite limited when compared to Asia. Even if Western parents might be strict or authoritarian, their power waned as children grew, and the submission of children to parents was never as strong as in Asia.
In Chinese society, marriage was based on filial duty, and on the idea of service. The ones hierarchically inferior had to serve their superiors, and had to show their love through service and rituals.
In the autobiography “Six Records of a Floating Life”, written at the beginning of the 19th century by the Chinese scholar Shen Fu (沈復, 1763–1810?), there are a few staggering episodes that demonstrate how a Chinese family worked. Let us see one example:
One day my father said to Fu-ting [a friend], ‘I have led a hard life, often away from home. I would like to have someone to live with me and serve me, but I have not been able to find anyone. If my son respected my wishes he would find me someone from our home county so that our dialects would be the same. Fu-ting passed this on to me, and I secretly wrote to Yun [the author’s wife] telling her to find someone. She did, a girl named Yao. As father had at that time not yet accepted her, however, Yun decided it would be best not to tell my mother about what was going on (Shen Fu 2004,Part III).
Now, here we see that a father asks his son to find him a concubine to spend time with him and serve him. Something that in the West would have been completely inconceivable, was in Chinese society perfectly normal. Men could have more than a woman, if they could afford her; it was so legitimate that a father could even ask his own son to find him a woman. There was a system of family hierarchy that codified the position of all these wives and concubines, who could be really numerous in wealthy households (the Emperor himself had thousands of concubines).
From a Western point of view, the father’s request would have been considered immoral and improper. But in Chinese society, a man could have many wives, and a son, who was hierarchically subordinated to his father, could not refuse to fulfill his father’s wishes if he wanted to be considered a filial son. In some respects, marriage was a morally less serious thing than in the West, where a couple was supposed to love each other and belong to each other forever (in theory). This difference explains a lot about the different attitudes of Asians and Westerners up to this day.
In another passage of the book, Yun, the author’s wife, tries to find a concubine for him:
Hsü Hsiu-feng, who was my cousin’s husband […] brought a new concubine back with him, raving about her beauty to everyone, and one day he invited Yün to go and see her. Afterwards Yün said to Hsiu-feng, ‘She certainly is beautiful, but she is not the least bit charming.’ ‘If your husband were to take a concubine,’ Hsiu-feng asked, ‘would she have to be charming as well as beautiful?’ ‘Naturally,’ said Yün. From then on, Yün was obsessed with the idea of finding me a concubine, even though we had nowhere near enough money for such an ambition (ibid., Part I).
This scene might appear awkward to a Westerner. It shows how different East Asian values might be from those in the West. I shall argue that until today Chinese and Western values regarding love, dating and marriage differ deeply, and that it is in these differences that we must try to find the roots of how Westerners perceive Asians and vice-versa. Because many stereotypes that exist today are often nothing more than huge misunderstandings. They are caused by the fact that we judge others by our own standards, while they act and think according to different principles.
In fact, how would you judge Yun’s behaviour? By accepting the custom of concubinage, isn’t she automatically accepting the inferior role of women, and isn’t she accepting women to be treated as sexual objects? Perhaps some Western men would be glad to have a wife who asks them to take another woman, or who accepts to live under the same roof with her husband’s concubines, yet in the Western concept of marriage this desire could not be gratified within a legitimate framework. And I would say that most women would not tolerate concubines within the household that they regard as their own, not to mention traditional Christian values that did not allow monogamy. In China, on the contrary, this was normal, most especially in rich and powerful families. It is an obvious thing that, given these premises, the way in which the idea of femininity and the role of women in society developed, was very different from the view that Western women have developed of themselves.
Marriage patterns have changed very much in Chinese society. However, the starting point of marriage was different from that in the West. The evolution of these two systems has perhaps brought them somewhat closer to each other, but it has not created complete convergence.
In the next post I will be examining more in detail how traditional marriage patterns and gender division has shaped Asian women’s role and self-perception as girlfriends and wives. I believe this peculiar social pattern is one of the reasons why Westerners tend to have a certain image of Asian women; an imagine that oscillates between idealisation (pure, innocent etc.) and denigration (easy, materialistic etc.).
Marriage in the West
The first thing we have to understand is that in the Western tradition, marriage never had the absolute ideological power that it had in Asia. In the West, the concept of marriage was determined by an interplay of different moral, legal, religious and social elements.
If we consider the last few hundred years of Western history, the most powerful force that shaped marriage was probably the Christian religion. In the Middle Ages, marriage in the West was conceivable only within a Christian framework, and even after the Middle Ages up to this day Christianity retains a strong influence on the Western understanding of marriage. Nevertheless, even in the past the concept of marriage was not clear and not without internal contradictions. For example, marriage could be seen from a religious, a social, a contractual and a natural perspective, each emphasizing different centres of power and authority (for a detailed analysis, see Witte 1997, Introduction).
Generally speaking, perhaps, we can single out two major models of marriage: the religious one and the contractual one. The religious model recognises the authority of the Christian faith. The contractual model, which we can also call Enlightenment model, sees marriage as a contract between two individuals and downplays the role of religion. However, both these models were never so clear and undisputed that they could dominate the collective understanding of marriage. We can argue that this endless debate about the meaning and forms of marriage is still going on in the West, as can be seen in the issue of gay marriage.
I would like to emphasize here the importance that the Christian tradition has had in shaping certain Western values regarding marriage. In general, I shall argue that marriage was understood as an indissoluble union of a man and a woman based on mutual love, sacrifice and solidarity, and on the common care for their children. In the Christian tradition, marriage was an extremely serious matter, because it was not only a bond between individuals, but between individuals, the Christian community at large, and God:
[M]arriage between Christians was an indissoluble sacrament. The temporal union of body, soul, and mind within the marital estate symbolized the eternal union between Christ and the church and brought sanctifying grace to the couple, the church and the community (ibid., p. 5).
An important aspect of the Christian concept of marriage is that marriage was not seen as a good thing per se. In fact, Christianity emphasizes the love for God and the pursuit of virtues for the sake of moral purity, while it criminalises sexual desire. For example, when Mary gave birth to Jesus, she was a virgin; she became pregnant not through ‘base’ sexual intercourse, but by God’s will. God sent his son to the world of men through a perfectly pure woman who was above sexual lust and earthly desires.
Accordingly, sexual lust was considered a sin. But because ‘flesh is weak’, marriage was seen as a remedy, as a way to control and domesticate sexuality within a Christian framework. Celibacy was regarded as an act of moral superiority and was encouraged, though it was common knowledge even in the Middle Ages that the vow of chastity was hard to fulfill.
Since marriage laws in the Middle Ages were mostly enacted and enforced by the church, a series of ‘immoral’ acts were banned and prosecuted as crimes: contraception, abortion, divorce (with some exceptions), polygamy, polygyny etc.
So far the theory. The practice was quite different, and it’s easy to find out in the literature and the documents of the Middle Ages that people often disregarded religious moral norms and laws. However, the relationship between traditional Christian values and the actual behaviour of individuals is like the relationship between state and corruption nowadays. Corruption is widely seen as a negative phenomenon and is forbidden by the laws. Yet corruption exists, as a deviation from official norms. What is important to stress here is that Christian moral values existed and were recognised as a moral guide by a large part of the population, even if often only on paper.
The contractual, or Enlightenment model, is perhaps even more complex than the religious one. The idea that marriage is only a contract between to individuals somewhat invalidates the objective nature of marriage. The contractual model is now very widespread, maybe even prevalent in the West. This model of marriage is what creates so much confusion, because it is not based on clear, objective principles, but on individual opinions, desires and choices. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the contractual model inherited many of the elements of the Christian concept, most especially the principle that marriage is a consensual union of two individuals, and that polygamy or concubinage are not permitted.
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