Chinese Cultural History

The Female as the Underappreciated Manager

The family letters written by heroic court official Yang Jisheng and esteemed family matriarch Gu Ruopu stand as two of the more candid glimpses into Ming-Qing family life available to us. The two letters arise out of different circumstances and carry different goals: one letter was written to a reluctant soon-to-be-widow, while the other was written by an accomplished, battle-hardened widow. Both indicate the role of women as essential family managers who toiled as they did because they needed families as much as the families needed them. Just as women seemed to not exist without a husband or a son, families could not function without the management of women.


Underlying the recommendations in both letters was the concept of the family as the most important corporate form, the political unit around which to rally. Among the Ming-Qing gentry, the family unit was constantly under threat of "disgrace" and "extinction."

This fear gave rise to a nervous caution against spoiling the hard work of familial ancestors. Yang's charge was to perpetuate the good name of the family and also to defy his enemies, who would be pleased with the failure of his sons. Gu's charge was two-fold: the first was not "violating her ancestor's law" and squandering her "parent's concerned care" in bringing her up to be a good wife to her husband. Gu's second responsibility was to her husband's family in raising the good sons, so as to not "ruin the bygone elder's enterprise."

Both letters convey anxiety about the relationships between different nuclear units of an extended family in regards to property, money, authority, and honor. Yang seems to anticipate these types of disputes between his wife and his brother, asking his wife to "…let him have the advantage, and he will be happy. You must not fight with him."

Yang also anticipates familial disputes between his own sons, recognizing the divergent social backgrounds of his prospective daughters-in-law.

He asks them to acknowledge each others' characteristics, respect each other, and eat together to prevent conflict.

Considering the huge expectations laid upon them, women received a remarkable dearth of practical guidance in carrying their burden. Both letters indicate that men in the Ming-Qing era expected women to accomplish a great amount with very little guidance. Yang's instructions to his sons took up over six pages, while his instructions to his wife accounted for less than one page. Similarly, Gu remembers her husband's sparse final instructions: "…to be frugal with his funeral, to teach [his children] well so that [his children] can inherit his family's scholastic tradition, and to serve [his children's] grandfather with devotion to make up for his own untimely departure."

Different Genders

The posture and the objectives of the two letters reveal a great deal about gender differences in Ming-Qing China, especially in regards to parental roles. Yang seeks to teach his children life lessons and moral values, whereas Gu seeks to notify her sons of her achievements, her immediate plans, and the reasons for those plans. Yang is a motivational speaker and Gu a day-to-day manager. Yang appears to understand moral values and principles as the most important element of parenting, whereas Gu considers "comfortable quarters" and "adequate food and clothing" as a parent's most important contribution.

The letters indicate that, broadly, the job of males was to achieve honor for the familial body whereas the job of females was to support males in achieving such honor, both their husbands and sons. Yang's letter is concerned both with internal affairs and external affairs.…