Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 17, July 2008

Figure 1. Hu Daidi and another zishu nü in Hong Kong. Source. Shunde Women's Federation, Shunde zishu nü, n.p., 2006. p. 7.
Zishu nü (自梳女):
Dutiful Daughters
of the Guangdong Delta

Ziling Ye (叶紫铃)

  1. In traditional Chinese society women were seen as essential contributors to the family and community, whose role could not be ignored yet was often not valued. In this paper, I will discuss the lives and life-choices of a group of women called zishu nü (自梳女) in the Guangdong Delta region of southern China. These women were different from others in that they vowed to remain unmarried throughout their lives. They were called zishu nü or self-combing women because they declared their status as permanently unmarried through a rite which involved combing their hair into a bun similar to that of a married woman. In Janice Stockard's book, Daughters of the Canton Delta, zishu nü are called 'sworn spinsters'. Following the publication of Stockard's book, zishu nü became a major topic of scholarly debate, involving important questions about Chinese notions of kinship and gender.[1] One of the most important focuses of the debate was about the social, historical and cultural significance of the zishu nü custom, which concerned the relationship between the zishu nü custom and the dominant Chinese cultural system. There are two different views about this. Some scholars, including Stockard, relate the origin of this custom to the influence of non-Han culture in this region. Other researchers, such as Hong Kong scholar Ye Hanming, think that this group of women developed their own subculture (ci wenhua ziyuan 次文化资源) subordinate to the dominant cultural system (zhu wenhua tixi 主文化体系) of China.[2] However, in this paper I will argue that within a traditional Chinese mainstream cultural and historical context, zishu nü, who were role models as adult daughters in their families and to the people in the local area, practiced daughterhood as an ideal of the dominant culture, according to their local cultural environment and personal circumstances. I will focus on the period from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the 1950s.

    Figure 2. Map of the the zishu nü area. Drawn by the Cartographic Services, RSPAS, Australian National University.

  2. There are good reasons to avoid the translation of 'zishu nü' as 'sworn spinsters'. Firstly, although it is a dying custom, zishu nü is the name these women use themselves. It reflects their self-identification both within their families and in the local community. Moreover, zishu nü is based on traditional Chinese mainstream cultural understandings about the concepts of hair, adulthood, marriage, and the relationship between these terms, which are not replicated in the English terms 'sworn' and 'spinster'. Secondly, there are three meanings of 'spinster' in English: (1) an unmarried woman regarded as being beyond the age of marriage; (2) Law. a woman who has never married; (3) a woman who spins thread for her living, whose occupation is spinning.[3] The first definition does not apply, as a zishu nü was not an 'unmarried woman regarded as being beyond the age of marriage'. Indeed, most zishu nü undertook the ceremony to become zishu nü within the customary marriage period of between fifteen and twenty-nine years of age. In the second definition, zishu nü identified themselves as being unmarried in a cultural rather than a legal sense. The third definition is most obviously inappropriate for zishu nü, as these women did not spin thread for a living. The word 'sworn' in English tries to capture the distinction between a legal and a cultural identification. However, the difference between a western spinster and a Chinese zishu nü is that the zishu nü does go through a ceremony to declare her permanent unmarried status.
  3. In this paper I will demonstrate that the zishu nü custom may be understood as embodying traditional Chinese mainstream cultural values, since the self identity of these zishu nü focused on their roles as adult daughters in their natal family and their realisation of core traditional Chinese mainstream cultural ideals of family behaviour. From my case studies, I will provide evidence concerning the identity of zishu nü within their natal families. Two aspects will be discussed, including the motives for becoming a zishu nü, and the interpersonal relationships between zishu nü and other members in their natal families. This evidence was gathered in the course of fieldwork in the Guangdong Delta during late 2006 and early 2007.[4]

    Cultural and historical significance of the zishu nü custom
  4. The links between traditional Chinese mainstream cultural values and practices, and the zishu nü custom which was practiced by a definite group of people in a specific place, during a definite period are important. In 2002, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) described culture as follows:

      Culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.[5]

  5. Thus, culture is not merely a total sum of all the traits, rather it is 'a complex web of shifting patterns that link people in different locales and that link social formations of different scales.'[6] In the case of traditional Chinese mainstream culture, there is substantial genetic, linguistic, cultural and social diversity among its various subgroups, mainly due to thousands of years of regionalised assimilation of various ethnic groups and tribes in China. Thus, traditional Chinese mainstream cultural practices varied widely according to the environment and personal circumstances.
  6. Therefore it should be possible for researchers to observe the traditional Chinese mainstream cultural variability via an analysis of the lives and thinking of ordinary people, including zishu nü. Two important points underlie this analysis: first, the zishu nü custom is derived from the dominant traditional Chinese mainstream culture; and second, a zishu nü identifies herself as a daughter to her clan, elevating daughterhood rather than marriage to her primary role in family and society. The first point is crucial: the zishu nü custom is not an aberration or an example of cultural deviance; it can be understood as part of the traditional Chinese mainstream cultural system. There is no conflict between the lifestyle of this group of women and the paternal world of traditional Chinese society. Secondly, a woman who is a zishu nü identifies herself as an adult daughter of her natal family, which differs from a non-zishu nü woman, who would identify herself as the daughter-in-law of the family she marries into. In other words, becoming a zishu nü does not necessarily entail an attempt to escape the normal obligations of traditional family morality; it is just that these women choose to emphasise another aspect of womanhood—namely, daughterhood. Instead of viewing this choice as 'a rejection of the claims and obligations of marriage'[7]—as does Stockard—I believe it is more accurate to interpret it as a positive decision by a zishu nü woman to maintain the bond with her natal family or clan, and to fulfil her obligations as a daughter of the family.
  7. In the area where the zishu nü custom occurs, it is easy to find material evidence that the people who call themselves traditional Chinese really do practice traditional Chinese mainstream customs—customs strongly influenced by Confucian values, and which these customs form the core elements of their identity. Most villages in the Guangdong Delta are single surname villages, with all the people living in them regarded as descendants of the same ancestor. The Shatou village in the Jun'an township in Shunde is one such village, where the surname of 90 percent of the villagers is Huang. Four of my interviewees are from this village, which is famous for the degree of popularity of the zishu nü custom. Villages like this are believed to be derived from communities which have been widespread since the Song Dynasty. There is at least one ancestral hall in most villages where people maintain the tradition of recording the change of population of their clans in their genealogies. In the Shatou village, for example, there is a large ancestral hall where the villagers worship the tablet of their first ancestor, who is believed to have led his clan in the migration from central China (Henan area) to Jun'an in the Ming Dynasty. This ancestral hall has been preserved and protected by villagers for more than five hundred years, and even during the Cultural Revolution nobody in the village thought of destroying it (See Figures 1, 2, 3 and 4). They have kept this tradition to the extent that they worship their ancestor every Chinese New Year and, in 1995, the villagers (including those who had travelled overseas) together funded a reprinting of their genealogy which was distributed to every family in the village.
  8. Therefore, it is clear that the ethnic group to which the zishu nü belong is mainstream traditional Chinese—historically, ritually and culturally. It is in the context of this mainstream culture that the collective identity of the zishu nü is formed, and we can see this reflected in the choice that they make to follow the dutiful path of an adult daughter to contribute to the well-being of their family. This is another key concept in my findings: the crucial role of daughterhood in relation to zishu nü.
  9. In order to understand a daughter's role and status in her natal family, it is necessary to examine the aim and structure of a traditional Chinese family or clan. The objectives of a clan may be summarised as follows:

      The first objective is education to raise the family's social standing through the official careers of its members. The second objective is thrift so that the family can accumulate more wealth through saving. The third objective is harmony for the purpose of maintaining a well-ordered domestic life. The last objective is to follow ethical teaching, which keeps the family from declining.[8]

    Figure 3. Ancestral Hall in Shatou village. Photograph taken by author, December, 2006

    Figure 4. Tablets in the Ancestral Hall in Shatou village. Photograph taken by author, December, 2006.
    Figure 5. Pictures of Huang ancestors in Shatou village, which are set in the Ancestral Hall. Photograph taken by author, December, 2006
    Figure 6. The names of the villagers who funded a reprinting of their genealogy and repairs to the Ancestral Hall in Shatou village. Photograph taken by author, December, 2006.

  10. 'Family' here is equivalent to 'clan' since both have the same functions or objectives. In traditional China a 'joint' family was not just an ideal for ordinary people, but it also existed in rural areas of China.[9] Neither should daughters be omitted from our understanding of the family structure. Considering the aim and network of the clan, daughters were not only their parents' daughters, but they were also daughters to the whole clan, who had to fulfil their duties as a member of the clan.
  11. There are advantages within the structure of the big joint family that made it the ideal type. Liu Hui-chen suggests:

      To live together as a joint family had several advantages: to increase the total capital accumulation; to pool the social prestige earned by all its prominent members; to carry on the best family vocation and at the same time to have other members take care of the diversified family interests; and to attain social distinction as a large, prosperous family.[10]

    Thus, working for the clan was the best way for family members to balance personal interest and Confucian ideals. Furthermore, the advantages and objectives listed by Liu were good reasons for everyone in such a family, including daughters, to consider the unity and future of the clan and to make every effort to guarantee its prosperity.
  12. For a woman not yet married, her duty was to serve her parents and work for the family's well-being, just like her brothers, with the distinction that in a patriarchal society her efforts went largely unrecognised or were attributed to her brothers. Her duty within the family structure continued until she married. However, if there was a strong need within her family, she was supposed to remain in the role of daughter, and as a consequence there emerged a group known as 'chaste women' (zhen nü 贞女) who served their parents for their entire lives and never married. Zishu nü are best regarded as a sub-group of these 'chaste women' in the local historical record.
  13. To understand a zishu nü's identity as an adult daughter to her natal clan as a whole, it is imperative to investigate several different aspects of a zishu nü's life course including her motives and relationships with family members.

    Zishu nü as daughters to their natal families in real life
  14. Individual women had their own reasons for commiting to the zishu nü custom. However, some motives were shared and can be divided into two groups: economic and cultural. From the beginning of the twentieth century most zishu nü were from poor or lower class families. For example, according to my interviewees in Shatou village, during the 1950s, when every family had to be identified according to its social class (dingchengfen 定成分), there were only five families identified as landowners who leased to others, while around 85 percent of the people were still poor peasants (pinnong 贫农). This meant that most zishu nü were from poor farming families. Of course, there were different levels of poverty; generally speaking, the Shunde and Zhongshan districts were richer than others in the area where the custom of zishu nü was practised. In these districts most families had their own farm fields or pond and, although everyone in the family had to work, until age ten the daughters did not normally have to worry about contributing to the survival of the family. People in the Nanhai and Dongguan districts were poorer than in Shunde and Zhongshan. The majority of the girls in these two areas began to work when they were four or even younger, and they never had an opportunity for education. A day without work meant that they might not be able to eat for the whole day. According to my field research, Zhaoqing district was the poorest in the whole area. No matter how hard they worked the natal families of some zishu nü women could not support them as children, and had to sell them or place them with other families or institutions. In this case, arranging for a zishu nü to adopt their daughter was one way to ensure her survival.
  15. While there are different levels of poverty among these women and their families, there are similarities in their life experiences. Firstly, most of their natal families were joint families, in which three generations or even more lived in the same house. For instance, Huang Yanpei's family was quite large:

      Before the occupation by the Japanese army, my family and my elder uncle's (dabo 大伯) family did not divide.[11] We ate and lived together. My grandmother was alive then. My father had two brothers and one sister. My elder uncle's family, my family, my younger uncle's (shushu 叔叔) family and my father's elder sister—my aunt, who was a zishu nü—were a big extended family of about twenty people who lived together. After the zishu nü rites, my aunt lived with our family, never leaving this village, until she died here when she was about eighty years old.[12]

  16. In Ying Gu's family in Nanhai, eighteen or nineteen people from three generations lived in the house where she was born. They did not divide their property; instead they lived together and ate together. Dong Gu's family in Dongguan was in a similar situation. Her parents lived with her father's three siblings in the same house so that there were more than twelve children in her generation. Stockard states that 'In other places, parents would permit only one daughter in the family to become a spinster.'[13] According to my fieldwork, it was usually the eldest daughter. Eleven of my interviewees told me that this was true in their village. Ten of them were themselves the eldest daughter. Hu Daidi told me that in her village (Zhaipu), all of the eldest daughters in her generation, including herself, became zishu nü.[14]
  17. This information enables us to make a number of generalisations about the girl who chose to be a zishu nü. Firstly, most of them lived in a large joint household, which was typical in traditional Chinese clans. These girls' grandparents were the first generation and still alive when the girl was in her childhood. At this time, grandparents did not control the management of the daily running of the whole family. The main source of labour in the family was the second generation, which consisted of the girl's parents, uncles and aunties. However, as more and more children were born into the third generation of the family, the whole structure became a burden on the second generation. For most of the poor families, this economic burden became impossible for the second generation to take on alone, so some of the third generation were brought in to be providers rather than consumers. Consequently, the eldest daughter often had to take on some responsibility for the family business and household chores, because she was the first person in her generation whose labour could be used by the family. That is why most of the girls who became zishu nü were the oldest child in their generation.
  18. The women of a family, were, according to local Guangdong custom, supposed to join in 'outside' work to support the family in the same way as men, instead of dealing with only the inner aspects of family life. In the Encyclopaedia of the Qing Dynasty (Qing bai lei chao 清稗类抄) women of the Guangdong Delta, especially from lower class or poor families, were described as models of industriousness.[15] Like the men, they participated in agricultural work and they were responsible for household matters.[16]Lazy women lived under intense social pressure and were seen as shameful by both their family and the local community. This fact made female labour as important as male labour in public opinion in the local community, which led to the expection that poor women would begin their working lives as early as possible. In this case, a daughter, especially an eldest daughter, as part of her duty to help her natal family's development, was placed in the position of being one of the main labourers of the family.
  19. Even when they were younger than ten years old, daughters helped their parents with some work. For example, Hu Daidi walked over 200 kilometres with her father to sell cloth fibre during his trips to Hong Kong; Ying Gu in Nanhai also walked to Hong Kong and sold vegetables with her father when she was eight. Ming Gu began to work in sericulture when she was four. Her job was to keep her mother's machine clean by sweeping away extra fibres that dropped to the ground. Of course, the contribution of their labour increased their parents' work productivity. It was helpful, but not sufficient to support the whole family. When they were old enough to be individual labourers, they became one of the main sources of economic income for the whole family—especially when they were between the ages of fifteen and twenty.
  20. Fifteen was the age that a girl could begin to work as an individual maid in a rich family in a big city, such as Guangzhou, Hong Kong or Singapore. Their income for one month could support

    Figure 7. Huang Qundi's passport photo when she went to work in Singapore with her mother when she was 12 years old. Photo supplied by Huang Qundi in December, 2006.
    three people in their home village. However, fifteen to twenty years was the marriage age in the local area, and the parents of these girls were reluctant to lose such a good source of income, especially given that they could expect their daughter's income to continue to increase. If their daughter got married, her labour and income would belong to her in-law family. This represented a large loss for her natal family. In addition to this, most families were not rich enough to provide their daughter's dowry. Without an adequate dowry, their daughter's life in her in-law family could be difficult. The daughter herself knew how important her income was to other natal family members, and was proud to contribute to the family income. In this situation, for both emotional and moral reasons,[17] the option of becoming a zishu nü was given priority by the daughter and her parents.

  21. The economic relations between a zishu nü and her natal family after her ceremony suggest that a woman's primary motive for becoming a zishu nü was because of the economic links with her natal family. The families of these zishu nü expected their daughter's money to support their daily life, and some of them were totally dependent on it. In Shatou village, I was told that those zishu nü who worked in Singapore were the main economic resource for almost the entire village. Huang Hekui described it as follows:

      During the period when the Japanese Army occupied the Malay Peninsula, they blockaded the ocean route. So we lost contact with our families. Later, I heard that some people, who depended on the money coming from a zishu nü family member in Singapore, died from starvation at that time.[18]

  22. However, not every zishu nü could earn enough to support the whole family. When this happened, she would still do her best to help other family members. For example, Gao Ming, who worked in a silk factory in Foshan, could only get about seven to nine yuan (元) per month for working no less than one hundred hours per week.[19] She would keep enough money for her basic living expenses and food, and send the rest home. It is worth emphasising how little she kept for herself: she paid no rent by living beside her machine in the factory, and her daily diet was rice porridge with vegetables, and no meat. According to Gao Ming, most female workers arranged for their income to be sent to their families.[20] At the same time, these zishu nü were very proud of their concern for their families and their ability to contribute. Huang Hekui said,

      We zishu nü all cared about our families. As soon as we earned some money, we would send it home. Some of my friends sent lots of money and things home. For example, during the famine period [1959–1961], one of my friends sent eighteen wooden boxes of things home, including food, dresses and daily goods. It became a famous story, which was respected by the local people.[21]

    Gao Ying's thoughts on the issue were similar to that of Huang Hekui:

      Yes, of course it was difficult for me. However, why did we leave home and come here to work? Of course, it was for our family. First, I supported myself. My family did not have to worry about me. Second, I could send some money home to my parents and siblings, giving them more of a chance to survive. Can I just spend money myself and see them die? That would be terrible and immoral (mei liangxin 没良心).[22]

    Her family's poor economic situation was one of the main motivations that forced a daughter, especially an eldest daughter, into becoming a zishu nü, in order to support the whole family.
  23. This economic explanation only partly answers the question of why a woman became a zishu nü. A woman who wanted to make a living for herself and her family could decide to delay her marriage until her brothers grew up, or she could remain a spinster all her life. Why then, did she have a ceremony to declare her identity as a zishu nü when she was eighteen or twenty years old? The answer is very complex and involves the local cultural environment.
  24. In traditional Chinese mainstream culture, the concept of chastity (zhen 贞) is important to the zishu nü. It was difficult for lower class people to practise Confucian ideals and enclose their daughters behind walls, primarily for economic reasons. Nonetheless, people of the lower classes still practised the moral principles of Confucianism, but used their own methods to monitor and control behaviour. If a lower class woman did not carefully follow the principle of chastity, her behaviour would be reported to her family and she would become shameful and a disgrace to her family or clan. In traditional Chinese society, the social enforcement of women's chastity became more and more strict, leading to the cult of virginity. There were many phenomena which demonstrated the acceptance of the cult of women's chastity and virginity, and its strong influence on the psychology and behaviour of ordinary people. For example, it was said that only virgins could be clean and holy enough to finish some procedures in sericulture. The silkworm egg had to be put close to a virgin's breast, in order to be hatched by her warmth; when the silkworm cocoon formed, only virgins were supposed to look after them in order to ensure the purity of the silk.[23]
  25. Another example of the cult of virginity in the local area is a custom practised during the wedding ceremony. The third day after the wedding day is the date for the bride to return, with her husband, to her natal family to visit her parents. The groom's family was supposed to send a whole roasted pig as a present to the bride's family, in order to show their friendship and respect. This gift was displayed publicly on its way from the groom's house to the bride's. However, if the groom's family discovered that the bride was not a virgin, they would refuse to send a pig to the bride's family. In this case, the bride's family would see it as a serious source of shame for their clan.[24] This custom is actually a way to depict the bride's chastity and virginity to the public, which places intense pressure on a girl's family to control and educate the daughter with the aim of keeping her virginity.

    Figure 8. The gate of Bingyu Hall. Photographed by the author, Shatou Village in Shunde, December, 2006.

  26. In terms of sexual morality, girls in the zishu nü area were carefully taught to protect their virginity, not only for their future husband, but also, more importantly, for their natal family's honour. At the same time, both public opinion and the government rewarded women who served their parents for their entire lives and kept their virginity. Such women were considered to be models of both 'filial piety' and 'chastity', and were called 'chaste women' (zhen nü 贞女).[25] They would have the chance to be praised in local history, and commended as 'honourable women.' Thus, virginity was a major source of female status and influence and a significant part of their education and obligation to maintain the good name of their family and clan.
  27. In public opinion, only virgins were regarded as clean and honourable women. 'Sex' and 'males' were dirty and 'shameful' to unmarried women, and married women were not considered as clean and precious as unmarried women. In other words, keeping her virginity became one way, or, in the case of some women from poor families, the most important way, a woman could value herself, and be valued by other people in the local community. The prospect of marriage held fear for a woman partly because she would have to fulfil her obligation to have sex with her husband, which would mean she would lose her virginity, an important source of pride and prestige.
  28. My fieldwork led me to the observation that the zishu nü saw chastity/impurity in a binary opposition—much the same as dirty/clean—and they were very sensitive on this point. For a zishu nü, no matter how hard she had to work, keeping her room and her dress neat and tidy was always one of the most important aspects of her daily routine. Feng Er Gu, who lives in the Zhaoqing Goddess of Mercy Hall, has maintained the habit of getting up at five o'clock in the morning for more than seventy years—since she was nine years old. The first thing she does every morning is to clean the room and have a bath, and then she begins work as a straw-mat maker.[26] Most zishu nü she knows keep a similar routine as an important characteristic of their life-style. When replying to the question 'What do you think are the most obvious features of a zishu nü woman's daily life?' the first thing mentioned by Mr. Hong in Dongguan, Mr. Huang in Shunde, and Ms Zhao in Zhaoqing was encapsulated in the term, ganjing (干净).[27] There are two levels of understanding of ganjing in Chinese: one means 'clean' materially; while another means having a 'pure', or 'uncontaminated' mind, indicating chastity and virginity. For example, the zishu nü house in Shatou Village is called Bingyu Hall, named after the expression bingqingyujie (冰清玉洁), which means 'as unsullied as the snow, as pure as the jade.' At the same time, zishu nü were famous among local people for their clean houses, clean clothing and general cleanliness.
  29. Another cultural reason for women to become zishu nü was the influence of role models and networking among women, within the family, clan and in the local area. A strong influence was the tradition that in a clan at least one girl in each generation should become a zishu nü. This tradition was passed from an aunt (gugu 姑姑), who was the father's sister or same-surname cousin, to her niece (zhinü 侄女). Huang Shunxing's family was of this kind.

      There are few girls in my clan. There is only one girl in each family for three generations continually. My great-grandfather had one daughter. My grandfather had only one daughter too. My aunt was a zishu nü, who went to Singapore when she was fifteen years old and stayed there until she died, when she was ninety-four. As for my father's generation, he had me as his only daughter too, and my uncle (father's younger brother/shushu) also had only one daughter. When I was still a child, my father declared to everybody: 'my daughter will never marry all her life.' My uncle's daughter, who is my cousin, did not get married either. My aunt, myself and my cousin were all zishu nü.[28]

  30. Like Huang Shunxing, ten of my nineteen interviewees had at least one aunt who was a zishu nü. By coming into contact with these older generation zishu nü, the younger girls had role models, and this made it possible for them to make an informed choice about becoming a zishu nü themselves. Moreover, the attitude of the family and community towards zishu nü in the older generation proved that they were respected and desirable role models. A young girl considering whether or not to become a zishu nü could be more convinced by this fact than by some abstract ideas about female virtue and womanhood in Confucian morality. Ying Gu's family was a big joint family in which her grandparents, her parents, her father's siblings, and the third generation as grandchildren lived in the same house. Ying Gu's three aunts were all zishu nü, two of whom worked in Singapore.[29] Ying Gu had a very close relationship with all of her aunts. She said:

      When I was young, I always thought that my aunts' lives were wonderful. They earned money themselves; they enjoyed high status in my family. The best husband could not treat you as well as your brother. My aunts were never forced to do anything, unlike my mother who suffered in the family. They loved us as their own children. My cousins and I were educated by our fathers that we had to serve these aunts as our own mothers when they were getting old. Look, comparing my aunts' lives with my mother's is to compare a zishu nü's life with a married woman's. Both of them worked hard for my family, but nobody in the family felt grateful to my mother except her children, while everybody thanked my aunts a lot for what they did. My mother had to be very careful when she served my grandparents, while my grandparents spoiled my aunts and took care of them. When my mother was getting old, she had her children to take care of her. So did my aunts. My cousins and I took care of my aunts when they were sick, just as we served my mother. Zishu nü did not lose anything but enjoyed their freedom and others' respect. Of course I was keen to choose to be a zishu nü myself.[30]

    Obviously, Ying Gu learnt the advantages of living the zishu nü lifestyle from her aunts, which helped her to make the decision to become a zishu nü.
  31. There is another cultural and customary motive for women to become zishu nü called kuazutou (跨阻头) in the Guangdong Delta. This refers to the custom that within one family or clan, people of one generation have to have a rite of passage or get married according to birth order. In other words, if an elder sister decided to become a zishu nü, her ceremony to declare her status as zishu nü had to be held before her younger brother's wedding.[31] If the younger brother had the marriage rite before his older sister, it indicated that bad luck would fall on the family. Moreover, all of the family members would be ridiculed by local people, especially the elder sister and younger brother. Some women were forced to decide their life-courses hastily in order to enable their younger brothers to get married, so that their father's lineage could grow. Gao Ying's story is a good example.

      I went to Vietnam when I was fourteen years old, in order to make a living for my family. One of my aunts there, was a zishu nü, who helped me to find a job as a worker in sericulture. This aunt was my father's same-surname cousin (tang jie 堂姐). My same-surname male cousin (tangdi 堂弟) [father's brother's son], who was only three months younger than me, accompanied me. Three years later, my cousin found a girl who he liked and wanted to marry. My aunt talked to me: "Look, he is getting married. It is a good thing for our family. But you know the custom. If you have not married, he can not. Now you have two choices. One is to get married immediately; another is to be a zishu nü. You think about that, and give me your answer tomorrow." What could I choose? Getting married? I could not just grab a man on the street and ask him to marry me. I was away from home; my parents could not help me to find a good in-law family either. Moreover, my own family was still in a difficult financial situation. My father broke his legs when I was four, and could not do heavy work as a farmer. My mother died when I was ten, leaving my disabled father, my younger brother who was only two years old, and me. I worked for my family as the main labourer. In that year, my younger brother was only nine years old. If I got married, who would take care of my father and brother? In this case, I actually had no choice. I had to become a zishu nü. I gave my aunt my answer the next day and she held the zishu nü ceremony for me one week later. Then I wrote a letter to my father, telling him about the rite. He did not say anything because it was the custom.[32]

  32. Gao Ying said she was virtually forced to become a zishu nü by custom. The kuazutou custom was one important reason that women like her had to make a decision to become a zishu nü or get married when they were still young. In other words, these women chose, or were forced to choose, to become zishu nü to enable the marriage of a younger brother in order to ensure the continued development of their father's lineage.

    Interpersonal relationship between zishu nü and other family members
  33. Stockard comments in her book that 'no claims and obligations were ascribed to sworn spinsterhood; each spinster individually negotiated relations with her natal family. The practice of spinsterhood varied considerably, reflecting different individual circumstances and local constraints.'[33] It is correct that each zishu nü negotiated her relationship with her family. However, there are some common features, which indicate that not everything is negotiated on a one to one basis.
  34. Zishu nü women identified themselves as daughters both to their parents and to their clan, and their main task was to contribute to their natal lineages' development. Consequently, the other members of the family treated them as formal family members, rather than as 'outsiders,' which would have been their position had they married into another family. This meant that a zishu nü enjoyed some rights and performed her duty as a daughter, while other members of the family respected these rights and enjoyed the results of her work. Of course, this interpersonal relationship is not only on the economic or ritual level. Rather, the emotional link also played an important role in the whole project of identity-building and in the running of the family or clan.
  35. Huang Qundi's mother took her to Singapore for domestic service work when she was twelve years old:

      My mother and I had to support my father and four brothers who stayed in my home village. My mother earned money for my family like a man. She did any job she could find in Singapore, sometimes two or three part-time jobs together as a maid or cleaner. I followed her to her working place to help her at first. Then, several months later, I had to do a maid's job myself. She was a good teacher and a good mother. She would give me lots of good ideas when I had difficulties at work. All of my family respect and love her.[34]

  36. An interesting point is that Qundi, and many other zishu nü I interviewed, had experience of working with one or both of their parents when they were very young—often only ten years old or younger. In their comments, they showed their understanding and respect primarily for the parent with whom they worked most.[35] These daughters were witnesses both of their parent's hard work for the family and of the respect that they earned by this hard work. Because of a zishu nü daughter's own efforts to improve the economic situations of her family she was a true child of her parents. In turn the parents were proud of their daughter. This pride became one motivator which drove a zishu nü to work hard, to prove her filial piety and gain the love of her parents. That's why the zishu nü women often said that they had to work hard to maintain the honour (zhengqi 争气) of their families, especially their parents.
  37. Culturally, my interviewees were not encouraged to show their deep love for their parents. The revelation of their true feelings usually was only permitted when one of the parents got sick or died. When Hu Daidi described her saddest day, she mentioned the difficult time she experienced when her mother died.

      One day, I was cooking, cutting green vegetables. Suddenly, my finger was cut terribly... About five or six days later, I received my father's letter, telling me about my mother's death. I calculated the days; it must have been the day I cut my finger. I felt so sad. I could not sleep at all for long time. I cried every night. However, I could not ask for a holiday to go home—my master would fire me for that. I saw my mother's tomb one year later when I came home the next time. Even now when I think about that, I feel terribly upset. I am sorry for my mum. At that time, I was about thirty years old.[36]

  38. Because of this strong emotional link, a zishu nü's parents usually had a strong influence on her decision making. When they pressured their daughter to do something, this pressure was mostly emotional. One important aspect of this influence was apparent in the woman's decisions to become a zishu nü. Shunxing's father supported her plan to become a zishu nü because he did not want his daughter to leave and go to another family. Shunxing said:

      When I was fifteen years old, my brother married. My sister-in-law was called Xiuqiong. Her brothers and sisters met me at the wedding. They told everyone afterwards, "Xiuqiong's sister-in-law [Shunxing] is really pretty." A lot of marriage-matchers went to my family when they knew that, but they were refused by my father. My father said, "My daughter will not get married."[37]

  39. In an attempt to ensure some degree of economic security for her retirement, a zishu nü's parents, especially her father, would leave some inheritance to her or at least ask their sons to look after her when she returned to her home-village. For instance, Hekui's father left her a small house; Qundi's father left her a house and some money; Daidi's father asked Liangsong, his youngest son, to look after Daidi if she wanted to come back. When Gao Ming's father died, her family was still very poor and depended on her income. Because her father could not leave any inheritance to Gao Ming, the father asked his son, through his will, to serve and respect Gao Ming as a member of the older generation rather than as a sister.
  40. From these stories, we can see that there are three aspects to a zishu nü's emotional link with her parents: mutual respect, mutual love, and the great influence of the parents on their daughter's decision-making. This pressure notwithstanding, these narratives demonstrated a warm parent-child relationship in traditional China, rather than the cold and strict elite family of common understanding. This warmth existed between siblings as well. Most of my interviewees pointed out that their siblings, especially their brothers, treated them very well, and tried their best to protect them (zhaogu wo, hu zhe wo 照顾我, 护着我), economically as well as emotionally. Huang Hekui had this to say about her brother.

      My second elder brother treated me very well. If it was not for him always asking me to come back home in his letters, I would not have come back so early. Two years after I came home, my brother passed away. The house I am living in now is a gift from my brother, which was built by him. When he was about to build it, I sent home some money for the construction. After he passed away, I sorted his possessions and found that he had kept all the letters I sent to him from Singapore. He had also dated the receipt and reply on the envelopes. His handwriting is beautiful. Because he had more than ten years of private school study, he was good at Chinese writing. Nowadays, when I reread these letters in my free time, I have lots of beautiful memories.[38]

  41. Writing letters was always a good way to maintain contact with family members, especially for zishu nü who worked far away from home. Before telephones, letters were the principal way they could communicate with their families and thus find the motivation to continue their work in a strange and sometimes lonely place. For example, when Hu Daidi worked in Hong Kong, she constantly wrote to her family in Shunde, and continued to preserve most of the letters from her family, especially the ones from Liangsong, her youngest brother. She said that he is her favourite sibling, and mused that this may be because he is the youngest. She had a box of letters and showed me some of them (see Figures 9 and 10). These letters were folded neatly and packed in chronological order. According to my interviewees, almost every zishu nü who worked outside her village treasured these letters. Some of them had more than five hundred.

    Figures 9 and 10. Letters from home were important links for zishu nü working overseas. Photographed by the author, December, 2006.

  42. Another important link between a zishu nü and her siblings, especially her brothers, was the financial and material aid they gave to each other. When a zishu nü was young and earning money, she would contribute most of it to the family, and her siblings were the main benefactors of these contributions. When she got older and returned home without money, it was expected that her siblings would

    Figure 11. Zishu nü, Hu Daidi, her brother Hu Liangsong and Liangsong's wife at home. Photographed by the author, December, 2006.
    support her. In Huang Shunxing's story, it was like this:
      My elder brother was really nice to me. My parents left me the old family house as a place to live when I was old. Now that I do not need it, I rent it out. At first, there was a contract in my family that my brothers were responsible for all my hospital fees and funeral fees. It was to be my youngest brother who was responsible for my day-to-day needs, which consisted of one hundred yuan for me per month. However, my youngest brother has three sons and five daughters and his life is already difficult enough. He paid me this allowance for only one month, then my elder brother asked me to live with him; he took charge of my living expenses. So my youngest brother did not need to support me anymore.[39]
    We can see that Shunxing's brothers fulfilled their obligation to help her when she was old. They arranged everything according to the economic circumstances of the individuals involved. Moreover, they understood each other and shared their mutual obligations. Another example is that Liangsong said to his sister, Daidi: 'Whenever you have a problem you can come back to my house, which is your house too. I promise you that if there is only one bowl of porridge here, you will have half of it.'[40] According to Liangsong, it was his duty to serve his sister as she had made such large sacrifices for her family when she was young (see Figure 11).

  43. In addition to these emotional and economic links, it was sometimes necessary for a zishu nü to take additional responsibilities. For example, Gao Ying's second sister-in-law died around 1952, leaving a two months old baby. Gao Ying's brother did not know how to take care of his young child. Realising the situation, Gao Ying took the baby home. However, she could not stay in the dormitory of the factory with the baby so she had to rent another apartment outside. At that time, she worked in the silk factory with a low income, which was not enough to feed the baby, feed herself and pay the rent at the same time. Consequently, she was forced to find several other part-time jobs, such as sewing and working on construction sites, which were paid on a day by day basis. Meanwhile, she kept visiting her brother regularly, almost once a week, in order to clean his house for him. She persisted with this kind of life until her nephew was seven years old—old enough to go to primary school. When talking about the reason she did all these things for her brother, she said:

      I am his elder sister. If I did not do it for him, who would do it? He was a widower. How would he know how to take care of kids! He even needs a woman to look after him! It is not right to leave a baby in a house without a woman. He was not rich enough to remarry then. It is my nephew, my family; of course I should and I loved to do my duty.[41]

  44. Certainly there were conflicts, arguments and even fights between family members, including zishu nü and their parents or siblings. Both the zishu nü and their families would regard these conflicts as the 'shame of the family' (jiachou 家丑) and would not tell others readily (jiachou buke waiyang 家丑不可外扬). I found some hints in the letters Hu Daidi showed me about an argument that happened around 1985 between her and her sister who married in Hong Kong. When I asked her about the argument, she felt a little embarrassed at first. Later, she explained to me that there had been a difference of opinion about how to deal with a particular economic dilemma faced by her family at the time, but she refused to tell me the details. 'Nothing important,' she said, 'tongue and teeth will fight with each other sometimes (shetou he yachi haiyou dajia de shihou 舌头和牙齿还有打架的时候). Which family does not have any arguments? That is not important.'[42]
  45. One interesting point in their narratives was that almost all of my interviewees emphasised their relationships with male family members, such as their fathers or brothers, but spoke less about or even ignored the female members, such as their mothers or sisters. This focus on the attitude of fathers and brothers may indicate that the zishu nü still regarded the male members of the family as the primary and superior group. As the powerful members in a patriarchal family, the love and protection of these men gave approval for a zishu nü's existence and role in the family, and legitimised her status. Further, the male members in the lineage were usually the ones to receive the most direct benefit from a zishu nü's economic contribution to her family. It should be noted too, that most zishu nü accepted or even supported women's sacrifice for the sake of the men in the home; an example is the dedication of Gao Ming to her brother and nephew.
  46. Yet zishu nü did have close links with their female family members as well. While they would not spontaneously talk about these relationships, when I did ask specific questions about their female relatives, the answers were positive. For instance, Daidi told me that she viewed her sisters in the same way as her brothers. One of her younger sisters, who was only two years younger, followed her to Hong Kong after several years, by which time Daidi had acquired a better job. She introduced her younger sister to some rich families as a maid. When she was around twenty-five, this sister met a man she liked, and she got married one year later. Daidi was quite happy for them and, as a senior member of her sister's natal family, helped to arrange the wedding. In other words, she played the role of eldest sister or even mother with respect to her sister's wedding. As Daidi herself emphasised, she and this sister in Hong Kong would take care of each other, since they were the only members of their family living in the city away from home. When Daidi was in her seventies and sick, she stayed in the Marie Hospital in Hong Kong for two years. It was this sister who took care of her. 'But she got married,' Daidi said, 'she could not focus only on me, as she had to take care of her own family with her husband and kids and her in-law family. It was difficult for her. That was one of the reasons why I decided to come back to live with Liangsong (her youngest brother) when I left the hospital.'[43]
  47. Generally speaking, I found that in a zishu nü's family, in her own generation, the zishu nü's status was often lower than her brothers, but higher than her sisters-in-law, her brothers' wives. This situation suited her identity and position as an adult daughter to her natal family. There were three different kinds of relationships between a zishu nü and her sisters-in-law articulated by my interviewees. In the first type, a zishu nü controlled the household instead of her sisters-in-law, who were also under her control. This situation often occurred in families with the tradition of having a zishu nü in every generation. Huang Hekui's family followed this pattern. Hekui tells of her mother's life under the control of her zishu nü aunts:

      It is said that it was my aunts who went to my mother's natal home to arrange the marriage of my parents. They liked my mother when they first saw her. Then my mother became my father's wife. When my mother worked in my father's family, she had to follow my aunts' instructions and their moods (kan guma men de lianse zuo ren 看姑妈们的脸色做人). She liked to smoke, but never did it in front of my aunts. Every time she wanted to smoke, she hid herself in a room, quickly smoked a little, and then went back outside to work.[44]

  48. Those zishu nü in the position of Huang Hekui's aunts were called 'aunts or daughters who control the household' (bajia gupo 把家姑婆) in the local area. As a woman who has a biological link with the family, she was trusted by her parents and brothers much more readily than a daughter-in-law. In addition to making her contribution towards the survival and development of the lineage, such zishu nü were given, by the elder generation and her brothers, the position of controlling the household, which would normally have been in her sister-in-law's charge. These zishu nü were supposed to be fair to all their brothers, and were treated as a link that tied the big joint family together. However, a zishu nü usually viewed her sister-in-law as a competitor, consciously or unconsciously, and pressed and controlled her even more than the mother-in-law had done. Moreover, these zishu nü often had very strong personalities.
  49. The second situation was the more common one among my interviewees. Zishu nü usually went outside the village to work and spent long periods of time away from home. They would treat their biological family members as family, but would not extend this consideration to their sisters-in-law. In the mind of the absent zishu nü, her sister-in-law was attached to her brother. In this circumstance, the zishu nü would not try to control the family household during her working life, and when she came back in her retirement, her brothers would have already divided the family property and organised their own joint families with their wives and children. As a sibling, she could and should enjoy their respect and financial aid, but she had lost her chance to control her sisters-in-law; instead, she had to ask the permission of her sister-in-law to stay in her brother's house. Given this situation, she would tell herself that she was staying in her brother's house, and would remain distant from her sister-in-law. Because of their age and/or their belief in Buddhism, Hu Daidi, Gao Ming, and Xing Gu told me they would try to stay away from the power struggle in the household. On the other hand, a zishu nü in this situation was highly likely to be the eldest daughter and child in her generation, and so the sister-in-law, as a younger person, was supposed to serve and respect her anyway. Their relationships were distant and polite. To put it in my interviewees' own words, 'water in the well does not offend the water in the river' (jinshui bufan heshui 井水不犯河水).
  50. The third kind of situation, in which a zishu nü and her sister-in-law had a very good relationship, was very unusual. However, this did occur occasionally and sometimes their relationship was even better than that of biological sisters. It mainly happened when the sister-in-law was much older than the zishu nü. She might then take on the role of an elder sister-in-law (saozi 嫂子) and the responsibility of a mother to her sister-in-law. Another possibility was that before she married this zishu nü's brother, the young women were already good friends. Nevertheless, according to my fieldwork this kind of situation was very unusual.
  51. Compared to the relationship between a zishu nü and her parents, or between a zishu nü and the people of her own generation, including her siblings and sisters-in-law, the relationships between these women and the younger generation was much simpler. The nephews and nieces and other members of the younger generations were educated by their parents, especially their fathers, to show filial piety to their zishu nü aunts, who had contributed to their families. For example, Hu Liangsong asked his son and daughter to write to Daidi regularly when they were studying writing in their primary school. One of the important items in their letters was to report on their study. Another example is Guo Yong who is looking after his ninety year old zishu nü aunt, partly because his father specifically asked in his will that he do this duty. These younger generations were told that their aunts were the seniors in their family and lineage who deserved to be respected. As Gao Ying explained:

      My nephew is a very smart boy and he now works in the government. He treats me as his real mother. At every festival he takes me up to his house, cooks for me and buys me new dresses. His family calls me every week, telling me about their lives. I never feel lonely because of their attention.[45]

    These interviewees were happy not only because their descendants were filial, but also because the number of descendents was high. Shunxing told me:

      My elder brother and two of my younger brothers have died. Now, in my generation, only one of my younger brothers and I are still alive. I have fourteen nephews, twenty-one grand-nephews, twenty-three grand-nieces and nine great-grand-nephews.[46]

  52. Shunxing was very proud when she said this. She thinks that it means that her family has become better and better and that her contribution to the family was worthwhile. The same kind of smile appeared on Gao Ying's face when she told me that she was going to have her second great-grand-nephew in three months.

  53. The zishu nü contributed their energy, time, emotion and money to their natal family, thereby earning the respect and support of other family members. I have argued that women as daughters, with their multiple functions in their natal families, were more important and enjoyed higher status than scholars have previously recognised. This does not mean, however, that their status exceeded or equalled that of the men in the family. The zishu nü custom existed within a patriarchal society. The families of these zishu nü were still controlled by men; a family's prosperity was still visible only under the name of men. As women holding traditional values of womanhood, zishu nü worked to support the superior status and position in society of the male members of the family. However, the existence of zishu nü did force people to face up to women's value and their potential power to contribute to the family's economic and cultural advancement.
  54. Taking zishu nü as an example, it is clear that when a woman undertakes a lifelong role as a daughter in her family, she is responsible for her natal clan's future in the same way as a man. She does this in order to keep the clan strong and to enable all members of the family to profit. In the discourse on kinship and its cultural meaning in large joint families in traditional China, adult unmarried daughters hold important power that has the capacity to influence their families. The phenomenon of zishu nü poses major challenges to current scholarly understandings of womanhood, marriage, kinship and gender in Chinese culture.


    [1] Other research done on this topic includes Majorie Topley, 'Marriage resistance in rural Kwantung,' in Women in Chinese Society, ed. Margery Wolf and Roxane Witge, Stanford: Stanford Uniersity Press, 1975, pp. 67–88. This text was published before Stockard's book, Daughters of the Canton Delta: Marriage Patterns and Economic Strategies in South China, 1860–1930, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989/2001. However, Stockard's research is much more comprehensive and analytical than previously published material. Furthermore, most scholarly essays on this topic have been produced since the publication of her book.

    [2] Ye Hanming, 'Power of culture sub-system: zishu nü and sisterhood,' in Marriage Systems and Women's Status in Southern China, ed. Qiao Jian, Ma Jianzhao and Ye Hanming, Nanning: Guangxi Ethnic Press, 1994, pp. 70–96.

    [3] Collins English Dictionary, 3rd edition, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991, s.v. spinster.

    [4] The zishu nü custom did not appear in other areas in China because local cultural environments varied from area to area. In other parts of China, there were some women's customs or organisations which kept women together in 'sisterhood.' These include the sisterhoods called December Flower (Shi'er yue hua 十二月花) in Yunnan and Guizhou Provinces, Organisation of Hampers (Hezi hui 盒子会) in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces and Laotong (老同) in Jiangxi Province who are famous for their Nüshu Language (女书). Meanwhile, throughout China there are many records in local histories about 'chaste women' (zhen nü 贞女) who were venerated for never having got married. However, the differences and similarities between these customs are too complex to discuss in this paper.

    [5] UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, UNESCO, 21 February 2002, online:, accessed 12 August 2007.

    [6] A.L. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum, 1952, p. 170.

    [7] Stockard, Daughters of the Canton Delta, p. 71.

    [8] 'Shanghai ke shih chia-p'u,' in A Collection of Family Instructions, vol. 2. ch. 2., cited by Liu Hui-chen. The Traditional Chinese Clan Rules, New York: Locust Valley, 1959, p. 96.

    [9] Wolf argued that it took 'sufficient food to eat and sufficient clothes to wear' to make a family rich as regards size and structure (p. 49). See Arthur P. Wolf, 'Chinese family size: a myth revitalized,' in The Chinese Family and its Ritual Behaviour, ed. Hsien Jih-chang & Chuang Ying-chang, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 1985. pp. 30–49.

    [10] Liu, Hui-chen, The Traditional Chinese Clan Rules, p. 2.

    [11] Uncle here means her father's elder brother.

    [12] Interview with Huang Yanpei, in Bingyu Hall, Shatou Village, Shunde District, 16 December, 2006.

    [13] Stockard, Daughters of the Canton Delta, p. 79.

    [14] Interview with Hu Daidi in her house, Zhaipu Village, Shunde District, 15 December 2006.

    [15] See Xu Ke (1869–1928), 'Agriculture and commerce', in Encyclopaedia of Qing Dynasty (Qing Bai Leichao), Beijing: Zhonghua Press, 1986, p. 1186.

    [16] Women's work is not only important for the family, but it is also important for the whole society's social and economic well being. Ma Gengcun says: 'Women were the main breadwinners in the handcraft industry work within a family, which is important for the economic development of the traditional agricultural society as a whole.' See Ma Gengcun, Modern Chinese Women's History, Qingdao: Qingdao Press, 1995, p. 81. Regarding the relationship between women and technology within the context of Chinese history, see Francesca Bray, Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    [17] This 'moral reason' mainly refers to reciprocity between parents and children. If parents did not find a good marriage for their daughter, they were considered to be bad and selfish parents who ignored their daughter's happiness and would be criticised by local people.

    [18] Interview with Huang Hekui, in Bingyu Hall, Shatou Village, Shunde District, 16 December, 2006.

    [19] This means working at least fourteen hours every day, without a single day off. She was referring here to the Currency unit of Republican China (Minguo yinyuan 民国银元). Interview with Gao Ming, in the nursing home of Gongjilong Silk Factory, Foshan District, 21 December, 2006.

    [20] Interview with Gao Ying, in the nursing home of Gongjilong Silk Factory, Foshan District, 21 December, 2006.

    [21] Interview with Huang Hekui. These friends were zishu nü too, and the word Hekui used was 'sisters' [jiemei].

    [22] Interview with Gao Ying.

    [23] See Wanrao Ouyang, 'Exploration of zishu nü in the Pearl Rival Delta', in Guangxi Ethic Group Research (Guangxi Minzu yanjiu), vol. 2 (1999):92–98, p. 92.

    [24] See Chunsheng Ye, A Record of Customs in Lingnan Delta (Lingnan fengshu lu), Guangzhou: Guangdong Tourism Press, 1988, p. 151.

    [25] There are two different opinions regarding the definition of 'chaste woman' (zhen nü). One is that the term referred only to a woman, whose fiancé died before their wedding, who was never engaged again and who kept her chastity all her life. Another definition refers to a woman who has never had an engagement or marriage so that she could serve her natal family, and of course keep her virginity all her life. These women should also be identified as 'chaste women' (zhen nü). In this article, I have adopted the second concept; some of the examples recorded in Guangdong local history were similar to the second situation explained above.

    [26] Interview with Feng Er Gu, Zhaoqing Goddess of Mercy Hall, 3 January 2007.

    [27] Interviews with, Mr Hong, Dongguan, 14 January 2007; Mr Huang, Shunde, 17 December 2006; and Ms Zhao, Zhaoqing, 3 January 2007.

    [28] Interview with Huang Shunxing, Bingyu Hall, Shatou Village, Shunde District, 16 December 2006.

    [29] All of these aunts were her father's sisters, who were called gugu in Chinese. When these interviewees mention 'my family,' they always mean their father's lineage. If they mean their mother's lineage, they would say 'my mother's natal family' (wo muqin de niangjia) or 'my uncle's (mother's brother's) family' (wo niangjiu jia).

    [30] Interview with Ying Gu, Dongguan, 11 January 2007. In this interview Ying Gu told me that her mother was forced by her mother-in-law to work hard in the farm even though she had just given birth to her daughter.

    [31] This is one of the reasons that zishu nü ceremony was understood as a wedding ceremony. Actually, the zishu nü ceremony was a rite of passage. For historical reasons, the rite of passage and wedding were combined and always accompanied each other. Some people ignored the rite of passage aspect and understood it to part of the wedding ceremony. This is why when Stockard analysed the zishu nü's status in her family, she interpreted it as a mixture of that of a married daughter and unmarried daughter.

    [32] Interview with Gao Ying.

    [33] Stockard, Daughters of the Canton Delta, p. 71.

    [34] Interview with Huang Qundi, in Bingyu Hall, Shatou Village, Shunde District, 16 December, 2006.

    [35] However, most of interviewees worked with their father rather than their mother.

    [36] Interview with Hu Daidi.

    [37] Interview with Huang Shunxing.

    [38] Interview with Huang Hekui.

    [39] Interview with Huang Shunxing.

    [40] Interview with Hu Liangsong, Zhaipu Village, Shunde District, 14 December, 2006.

    [41] Interview with Gao Ying.

    [42] Interview with Hu Daidi.

    [43] Interview with Hu Daidi.

    [44] Interview with Huang Hekui.

    [45] Interview with Gao Ying.

    [46] Interview with Huang Shunxing.

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