Forget Sex and the City, that consumerist anthem for single ladies of the one percent in late twentieth century Sodom. (Fine, if you’re even a little bit hip, you’ve probably done that already.)
Consider instead the marriage resistance movement of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong, China in the late-nineteenth/ early-twentieth century.
Admittedly, there’s not as much eye candy in the Guangdong version, although there is a fashion angle: Marriage resistance was confined to those parts of the Pearl River Delta that produced silk.
But much like their fin de siècle counterparts from the television series, the emancipated ladies of Guangdong were just not having any of the domesticated life, which offered few consolations anyway.
These ladies had known freedom from a young age, when the girls of a village would bunk together in the house of an elderly couple or widow upon reaching puberty.
The unmarried girls were typically put to work in the labor-intensive sericulture.
Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, who were confined to their homes, these girls roamed freely, often visiting theatricals and temples in the nearby hills. (Notably, they did not bind their feet.) And despite a lack of formal schooling, many could read. Proto-feminist texts emphasizing that refusing to marry was not a sin were popular.
The girls adhered to localized religions that were a far cry from Confucian patriarchy, such as Xian Tian, where the highest deity was a mother goddess, and men and women were considered equal and prayed together, in contravention of Confucian custom.
As they grew older, many of these independent young women took vows renouncing heterosexual relations altogether, in a hairdressing ritual that mirrored the one performed before an actual marriage. This earned them the title of sou hei or women who comb their own hair. A sou hei who broke her vows was cast out of the sisterhood.1
This is not to say that theirs was a monastic existence. Lesbian relationships were widespread and tolerated.2 And unlike Buddhist nuns who lived in monasteries, they did not have to shave their heads, nor were they cloistered in any way.
Many moved to big cities, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, as Guangdong’s sericulture fell on hard times, in order to find work in the new factories. Here they would share a residence with other sou hei sisters. They were expected to send money home to their natal families. They financed their own homes, celebrated festivals with their sou hei sisters and buried each other too. It was a life without men.
In another practice known as mh lohk ga, the women of Guangdong had the option of not living with their husbands after marriage. Wealthy women would continue to stay with their birth families; the not-so-privileged would seek paid work. Those who could afford it would even buy their husbands concubines to perform their conjugal duties in their place.
How did they get away with it?
It’s true that fingers were wagged and names were called, but by the Confucian authorities who thought a woman’s utmost duty was securing the family line.3 The locals themselves were quite content to let their daughters do as they pleased, especially when they got the benefit of free labor and, later, of the extra income their girls sent home.
But still, there was much confusion over the value of a woman to society.
Was she merely a womb? After all, that is what it cost these women—another womb in the form of a concubine—to secure their freedom. (There was no talk of her worth as a mother or as her husband’s helpmeet, although much was said about her duties as daughter-in-law.)
Once a woman could earn wages, however, the measure of her worth changed. But she still had to be punished, somehow, for resisting her primary duty.
Aside from foregoing heterosexual relations, these women could not expect support from their natal families, even if the wealthier homes did provide for them (the sou hei ceremony formally relieved their parents of such obligation). They certainly could not expect family members to perform their funeral or ancestral rites after they had passed.
Like New York City’s fearless foursome, perhaps they, too, worried about having their faces eaten by their cats.