Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan by Margery Wolf

pid_3233Nonfiction — print. Stanford University Press, 1972. 236 pgs. Purchased.

Wolf published her book in 1972 but the basis of it came from her studies conducted in 1958 and 1963. Her husband was an anthropologist and, in her introduction, Wolf says she couldn’t help becoming one herself. The focus of her studies, as evidence by the title of the book, is on women and their perception of the family unit.

The book traces baby girls as they transition from newborn to school-aged to engagement, marriage, and motherhood. The most fascinating (and bizarre to the Western reader) tradition is sim-pua, which translates to “little daughter-in-law”, in which baby girls are adopted, raised as sisters to the male child(ren), and then married to a “brother”. The practice had largely fallen out of favor even when Wolf was completing her studies.

For me, though, the most thought-provoking part of this ethnography was the difference in how men and women identify family units. With a male focus the Chinese family is seen as a line of descent, bulging to encompass all the members of a man’s household and spreading out through his descendants. The family focus, however, structures the family as a uterine group – the mother and her children. Her son has been raised with the understanding that he owes his parents and ancestors another generation to carry on duties and rites to the ancestors. Wolf states that although these rites are demanded by the ideology of patriliny, the meaning they hold for most sons is formed in the bond he develops with his uterine family.

Previous books I’ve read about marriage practices had stressed the separation of women from their natal families upon marriage. However, Wolf states that the natal brother still plays an important role throughout his sister’s life. When her sons marry, he is the guest of honor at the wedding feasts. When she dies, the coffin cannot be closed until her brother determines to his own satisfaction that she died a natural death and that her husband’s family did everything possible to prevent it

An interesting ethnography to be sure and the perfect companion to fictionalize accounts I have read and seen listed on bestseller lists. This book has served as a great introduction for the class I’m taking on women in Chinese history; I cannot wait to pick up the next book.

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