The Teochew Woman - Her Beauty & Strengths

By anecdotal accounts Teochew women are highly desired in China as ideal marriage partners. They are reputed for being gentle in character, imbued with strong family values and capable in managing the household.

This is statistically supported by divorce rate of around 2 percent in Swatow in recent years, which is lower than most parts of the country and certainly a mere fraction of figures in Western societies. But what shapes the fine Teochew woman? Insights into letters written over a half a century ago by the Teochew husbands working abroad to home are instructive.

In late 1946 a man with the surname Tay left his village in Gek-yor (Jieyang) to work Siam. Upon his safe arrival, he despatched home a brief letter, which though addressed on the cover to his son, was for his wife. Below is a loose translation of its contents:

"[Name of wife] please be informed, I have arrived at Siam, happy and at peace, you need not worry. But you are at home and must as utmost priority manage the affairs of the household. Our young son [name of son] needs to study and should not be playing. Convey clearly to me about the food and necessities needed at home, so that I do not worry. For the sake of the family I have to be away, any information, you have to convey clearly.  I have sent a sum of twenty thousand national dollars, confirm its receipt and use it for expenses of the household. Let me know thereafter and pass my best wishes to Uncle [name of family member, possibly the husband’s brother] and others."


 A month later Tay again sent a letter, again addressed to his son, but for his wife:

"Addressed to [name and surname of wife], a sum of fifty thousand national dollars sent by the way, please confirm receipt. The money is for household expenses, but any amount owed to Aunt [name of relative, possibly wife’s sister] has to be set aside to repay her. You must take charge of all affairs of the family and in every matter be prudent and not haphazard. See to the upbringing of the children and be watchful of the needs at home, for example if food is insufficient, and keep me informed so that I do not worry."

"【妻子姓名】收啟者,順便寄去國幣五萬元,到日查收。為家庭之用,但【名】姨的款須欲抵楚還他。家中諸事,爾須調理,各事勤儉克成,切不可亂意任為; 及兒女須宜教養,一概家務需要謹慎,如米糧不足各等事件,至切回明來知,以免吾們掛念。"

The expressed concerns of the letter-writer were typical of those days, as were his expectations for his other half to not only be the virtuous wife, but also the caring mother.  In a clear division of responsibilities between man and woman, he played the breadwinner’s role, while she was to oversee all domestic matters with diligence and thrift. In day to day matters, her duties covered managing the household budget and expenses, as well as ensuring proper education of the children and smooth relations with other members of the extended family, especially the elders. 

To a large extent such an arrangement conforms with the Confucian-model of family, which became prevalent in the Teochew region as the result of a renaissance of Confucian scholarship as well as the evolution of a rigid clan-family structure to organise society during the late imperial China period, and is still widely accepted today. In spite of the wife’s submissive status, as exhibited in the husband’s address of his letter covers to his son, rather than his wife - as per the protocol in those days whereby the household was formally headed by males, the responsibilities she bore were by no means passive or less important.

The sojourn of the Teochew man abroad to find a livelihood was common in the mid-20th century. This phenomenon was driven by a breakdown of the old agricultural society’s frameworks and access to economic opportunities in Southeast Asia through advancements in transport and a well-established Teochew community network there. But even as the mass emigration of males gave thousands of families a much-needed economic lifeline, the fact that every sojourn lasted years pushed also countless wives and sisters to fill in for the absent fathers and sons. The outcome was the development of the Teochew woman as a more resilient female than her sisters elsewhere.

In another letter from 1955, a man with the surname Sim wrote home to his mother in Teo-Ann (Chao'an) county to explain what he portrayed as a misunderstanding:

"Most honourable mother, I received your reply letter last month and note all that was written. I am delighted to learn about the birth of a son by younger brother’s wife. I had conveyed my wishes to him in an earlier exchange, did he tell you about this? In your letter you expressed displeasure that I sent a sum of money to my wife for her expenditure. Perhaps my wife failed to express herself properly in writing and caused it to appear I had lightly regarded the bond between me and my brothers. Please do not blame her, for it was I who felt it would be too inconvenient for her to ask money from you each time she needs to buy something; and if the younger brothers are short of money, it is more appropriate for them to ask from you. If you disagree with my view, I will no longer write to her [i.e. not send money directly to his wife] and you may pass money to her for expenditures as needed. Since this matter is unrelated to her previous letter, I ask that you do not blame her. My brothers and I are forever brothers…."

"母亲大人尊前敬禀者,上月接读回书,各情聆悉。吾弟妇产下一男子,闻之甚喜。以有磋商,做名一字给他。兄谅也有告知否。来言中说,儿是次寄多少银项给吾妻费用,大人认为不满意,料必是吾妻来言说者不美,所以才致没有兄弟手足等情。望大人勿有错怪寄给者,原应因 余想生为妇人如若要买多少物件,费用事事向您妥讨 银恐为不便。生为弟辈如若无银向您妥讨 敬更 为合式适 。大人认为不可,儿下次勿写给她,要费用您可给她,因她上次来言与此事无关。望勿过怪 她。吾们兄弟才永远还是兄弟…"

This exchange highlights the common predicament of many wives in Teochew in those years, when they shouldered the running the household, but remaining answerable to their mothers-in-law.  Differing from the modern nuclear family consisting of only parents and children, the traditional Teochew family unit is based on the three-tier generation structure, which gives its members the advantage drawing from a bigger pool of resources - which was necessary in days of scarce resources, but has the obvious drawback of leaving individuals with much lesser space and freedom. According to the norms of the past, the wife in this case probably yielded in the end to her mother-in-law. However her husband’s willingness to subvert his mother’s authority in the first place (notwithstanding his implied denial) in support of her, and subsequent defence for her, are indicative of shifting attitudes towards women in Teochew.

“The Chinese woman”, observed American missionary to Swatow Adele Fielde in the late 1800s, “does not walk in the street with her husband; she does not eat with him, but takes what is left after the men of the family have finished their meal”. “Her happiness”, she added, “depends more on the character of her mother-in-law than on that of her husband, for by her husband's mother and grandmother she is wholly ruled” [Pagoda Shadows, pp1-4]. Although there were exceptions, young Teochew women in the past had extremely low status and because of widespread poverty were treated cruelly in families that struggled to feed all their members. The birth of daughters were greeted with disappointment for they were regarded as “a troublesome and expensive thing”, who not only had “to be fed, but there is all the trouble of binding her feet, and of getting her betrothed, and of making up her wedding garments; and even after she is married off she must have presents made to her when she has children”. [A Corner of Cathay, p72]. The tragic consequence was the slaying of numerous baby girls. Forty women interviewed separately by Fielde confessed to destroying seventy-eight of their daughters [Pagoda Shadows, p23].

Fortunately the experiences of working in foreign lands opened the eyes of at least two generations of young men to the value and worth of the women in their lives. Living away from the setting of the extended family network, they came to discover their spouses as equal partners whom they could depend on, and not just servants to their mothers or bearers of their offspring. From practically exploiting their women, the men learned to cherish and protect them. Many, whose own vulnerabilities were exposed through their interactions with the external world, also came to the critical understanding of the benefits of formal education to the young, including their daughters and sisters.  This letter by a man surnamed Lee from Thenghai (Chenghai) in 1948 illustrates:

“Most honourable mother, I received on the 21st of this month your letter dated 25th of the twelfth month, and comprehend what was written. I am delighted by news of [name of sister] sister’s second place in the term examinations and award of cash and stationeries. But it is due to mother’s constant encouragements to her, and I wish she becomes a useful person in future...."

"慈親大人尊前,敬禀者是月二十一日接讀十二月二十五日訓喻,所敘各情均悉。 [名]妹此次期考列第二名並獎金各種文具,聞之甚喜悅也。但母親切知時常勉勵她,使將來能成為一有用之人…"

Other Teochew letters in the same period tell of similar desires by fathers for both daughters and younger sisters, to attend school like their sons and brothers. At times there were resistance by those who held on to discriminatory views on girls, but there was no stopping of change.

As the result of mainland China's political and economic isolation, the remote Teochew region remained extensively agricultural until the 1980s. Behind this setting however, a quiet revolution had long taken place with regards to how parents value and bring up their daughters.

Though traditional views on marriage and gender roles continue to prevail till today, with women still expected to adhere to the primary care-giver role in the family, many have since discarded the old view that the destiny of the fairer sex is to become docile wives and daughter-in-laws, whose personal happiness has to be readily sacrificed for the sake of others. Instead more and more Teochew parents now appreciate the potential of their girls to become educated, self-reliant and confident individuals, which in turn is recognised as a prerequisite for fulfilling marriages and family lives.

(Article adapted from 潮汕侨批的妇女观初探 by 杜式敏)


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