by Maria Teresa De Donato
Dear Readers, Today I have the pleasure of hosting again my dear friend and colleague, Author, Editor, and Sinologist, Fiori Picco, who lived for eight years in Yunnan, China.
So many themes and interests unite us, and just as many emerged from my reading of her three novels that I also had the pleasure of reviewing, namely Giada Rossa – A Life for Freedom, YAO, and The Circle of Butterfly Women – Mugao and Bhaktu.
I wish you all, therefore, to enjoy the reading!
MTDD: Hello, Fiori, and welcome to my Blog and Virtual Cultural Salon. It is a great pleasure to have you as my guest again.
FP: Hello, Maria Teresa; thank you for this new interview.
MTDD: In our previous interview, among the many questions, I asked you if, based on your experience, having lived in China for a long time, you had noticed any differences between the Western and Eastern worlds as regards the concept of “freedom.” Your response was as interesting as it was profound, something worth reflecting on. Those who haven’t had the chance to do so will be able to know your thoughts and many exciting aspects of ‘Planet China’ by reading our interview Giada Rossa – A life for freedom – by Fiori Picco – Interview by Maria Teresa De Donato.
Today, however, I would like to consider another theme with you that emerged from our interview and reading your three publications just mentioned. I refer to the Woman seen, by Chinese culture from the era of Mao Tse Tung onwards, as “The Other Half of Heaven.”
Before venturing into the discussion of this topic, however, especially for those who do not know you nor have read these books of yours, I would like to consider some aspects that emerged precisely from your publications. I’m referring to some very particular traditions related to the female world, which are sometimes difficult to understand, especially for a Westerner.
The first aspect that I would like you to explain to our readers concerns the custom of the Dulong people (or ‘Derung’) to subject all the girls of their tribe to the Bhaktu ritual through which the Mugao tattoo, representing a gigantic butterfly, was indelibly and equally painfully engraved in their skin covering their entire face.
What exactly was it about, and above all – without revealing too much – what was its purpose?
FP: Over the centuries and until the first half of the twentieth century, Dulong ethnic adolescents were subjected to Bhaktu, a barbaric ritual that disfigured their faces leaving a tattooed butterfly named Mugao impressed. It was a totem of the tribe and served to protect women from kidnapping and abuse by others. Fathers convinced their daughters to undergo the ritual by giving them different reasons, including the guarantee of eternal life after death. Mugao was considered a celestial creature who opened the gates of immortality. This was the mystical motivation, but there was also the social aspect, i.e., a woman without a facial tattoo could not find a husband as she was not considered beautiful and feminine. In reality, the reasons were linked to the safety and survival of the tribe.
MTDD: A second aspect, always linked to a secular, if not millenary tradition, was that of ‘little feet,’ which was imposed on Chinese women for a long time from a very young age.
Can you explain what it consisted of, how and why it came about, and when it was finally eliminated?
FP: In almost all the Chinese dynasties that have followed, the custom of bound feet was perpetrated to the detriment of women. Three/four-year-old girls had their toes broken, bent towards the heel, and tightly bandaged to prevent their growth and give shape to the famous “golden lilies,” pointed and a maximum of eight centimeters long. Mothers practiced torture, which led to sepsis, gangrene, and, in some cases, even death. This custom originated because wealthy men loved using their wives’ feet for personal pleasure, and the girls’ mothers hoped their daughters would make an excellent marriage. Women were considered bargaining chips; they couldn’t work, and they weren’t independent. For the families, they were just a burden.
For this reason, the smaller the feet, the more confident the girls were about finding a good match. The inability to walk normally and the severe pain in the back and legs prevented the women from running away or rebelling against their husband’s families. In the countryside, the girls initially had free and healthy feet; then, it was thought of wrapping them too to give them more opportunities. This was until the early twentieth century. In the socialist society, these customs were abolished and banned, and women have been free ever since.
MTDD: Are there any historical documents that refer to this particular tradition that would indicate that this custom was applied to women of all social classes, regions, and backgrounds?
FP: Numerous books and essays have been written on this subject, and we can read testimonials in the historical Annals of the various dynasties; on the internet, we find several photos of the different eras that testify to the condition of women. Their little feet and difficulty walking are visible. Initially, only girls from high-ranking families had golden lilies; later, even the peasant women adopted them, hoping for a better life. The custom was widespread throughout China, except in Manchuria, where men loved large, natural feet.
MTDD: When you mentioned the concept of “Woman” as the “Other Half of Heaven,” I was fascinated, though not surprised. This definition immediately made me think of the Taoist sign of Yin and Yang: opposites that harmoniously complement each other. They also convey the idea of ‘Perfection in the Universe.’
Could you elaborate on this concept and, above all, explain its reference to Mao Tse Tung?
FP: Before the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, women were subjected to the will of men, they were reduced to slavery, and the poorest girls were sold to “flower gardens” (brothels) or as concubines without any rights. The mandarins’ first wives used the young concubines’ bodies to have sons, which they then appropriated. Often poor women were also killed, and the murders went unpunished. Mandarins wielded all powers. Mao Tse Tung brought the corrupt society back to order and gave equality to women by calling them “the other half of Heaven,” a creature to be loved and respected. During the Maoist era, men and women were equal socially, and even at work, they performed the same tasks. The concept of yin and yang has always been part of the Chinese tradition, particularly Taoist philosophy. Masculine and feminine come together, creating perfection. For an ideal balance, the elements must be balanced equally. Otherwise, there will be imbalances.
MTDD: In Giada Rossa (= Red Jade), the protagonist’s mother “didn’t want to settle down, not even when her husband started his business” (p. 18), and despite her husband’s encouragement to slow down by staying at home and taking care only of the family she did not accept it declaring: “If the modern woman based on Maoist ideologies has become the other half of the sky, conquering equality, she must roll up her sleeves and demonstrate that she is an active and productive part of society!” (p. 19)
The concept of Woman as the ‘other half of Heaven’ has had not only cultural but also, above all, social and political implications.
Could you elaborate on this picture?
FP: Chinese women, based on Party directives, have always taken steps to contribute to the economy and the development of the new society. Giada Rossa’s mother is an example of this: a humble and struggling woman, she worked as a construction site laborer supporting her children. Carrying out a heavy and dangerous job, she had to make up for the lack of a husband to care for the family. This is the situation of many Chinese women, especially from the countryside.
MTDD: What are the main differences regarding the view and role of women before and after the Chinese Revolution? What exactly has changed in China, and how?
FP: Before 1949, except in rare cases, women were illiterate, they had no decision-making power, and they were exploited by their husbands and mothers-in-law, who were often despotic and cruel. After the Revolution, they redeemed themselves by finding their place in society. Now many are graduates, women in careers, occupy important positions, and some earn more money than their husbands. Many move from the countryside to work in the city. By character, they are determined, gritty, and ambitious.
MTDD: In Giada Rossa, both the protagonist and her mother emerge as Great Women: strong, courageous, and determined; women who face all kinds of sacrifices and trials head-on; who have had a “spartan and essential” lifestyle characterized by “poverty but a lot of dignity” (Picco, 2020, p. 15).
All the Chinese women I’ve met have these characteristics as well. Hence, it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence.
Can these characteristics, therefore, be the result of the Chinese culture and, above all, of the teaching and education imparted by families and the education system?
FP: In China, the school system is more rigid than in our Western one; obtaining merits and accessing the rankings for placement in universities is challenging. Only those who give their best can be admitted to prestigious universities that select students and send them to various universities. Grades and conduct affect your professional future. This applies to both men and women. Therefore sacrifice and application are part of the Chinese DNA.
MTDD: For many years in the West, therefore, even in a country like Italy, there has been talking of “equality,” “equal opportunities,” and similar concepts even if, in my humble opinion, everything could be replaced with the idea of “social justice” which, without referring to gender, actually embraces everything and everyone.
From this point of view, what is the situation in China?
FP: In Italy, it is rare to find a female hospital head physician; in China, it is normal. In eight years of living in Kunming, considered a city still behind Beijing or Shanghai, I have mostly seen female chief physicians in the wards. Women hold important positions in the judicial, administrative, and governmental sectors. Political power is still predominantly in the hands of men.
MTDD: Are there other substantial aspects regarding the Woman as “the other half of Heaven” that deserve to be deepened, or at least mentioned, which have not yet emerged in our interview and which, instead, it would be appropriate to talk about?
FP: Some characteristics of the Chinese mentality remain rooted despite the different eras. In the past, some authoritarian mothers-in-law had the life and death of the daughters-in-law at their disposal; today, mothers still want to decide on their adult children’s sentimental choices and professional future. Even today, the saying “When you get married, you must first consider social class equality between families” still applies. Children don’t dare rebel against their parents, and when they do, it’s not easy for them. I have seen several brides confined to a bedroom from which they never left, eating their meals and watching TV inside because, not being liked by their mothers-in-law, they could not appear in the same house.
To a lesser extent, daughters-in-law also mistreat mothers-in-law, all without males taking sides.
Gender equality has strengthened the steadfastness of Chinese women who, in many cases, love to bully.
In the novel Giada Rossa the character of Meimei, the “little sister,” is the typical example of a ruthless woman who becomes a tyrant and rages against her helpless daughter-in-law.
MTDD: Thank you, Fiori, for being here with us today. I will be happy to have you as my guest again.
We wish to remind our readers how to contact you and buy your publications, don’t we?
FP: Thank you, Maria Teresa; it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
Thanks to Amazon, my books have a global distribution and can be purchased in major European countries, the United States, and Japan. I leave some links: