Public figures making sexist remarks are sadly commonplace in China today. The latest is internet entrepreneur Liu Huafang, who believes that Chinese culture may collapse if women are offered a place at the table—literally.
In a controversial blog post published on February 10, Liu defends a tradition of “banning” women from the dinner table at some New Year banquets. Actress Cheng Lisha drew public attention to the practice in 2017 after a visit to her husband’s ancestral village in Shandong province (Cheng, a guest, was allowed at the table).
Subsequent coverage portray the custom as a Shandong habit, though it has also been reported in Henan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, the Chaoshan region, and the Northeast. Liu, who has Shandong ancestry, opens his essay by denying his province is a hotbed of chauvinism.
Liu goes on, though, to praise Shandong for preserving the etiquette rites of its native philosophers, Confucius and Mozi, and says daughters-in-laws should make room for their in-laws and elders if there is limited seating (but saying nothing of sons’ and sons-in-law’s obligation to do the same): “Disregard of propriety and shame lead to cultural degeneration…As a daughter-in-law, shouldn’t you be helping your mother-in-law and sister-in-law cook? Or are we supposed to let daughters-in-law socialize and drink with the guests?”
Reader response has been mostly critical: Top comments on Weibo cheekily congratulated Liu for “excellent slander of Shandong,” crowning it “China’s top province for bare branches.” An internet survey by Netease this year suggests the custom is already the wane: 57.5 percent of respondents said their families had no seating restrictions during Spring Festival. “I have heard of the custom, but never seen it enforced,” says Wang Qunhong, a woman in her late 20s who grew up in a village in central Jiangxi. “Personally, I never cook, so I sit at the table.”
However, says, Wang, “It’s true that China’s feudal culture say it’s the women’s job to cook, and the men to drink and entertain the guests, so women often have no chance to eat until the men are done.”
Limited room at the table is one of the justifications for women’s absence
Bai Hongtan, a 36-year-old rural communication scholar based in Liaocheng, Shandong, believes that the issue is often misrepresented. Bai is the author of “A PhD’s Homecoming: My Village Still Preserves the Custom of Not Letting Women Eat With the Guests,” a viral essay published by Beijing Youth Daily during the Spring Festival of 2018, though he tells TWOC that the headline, which attracted 5.5 million views, was sensationalized: “I wanted to focus on the broad gender divisions in my village…but many readers accused me of perpetuating myths about Shandong as a very backward place.”
Bai agrees it is traditional gender roles that effectively bar women from the feast, rather than an explicit ban. “In my region, a woman wouldn’t be chased off if she sits down at the table,” he explains. “What’s actually at play are traditional divisions of labor in the village, which are imbalances inherited from the past—’women inside, men outside’; women in the kitchen, men in public with the guests.” Other Spring Festival rituals, including calling on relatives and worshiping the ancestors, are also typically performed by the “male offspring” (男丁) of the family, and married women on rare occasions.
In his essay, Bai writes that when food was scarce in his childhood, women and children only ate at weddings and New Year feasts after the men and guests have finished, even alleging that this led to the custom of eating only one side of the fish: “There was an interminable wait to eat the underside of the fish, because the men will drink for hours…the taste of tobacco and liquor mixed with the dishes is an indelible memory of my childhood.”
Women and children no longer have to face leftovers, but do often sit at a separate table or even in a separate room. In Netease’s survey, only 5.8 percent said that women in their families did not eat at the table at all, but 35.8 percent said they ate apart from the main table.
Women were also traditionally barred from clan-wide New Year and wedding banquets in the village ancestral halls
The custom still has its defenders: Over 60 percent of Netease respondents were against or unsure about challenging traditional divisions at home. Cheng recommends guests “do as the Romans do” whatever the host’s customs, while commenters on a recent Douban thread justify the custom as a separation of drinkers and non-drinkers, or a difference in conversation topics between men and women.
Bai believes there’s still a long way to go to improving the situation, as the public’s overall awareness of gender stereotyping is low. “Many people only consider the problem at the individual level, such as feeling bad that their mothers have to cook so much, or that the smoking and drinking at the main table are so unpleasant for the women,” he says. “Realizing that women having to cook and watch the children, or men must be drinkers while women are not, are related to broader gender discrimination—that’s another level of consciousness.”
Cover image from Pixabay. All other photos by Hatty Liu