Women of the Comb


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Better Single than Oppressed

In a two-story, dark grey sotto-portico-style house in Dongguan’s Hengli Town once lived eight unmarried women, but now there’s only the last one. She is Ouxiao Yin. In a flashback to the days of her youth when she was the fourth child in her family, she prefers that others call her Aunt Four. With snow white hair and a wrinkled face, Aunt Four holds a pillow as company in her wheelchair, flickering between a cloudy senile gaze and the stare of a woman that has seen much and has much to say.

The house in which she resides was raised by eight sisters for their retirement. “We eight sisters were classmates and we once made a pact when we were young girls: ‘be comb women and we will never separate,’” she said. “It was 1939, I was 21.” Aunt Four recalled the time when she decided to comb her hair up regardless of her parents’ strong disfavor.

Aunt Four was one of a group of women once living in the Pearl River Delta region who would, vowing not to marry for their entire life, comb their hair up in their girlhood. In ancient China, women didn’t have the freedom to choose their spouse. Traditionally, women would only coil their hair into a chignon braid plugging it with a hairpin to symbolize their married state. For those unmarried young girls, called Zishu Nu (自梳女), or ‘Comb Women,’ they did this as a rite of declaration for a life without spouse. Now most comb women are over the age of ninety, as this minority of cultural icons is stepping toward extinction.

Aunt Four said that her father and brother-in-law were typical male chauvinists, the type that gave vent to anger on mothers and sisters by kicking and beating them, some addicted to opium.

womencomb3It might sound unreasonable for woman to vow not to marry when they are so young, but if you take a look at the social status of the women in ancient China, it will be understandable—without the freedom of marriage, they chose not to marry for the fear of unhappiness, or even torture, in an arranged marriage.

Aunt Four said that her father and brother-in-law were typical male chauvinists, the type that gave vent to anger on mothers and sisters by kicking and beating them, some addicted to opium. “After marriage, a woman is just a subordinate at home. If marriage is so afflictive, why would we go this way? ”Aunt Four said.

In the late 18th Century, after Canton opened for trade, many factories— especially the textile and silk industries—developed rapidly, allowing some women to make a living by themselves. The financial self-sufficiency led woman to aspire for individual independence, giving rise to the expanding comb woman community. Meanwhile, some women had received an education, waking up the awareness of independence in their mind. Therefore, some women with determination stepped up the road of choosing to be a comb women, and this marked a new beginning that women dared to defy their oppression. Under the influence from Canton, the number of comb women in Dongguan also increased quickly.

Despite escaping the cage of marriage, comb woman still suffered the pressures of spinsterhood as they aged without the immediacy of a traditional family. Due to the deep customs that decreed that married women, or, in the case of Aunt Four and her contemporaries, women married to a sisterhood, move away from their parents’ home, the comb women were isolated from mainstream society. So those of a specific area would raise money together to build up a house away from the ordinary families. “But not all of us were disassociated with our families; some of my sisters sent their savings home monthly,” Aunt Four said.

Aunt M

Four’s sisters worked as house maids, textile labor and in some other hard jobs. They used their savings to build up a house and live together. Aunt Four said that they had to work very hard in low-end jobs to support their livings. They lived together like sisters, looking out for each other, but as a comb woman, she was required to keep her pledge to be single forever, or else she might get rejected by her other sisters. If a comb woman opted for marriage, she might get punished by clansmen, who are the main power in the social administration in ancient China. Clansmen would lynch a comb woman who opted for marriage by stigmatizing them as unchaste.

The financial self-sufficiency led women to aspire for individual independence, giving rise to the expanding comb woman community.

Aunt Four said that, she knew that at the beginning when she womencomb2
chose to be a comb woman—if comb women wanted to turn from marriage, they might finally get beaten and tortured by the clansmen. Some were even executed by Jìn zhū lóng (浸猪笼), a punishment where someone is locked in a pig cage and thrown into the river to drown, a punishment on women in the old times in China, the dead body of whom could not be buried in a grave. Their relatives would wrap them up and throw them back into the river.

As modern ages change the perceptions of new generations, many old customs that strangled women have gradually been abandoned. After the changes of 1949 when many of the old establishment were being punished, some women walked out of the Comb Woman’s house and embraced a new life, while some other still kept their promise: stay single. “I don’t want to marry. I can rely on myself. ” Aunt Four insisted when asked whether she ever thought about turning to marriage. In her later years, Aunt Four’s eight sisters scattered in many places, but all of them still stayed in singlehood.

Like a candle in the wind, comb women are vanishing. However, looking back on the tragic history of comb women, it can be seen that some women with courage dared to revolt against the oppression of society, and their spirit of fighting for individual independence still echoes today.