When people in the modern world talk about gender equality, most of them emphasise career equality, equal pay for equal work, the sharing of household chores, autonomy over personal property (that is, not being controlled by men), more opportunities for women to participate in politics and assume leadership roles, and so on. People who care about women’s rights point out that these requirements are merely external, and are measured by social status, wealth and income, and have no relevance to the core issue of inequality.
The crux of gender inequality is that men have always objectified women and seen them as sexual objects. Men tend to focus on women’s physical appearance and body, and have completely overlooked the fact that women also have their own individual personalities, emotions and independent thought. Importantly, they do not need to depend on men.
Beasts feasting on beauties
In layman’s terms, this theory suggests that men lack a spiritual pursuit when they interact with females. They are blind to a woman’s inner beauty and do not care about the emotional interaction and communication between both parties. Men only care about how a woman looks, and only see a woman’s face and figure. It is as if they are beasts of a barbaric age: once their eyes are locked on an opposite gender, their sexual desires are aroused and they succumb to sexual temptation, acting on their instincts and immediately pouncing on their target.
Perhaps the relationship between men and women in the barbaric age followed the natural law of reproduction and cannot be counted as the behaviour of the wisest of all creatures — it’s the law of the jungle anyway, and only the fittest survive. There is no need to talk about morals, justice and equality. After all, men have great strength and have the ability to force themselves upon women — what can women do? It was indeed a helpless situation back then.
But things have certainly changed now. If men still treat women the way they did before during the barbaric era where they were driven by their need for conquest, they would be sued for sexual harassment.
But it is shrouded in male consciousness, especially in the Kunqu performance Nan Xixiang (《南西厢》), which is a blatant display of male voyeurism in the objectification of women.
Still much about looks and attraction in the modern era
Today’s younger generation often say that they are enamoured with good-looking people or are suffering from yanzhikong (颜值控, lit. gorgeous index complex) and strongly believe that love depends on looks. To a large extent, they have magnified the powers of attraction that physical appearance and one’s attire hold, and allowed themselves to unknowingly fall for the tactics of the fashion industry.
Sadly, under the manipulation of the capitalist system, while the fashion industry flies high the flag of beauty and aesthetics, this is just a foil for its pursuit of profit. As long as the bottom line of law and ethics are not breached, it does everything possible to objectify the appearance and behaviour of men and women and guide young people on the wrong path of relationships between men and women.
And the worst thing is that the fashion industry says one thing but does another — while it superficially advocates fashion for both genders, it in fact focuses on women’s fashion. This situation is exacerbated by the traditional custom and mentality of objectifying women, and is played up since this is what brings in the most money.
The perpetuation of the male gaze in Chinese classics
Men’s mentality of objectifying women goes back a long way. In addition, a significant volume of classical literary works have romanticised the concept and led people to fantasise and think that “love at first sight” is the most beautiful foundation of love. A classic example is the Romance of the Western Chamber (《西厢记》), which the ancients consider a textbook on love. But it is shrouded in male consciousness, especially in the Kunqu performance Nan Xixiang (《南西厢》), which is a blatant display of male voyeurism in the objectification of women.
If we hope that there can be true gender equality in the modern era, we must exercise caution even when we read ancient books and classical literature, and not be blinded by flowery language. In late Chinese writer Lu Xun’s words, we must have a critical mind so that the cloven hoof can be exposed beneath the qilin’s skin (使麒麟皮下露出马脚).
Cui Yingying in Romance of the Western Chamber is a passive character. In the hands of author Wang Shifu, her sense of self is rather weak — although she fell in love with Zhang Sheng, her love is somewhat abstract and blurry, like that of a shy young girl who has fallen in love with a young scholar.
Humans are naturally attracted to beautiful things and it is natural for the heart to skip a beat when it sees a beautiful woman.
Cui and Zhang first met in a monastery, when Cui was passing by with her servant girl. Zhang immediately said, “Ah, this must be my beloved from 500 years ago!” It was love at first sight for Zhang, that is, only Zhang. All the later songs and poems portrayed his lustful and unsightly behaviour, and described him as a man who drools at the sight of an attractive girl.
The lengthy description only speaks about a man’s one-sided obsession with a woman, and paints a picture of a perverted man. Zhang stares lustfully at Cui, and was completely mesmerised by her. He sang, "Ah, there goes my soul, flying halfway across the sky!"
Here, Zhang has completely objectified an attractive woman. Cui did not have a single bit of interaction with him, and neither was there any emotional connection.
Even after Cui walked away, Zhang was still revelling in her beauty, singing, “Oh, how my hungry eyes long for her and how my gluttony mouth waters when I see her. I miss her to my bones, and it’s all because she turned around while leaving and her sparkling eyes looked past me. Even the stone-hearted iron man would be tempted, let alone an ordinary man like me!” There was zero mention of Cui’s reactions in the opera and only Zhang’s naked objectification of a woman was on display.
Humans are naturally attracted to beautiful things and it is natural for the heart to skip a beat when it sees a beautiful woman. It is just that we should not objectify women in this manner and forget that women are also humans with an independent mind and a unique temperament. They have the right to be treated equally in a relationship.
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