Her mother undid Liang Jieyun’s braids, combed out the strands and pinned them into a bun. When her friends put up their hair, they wore the red clothing of brides. However, as Liang left her girlhood behind and stepped across the family threshold, she was embarking on a lifelong commitment to remain single.
At 85, Liang is a rare survivor of a custom stretching back to the early 19th century in parts of southern Guangdong Province. Women here could vow to remain a “self-combed woman,” or zishunu, (自梳女) leaving their parents’ home to work without marrying.
“If I hadn’t become a self-combed woman, the landlord would have forced me into marriage,” she said.
Pretty girls were often forcibly taken as wives or concubines. Two of her friends killed themselves after it happened to them.
Becoming a zishunu gave women an unusual degree of independence in a world that allowed them little education, voice or freedom, but it came at a heavy price. They toiled in factories or other people’s homes to support their families. Women who broke their pledge of celibacy were supposed to kill themselves, though by Liang’s era, such expectations had largely disappeared.
Shatou Village, Shunde, was once a center of this practice. Down an alleyway, tucked behind the high modern white-tiled homes, lies a two-story gray building with an elegant courtyard before it. In front of its gate, mulberry trees sprawl inside a red-brick wall. “The Hall of Ice and Jade” — named after the saying “as pure as jade, as unsullied as ice” — was built to shelter these women in old age, although it is now a museum.
Liang is tiny — perhaps 142m — and fine-boned. She sits on a bench beside Huang Li-e, a 90-year-old with a mischievous smile and an aptitude for teasing. They have never had husbands, children — or second thoughts.
“No regrets,” they say in unison.
“A lot of men chased after me,” Liang added, with a shooing motion: “I told them to go away.”
The custom was a form of “marriage resistance” in the Pearl River delta. It may have emerged because Shunde was a silk production center, giving women opportunities in the factories. The area also placed a heavy emphasis on female chastity, said Ye Ziling, (葉紫鈴) who has interviewed many survivors, possibly helping to ensure the women’s vows were respected.
While they chose to become “self-combed,” even running away to do so when their parents disapproved, most came from poor households.
“Often, their families couldn’t offer good dowries. Their status would be even lower than an ordinary girl’s in their new family. They were also the eldest daughters and might already be the main laborer. Their siblings had not grown up to replace them and, if they married, the main income source was gone,” Ye said.
Others became self-combed because factories refused to hire those they feared might marry and give birth.
“Women were afraid of marrying a bad man,” said Liang, adding that local men gambled and smoked opium. “If you got married, you had to give birth to children and raise them and work very hard for the family.”
Brides joined their husband’s family, at the bottom of the hierarchy.
“All their labor went to the in-laws and became their duty. The in-law family would never be grateful — it was what was supposed to be done,” Ye said.
In contrast, self-combed women could enjoy the gratitude of brothers and take pride in their contribution.