Gender Ideology and Family Practices in Pre-Modern China: Analysis of Injustice to Tou O

The Injustice to Tou O is a play by a Chinese writer Kuan Hanqing. The story was written during the period of the Yuan dynasty between 1279 to 1368. The play is one of the most popular works by Kuan. The development of the events in the play begins when Dou Tianzhang decides to sell his daughter who is only seven years old to a rich woman identified as Mistress Tsai. Scholar Tou (Dou Tianzhang) decides to do it in order to cover his expenses and pay huge debts.  The father claims that he has no any other alternative of sustaining the family and furthering his education other than having to sell the girl. Few years later, Tou O, who has been married to Mistress Tsai’s son, finds herself a widow despite being only 20 years of age.  A man named Old Chan comes to Mistress Tsai’s house solely to ask her hand in marriage.

At the same time, Old Chan’s son is also interested in Tou O, a daughter-in-law of Mistress Tsai, who had become a widow after her husband’s death. However, the two men use harsh means of achieving their goals when they forcefully enter Mistress Tsai’s home and demand compensation for having saved her from being killed by a rogue doctor. Although Mistress Tsai is willing to remarry, her daughter in law does not share the same desire. She has not lost the memories of her late husband, and she claims to have been emotionally united with him. Donkey Chan plans to eliminate Mistress Tsai by killing her with poison to get Tou O. To realize this idea, Donkey Chan prepares poison, which he puts into the soup prepared by Tou O. However, Old Chan drinks the poisoned soup by mistake and dies. Donkey Chan goes on to accuse Tou O of killing his father and, therefore, puts her in prison.  However, despite her having been executed for the crime she did not commit, the case is reevaluated again after three years. Donkey Chan is found to be the real culprit and, therefore, is punished accordingly.

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Family Relationships in the Yuan Society

In the Yuan Society of the pre-modern era, daughters were not given much value and were considered as property. This attitude is typified when Scholar Tou sells his daughter Tou O to for marriage despite the fact that she was the only daughter in the family. In essence, girls were secluded from important matters of the family or society alongside being deprived of the pleasures of dignity and appreciation. Tou O was deprived of dignity by her father, who, instead of leaving the girl with her family, has sold her as if she was something unwanted.

According to Li, the Yuan society during the pre-modern era placed more value on boys compared to girls. One of the main reasons for such attitude was the fact that boys could and were supposed to take care of the family even at the elderly aged. Further, the old Chinese tradition expects children to support the elderly when they retire or get old. Women and the girls were considered inferior and did not have a say in the family. For instance, Tou O was not allowed to either object or accept the idea of her being sold to Mistress Tsai. In addition, Mistress Tsai did not refuse the proposal of being remarried to Old Chang, despite being forced to do so by the two men. These examples imply that women and girls were expected to obey men at every stage of their lives and under any circumstances. Such societal models of behavior explain why Tou O obeys the decisions made by her father, despite the fact that they did not necessarily correspond to her wish. Chinese Confucianism, according to which females were not allowed to have their own ambitions in life, reinforced the idea of women’s implicit submission and that the life of a woman was outside her home.

Another idea of family life represented in the play Injustice to Tou O is the arrangement of marriages. This concept is illustrated through Tou O’s being betrothed to Mistress Tsai’s son without her knowledge. Similarly, mistress Tsai is coerced into being remarried to Old Chan without a prior arrangement with her or her own consent to get married. Since the opinions and thoughts of women were not given any value, the fathers’ decisions in the matters concerning family, including whom to marry, were perceived as final. 

In the play, Tou O begins to serve the family of her in-laws, living with the family of her husband. Married women were required to obey their in-laws, including the mother. Any disobedience to a mother-in-law was forbidden according to the Chinese customs. 

It is also notable that poor families, during the pre-modern era, were allowed to sell their daughters to rich families. Thus, Scholar Tou decides to sell his daughter to repay his debts and cover his expenses. Except the poverty-related issues, there was also a possibility for fathers or relatives to sell their youngest daughters in case their other sisters had been married.

In addition, having been sold at a mere age of seven, it was also probable that Tou O did not receive proper education, which may be partly attributed to the subservience of women in the pre-modern China. At this period, education was of low significance to girls. Although some nobles provided their girl-children with education, such cases were exceptional, and not a requirement. In this culture, most of the occupations for the girls based on cooking, serving the family, and sewing, spinning and assisting their husbands or in-laws).

Family Unity

During the pre-modern period in China, the family unity had to be maintained at all times. Sons were very close to their fathers while daughters were closer to their mothers and aunties. Such connection is evident throughout the play when Old Chan and his son Donkey Chan are always seen together until the death of the father. Fathers could sit together with their sons to deliberate on or plan important family or personal issues. Again, such images illustrate the value accorded to sons within the family. On the other hand, the sons were required to take care of their parents, especially those in old age, as a means of showing filial piety. In the families of this particular period, all children, including daughters, were expected to do what their parents required of them, as well as obey them and other elders. Household chores were reserved for girls and women.

Gender Values

In the Yuan society, women were used to living under oppression. This position   is demonstrated by Tou O, who is under oppression her entire life. Even women of the noble class, such as Mistress Tsai, could not escape this oppression. 

Confucianism placed women in a strict subordination to men and traditionalistic society. Women, who were of lesser value than men, were considered as possessions by their parents or caregivers. As such, women did not have any rights as typified by Tou O, who was treated as property and sold off. Li deliberates that, from the moment a girl reached seven years, her feet were tightly wrapped, which prevented them from growing. Crippled legs were viewed as a form of beauty. It should be also noted that a woman was expected to obey her sons in the case her husband died. 

Confucianism did not consider women as being equal to men, and most women were contented to remain in this status. They did not see the necessity of questioning this concept or its impact on their lives. Therefore, they did not see the need to  acquire education or literacy skills. It was considered as a waste of time by the society. Just like Tou O, women lived under strict regulation and oppression. A woman was positioned as a slave both by her husband and her family-in-law. 

Lee et al., also explains that the majority of women in pre-modern China went through much humiliation. This humiliation began right from the time of her birth, when particular humiliating customs were performed on her. The latter involved placing the girl child under the cot and giving her a broken pottery to play with. Further, the birth of the girl child was announced by offering ritual sacrifices to the ancestors. The baby was placed under the cot as a way of denoting her weakness and as an indication of the fact that she was expected to be obedient. The broken pottery symbolized the expectation of the child to be laborious in her lifetime. Finally, a sacrifice to the ancestors on behalf of the girl child was an implication that the girl was supposed to worship the elders. On the other hand, a boy child was valued and considered a gift from the Gods.

Male Chauvinism

 Based on the position of women in the Chinese Yuan society, it is apparent that male chauvinism is rife in this system. In Injustice to Tau O, male chauvinism is illustrated by male characters such as Scholar Tou, who has the audacity to sell his only daughter only because has the right to do so. In addition, Old Chang and Donkey Chang, his son, want to coerce Mistress Tsai and her daughter-in-law Tau O into remarrying them simply because their husbands had died, and they could be inherited. In these endeavors, they do not consider the opinions of these women or whether they agree with such decisions or not. Since male chauvinism was engrained in their culture, these men, therefore, believed that they could automatically achieve their ambitions. What is more, having poisoned his own father, Donkey Chang implicates Tau O because she has a weaker position in the society. This tendency is reflected in the court, where the officials, which mainly consisted of men, subjected Tau O to harsh conditions and beating to force a confession out of her. 

From the play, it is obvious that male chauvinism was entrenched in the culture of pre-modern China. Baker explains that men were dominant n China and could not consult women regarding decisions or opinions. The virtue of being a man placed him in a higher position while girls and women were degraded. The superiority of men and the inferiority of women was deeply rooted in this culture.  For many Chinese of that period, giving birth to a son was “honorable”, unlike a daughter. 

As Baker points out, during the Yuan period, the Chinese society was male-dominated and chauvinistic. The favoritism of a male-child against a girl-child continued until the introduction of the western culture, which occurred during the 20th century. Consequently, the western culture advocated equality of sex and women emancipation. 


The play Injustice to Tau O has demonstrated the place of a girl-child and women in general in China during the pre-modern period. Based on this culture, women went through oppression that cannot be tolerated from the modern perspective.