The Last Self-dressing Women
The tools used by self-dressing
In Zhaoqing City of South China's Guangdong Province, the smell of opening-up and reform can be felt here and there with the newly built western-style buildings, fashionable girls, and shuttling cars. However, it is right in the middle of such an open city where there lives a group of eleven self-dressing women, whose lifetime creed is "to comb our hair, cook our meals, share our happiness and sorrow, and live our lives all by ourselves."
The Self-dressing Women's Simple Life
The eleven old women, aged between 63 and 93, live in houses located along Tajiao Lane of Zhaoqing City. Even as young girls, they wore their hair in a bun on their own and pledged never to marry during their lifetime. With a pure heart and few worldly desires, they have lived calm and independent lives for decades in spite of the fast-changing society.
Strange enough, the only men that these self-dressing women speak to are armed policemen. According to one of the local policemen, the women visit the Kwanyin Hall and pay homage to the Buddhisattva of Mercy every morning, regardless of wind or rain.
One of the self-dressing women, surnamed Xia, became an orphan when she was only ten months old, and was adopted by one of her aunts named Zhang Sanmei, who was also a self-dressing woman. As a small girl, Xia was often bullied by the young men of rich families. Therefore, at 15, she walked into Kwanyin Hall and became a self-dressing girl.
The house where she lives is barely furnished. In the hall, a wooden board laid over two stools acts as a place for weaving straw mats and eating, with two rickety carved chairs next to this contraption. Down the ceiling hangs a bamboo basket, within which lies a pair of chopsticks, a bowl, and a few green cabbages.
Behind the hall is a bedroom, which is also unbelievably simple and shabby. Several black wooden boards over three stools constitute her simple bed, on which is spread a thin worn-out quilt. An old but clean mosquito net hangs over the bed. No electronic appliance can be found within the house.
According to Xia, she, together with other self-dressing women, used to live in the Kwanyin Hall on the mountain, where there was not only the Buddhisattva of Mercy for them to worship, but also their dining hall and dwelling place. However, during World War II, the Japanese army destroyed the hall, forcing the women to move away. In 1975, Xia bought the house, where she has since lived in.
The Self-dressing Women and the Armed Policemen
Before these women became self-dressing women, nearly all of them had suffered from the old feudal concept that men are superior to women and from the misery brought on by the wars between warlords. Therefore, these women's prejudice against social conventions and their resentment against the society are both imaginable and understandable. For a long time, they have avoided meeting males like evading a plague. However, when speaking of the armed policemen stationed nearby, they got extremely excited and claimed those policemen are the most intimate people to them, and then began to tell the story between them.
On a summer's afternoon ten years ago, as the armed police were practicing shooting not far from Tajiao Lane, it started to rain suddenly. Led by their instructor, the soldiers entered the Kwanyin Hall to take shelter. Hardly had they stood under the eaves for a minute when several of the dressing women walked out. Upon seeing so many soldiers with guns in hands, they started to shout at them, "What are your damn soldiers doing here? Stay away from us!"
With no choice, the instructor ordered the soldiers to leave, and they ran to their stationing place in the rain. From then on, the instructor kept an eye on this special group. Some time later, when they learned that the women were self-dressing women, their anger vanished completely.
The one Sunday after, the soldiers came to Kwanyin Hall again, each with a broom in hand. This time, they came to do some cleaning for these self-dressing women. Realizing the soldiers were in fact decent people, the women's horror and hostility disappeared.
Later, the soldiers offered to provide these women with vegetables and every year, their paramedic will come to do physical check-ups for them. With the passage of time, an intimate bond has developed between the policemen and the women. The self-dressing women refer these armed police as "children," who call them "grandma" in return.
About Self-dressing Women
The self-dressing woman phenomenon appeared in late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and has only existed around the Pearl River Delta region.
In the old days, singles girls in Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta used to wear their hair in a long braid behind their back. When they were to get married, their parents or the senior members of the family would coil up their braid into a bun.
The self-dressing women, however, would usually coil up their braids by themselves through a particular ritual. By doing so they were showing their determination of never marrying throughout their life. Once their hair was coiled up, they could not marry, nor could their parents force them into a marriage.
If any one self-dressing woman was to commit any ant of indiscretion, she would be looked down upon by her neighbors. Sometimes, she would suffer severe punishment or be beaten to death before being thrown into a pig-cage, which was then thrown into a river. Under such circumstances, not her parents, but other self-dressing women, were allowed to bury her with a straw mattress and a door plank. In case nobody came to bury the dead women, her body would be thrown into the flowing river.
Generally, the parents bitterly resented and opposed their daughter's determination of staying single throughout her lifetime, and would always keep a close eye on the daughter. Therefore, those very determined girls had to evade their parents to go through the secret ritual, which was always held by other elder self-dressing girls.
The legacy of self-dressing women was usually inherited by the self-women' sworn sisters or apprentices, the latter of whom also had to be self-dressing women. Usually, a ceremony was held when a self-dressing woman was taking in an apprentice, who had to show filial obedience to her. The apprentice also had to wait on her master when the master was ill, and when the master died, the apprentice had to bury her. Therefore, it took a long time for a self-dressing woman to really take in an apprentice. Once the master-apprentice relationship was established, neither side should regret it.
A special phenomenon in Guangdong Province, self-dressing women can still be found in Sanshui and Qingyuan counties of Guangdong, but not in groups like those in Zhaoqin City, which can be hailed as "the last group of self-dressing women in Chinese history."