Meaning of the Veil
Ling Ling closed her eyes with worry in her heart. Usually, she would be enjoying the wind that was blowing in her face but today was different. She opened her eyes and the sight that greeted her dismayed her.
She was still a distance from the hospital.
Ling Ling flicked the whip in her hand and although the sound of the whip hitting Xiao Fan eased her anxiety a little, it did little to change the situation. They were still far from the hospital and Ling Ling knew all the whipping in the world would do little to change the situation. Xiao Fan, the concubine, was already running as fast as possible.
The day had started normally with both of them greeting their husband as he left for work in the morning. After he had left, Ling Ling instructed Xiao Fan on the chores for the day before taking the children to school. She then met some other wives in the neighborhood for a tea session before the group went on a shopping trip at the mall.
It had been a normal relaxing day.
After the shopping trip, she had returned home to check on Xiao Fan’s work. Normally, the concubine would be on her knees as she opened the door but today, it was a very anxious standing Xiao Fan that greeted her. The concubine quickly informed her that soon after she had left, a phone call came saying that their husband was involved in an accident and was currently in hospital.
The duo quickly left for the hospital but as women, the only mode of transport available to them was the ponycart. The ponycart was a mode of transport that had been around in the country of Songhan since ancient times. Known as a rickshaw in olden days, the ponycart was basically a cart with 2 wheels and two long poles protruding from the front of the cart. Although the name had been changed, neither the design nor the use of the rickshaw/ponycart had. Just like in ancient times, the wife, Ling Ling, was seated on the ponycart while the concubine, Xiao Fan, was pulling it.
Not for the first time in her life, Ling Ling regretted the fact she was a female. If she had been born a male, she would be allowed to drive but as a woman, she was not allowed to even call for a taxi. In Songhan, females just do not go into a vehicle with a male stranger. Even public transport like buses and the subway catered only to men. If women want to go somewhere, they walked or like Ling Ling, use the ponycart. The unfairness of it all ate at her.
Here she was, a beautiful capable woman, and she had to followed ancient traditions set by her ancestors thousands of years ago. Not for the first time in her life, Ling Ling wished to have been born in another country other than Songhan, a country where women were not allowed to be anything other than wives and concubines, servants to their men and slaves to their families.
Ling Ling flicked the whip in her hand again.
Xiao Fan took the whip stoically, not seemingly affected by it. In a way, Ling Ling was pleased with this. She still remembered how poorly the concubine did as the puller of the cart when she first accepted her into the family. Like all concubines of Songhan, Xiao Fan wore a veil that covered the lower half of her face and she wasn’t used to pulling the cart with the veil covering her nose and mouth. A problem Ling Ling solved by constant practice and liberal use of the whip.
In the six years since Xiao Fan became the concubine of the family, Ling Ling had trained the concubine with pain and humiliation into a concubine worthy of serving the family. The fact that the concubine was now pulling the cart with little effort was a testament to her training. However the distance they were covering was still not enough to satisfy her.
Ling Ling used the whip again.
After 30 minutes of suffering under the whip, an exhausted Xiao Fan finally reached the hospital. Ling Ling went into the hospital as the concubine parked the ponycart. In the lobby, she was met by the family. Her father-in-law, 2 mother-in-laws, her brother-in-law and sister-in-law were all there and the news was not good.
The accident was serious and her husband was now in surgery. The doctors had refused to tell the family how her husband was doing, only willing to say they would try their best to save him. That was never a good thing. By then, Xiao Fan had arrived and with all the women of the family present, her father-in-law ordered all of them to the hospital shrine to pray for the health of his eldest son.
It was not an order any of them could refused and Ling Ling reluctantly went along. Never a religious person, Ling Ling nevertheless went through the rituals of respecting her ancestors and begging for help from the Celestial Heavens. Like always, the heavens did not answer her prayers and an hour later, the doctors asked the family to prepare for the worst.
It was then that her sister-in-law, Zong Ying, approached her. As the wives of the family, the two of them had gotten along well despite the differences in their personalities. Unlike Ling Ling, Zong Ying was one of those women who enjoyed their status as servants to their husband and slaves to their family. She firmly believed it was what women were born for and Ling Ling knew her sister-in-law took great joy in her submission to her husband. Ling Ling even suspected that her sister-in-law would be just as comfortable being a concubine as a wife as long as she got to serve her husband. So it surprised Ling Ling little that her sister-in-law would be the one speaking to her.
Death in the family, though unfortunate, was not unusual and the people of Songhan had long since had a tradition for such tragedies. In the event of a death of a male relative, his nearest male relatives were to take over his responsibilities as protector and provider of the deceased’s wife, concubines and children.
So it was with them. Ling Ling’s sister-in-law explained that the men had discussed the matter already and decided that her father-in-law would take Xiao Fan as his second concubine while her husband’s brother would take Ling Ling as a concubine. Their children would of course follow their mothers into their new families. Zong Ying then gave Ling Ling an item to signify her new position; a black veil to cover the lower half of her face.
Women in Songhan had to dress in accordance to the laws. Generally, whether they were wives or concubines, the sumptuary laws were similar. Their heads had to be covered in a black tudong, their bodies had to be covered in a non-fitting white blouse, and they had to wear white socks and black shoes that would make no sound when they walked.
There were however two main differences between wives and concubines. Wives were allowed to wear a black skirt that reaches their ankles while concubines were only allowed to wear pants, and whereas wives were allowed to show their faces in public, concubines must always covered the lower half of their faces with a veil.
The veil Zong Ying gave her was one that was worn only by concubines and Ling Ling knew if she accepted it, it would be her place for the rest of her life. She remembered her trip to the hospital and how freely she was with the whip. If she accepted this veil, she would no longer enjoy the wind in her face but be the one running and pulling, and being whipped by her mistress for her efforts. She would be the one who would never be allowed out of the house without supervision, who could never meet any outsiders without a veil covering her face. The wife of the house was the face the public sees; the concubine was nothing but the faceless servant. That was the meaning of the veil in Songhan.
That would be her fate if she accepts this veil.
Of course, she could reject the veil but the consequences would be harsh. Rejecting the veil meant rejecting the family and she would have to leave, either to a nunnery or back to her birth family. Ling Ling was pretty certain her father would accept her back but it would meant leaving her children behind. As the children of her husband, no court in Songhan would allow her to take her children with her. They must stay with her husband’s family. She could leave the family, but her children could not.
Zong Ying touched her on the arm and pointed behind her. Ling Ling turned around and saw that Xian Fan had made her decision. The concubine was now lying flat on the ground with her face facing upwards to the ceiling. Above her, her father-in-law’s concubine was kneeling with her knees on either side of Xiao Fan’s head and her buttocks on Xiao Fan’s face.
Her father-in-law’s concubine in turn had her head bowed to the floor, at the feet of her father-in-law’s wife. This showed Xiao Fan’s new position as second concubine; a woman so low in worth she did not even deserve to be kneeling in the wife’s presence. From this day on, Xiao Fan would be a woman who was only worthy of being stepped on, a doormat for her new husband, new mistress and her new husband’s concubine.
Ling Ling felt for her. Six years ago when her husband became successful enough to warrant a concubine, Ling Ling had carefully selected Xiao Fan for the role. A plain looking woman born to a concubine, Xiao Fan’s score in school was not great. However all her teachers said that she worked hard and knew her place. Xiao Fan knew she was not beautiful enough to be a wife and had instead accepted the role given to her by the Celestial Heavens.
Her teachers were correct. Ling Ling found that although her concubine was not smart, beautiful or even all that capable, young Xiao Fan worked hard and accepted all punishment given to her as encouragement to do better. She was in short, a very good concubine and although Ling Ling was sure she would make a very good second concubine, she can’t help but felt Xiao Fan deserved better.
However Ling Ling wasn’t sure she had time to worry about other people right now. Of course like all women in Songhan, she always knew there was a chance of this happening. That one day, she would lose her position as the wife but that doesn’t mean she expected it to happen. She needed time to think but time was not something she had. Zong Ying squeezed her arm, wanting her to make a decision quickly.
To Zong Ying, this must seem like an easy decision and in a way, Ling Ling knew why her sister-in-law thought so. In Songhan, it was better to be a concubine than a widower and if she wanted to stay with her children, Ling Ling, like all women, didn’t really have a choice in the matter.
With regret, she put the veil on, knelt and bowed at the feet of Zong Ying. From this day forward, Zong Ying would be her mistress.