When you go to a school as an examiner, it’s no surprise that the school want to make you as comfortable as possible. Sometimes it was food and drinks, sometimes it was a rest (and massage) in an air-con room, East River Finishing School decided to have their exams area in a garden. A small pavilion in the middle of the garden was the place for the exam.
It was definitely something different.
The girl walked into the pavilion in the proper manner. Head down with hands by her sides, she only took quick half steps. She stopped in front of the chair and turned to the long table where we were sitting behind. Dropping demurely to her knees, she put her hands on the floor and bowed her head. The small room echoed with the sound of her head hitting the floor.
“Raise your head from the ground girl.” I waited as the girl slowly raised her head. She stopped and held her position on her hands and knees. I was pleased with this. I specifically ordered her to raise her head, so the girl wisely kept her hands on the floor. It was a trick command and a few girls before her had already been caught out on this. “Raise to kneeling position, state your name, age and position in this school.”
The girl went to the proper position; head down, kneeling with her knees apart, each hand palm up on her knee. She replied in a soft but clear voice. “This girl is named Chen Meiling. Meiling is 16 years old and a final year student in East River Finishing School.”
I looked at her attire though it was always a waste of time. Attire was always something all the students got right. Her head was covered in a black tudong, a scarf worn around the head that conceals the hair and the neck but not the face. Her body was covered by a long-sleeved white tunic that went to her knee. The tunic looked too big for her but this was by design to hide her body shape. Below the tunic was a wide black skirt that was also designed for the same purpose. Her socks were white while her flat shoes were black.
Her attire matched the sumptuary laws of Songhan. Outside her hands and face, the rest of her body was covered. Her figure was hidden and her clothes were in the standard black/white/black/white/black ensemble. Outside special occasions women were not allowed to wear any other colors of clothing except black and white, and they must always alternated black and white pieces of clothing.
“I am Lim Weikong, chief examiner for today. Beside me are Li Jailong and Tan Meng. We will examine you today on your knowledge of your role in Songhan society. Depending on our assessment, we will decide if you deserve to pass the school and be a useful member of society.” It’s the standard speech we gave to all the girls but a quick glance at Meiling scores and I knew the speech was a lie. She had already scored “Pass” in cleaning, cooking, child rearing and obedience training. Even if she failed the subject of social knowledge, she would pass the finishing school.
“Meiling understands.” The girl replied.
“Stand and sit on the chair behind you.”
The girl stood up, sat on the chair and placed her hands on her lap. She was the picture perfect image of a demure young girl.
“Question 1: Tell me the ranks within the Celestial Order?”
“First are the gods of Heaven, who are highest of all beings;
Second are the spirits of the world, the spirits of the trees, mountains, and earth;
Third are the ancestors, without them we would not exist;
Fourth are the men, strongest of Heaven’s children;
Last are the women, the least of Heaven’s children.”
“Follow-up question: What of people who has both male and female organs? What rank do they hold in the Celestial Order?”
“They are both men and women. They hold a position between the fourth and last rank; stronger than women, but weaker than men. They can command all women and obey all men.”
The girl did not miss a beat, reciting the answer with confidence…too much confidence.
“Question 2: What is a woman’s role in society?”
“As a child, to obey her father;
As a girl, to obey her husband;
As a woman, to obey her son”
“Follow-up question: What of your role in relation to other women?”
“As a child, to obey her mother;
As a wife, to obey her in-laws;
As a mother, to train her daughters and daughter-in-laws to serve her sons.”
“Question 3: You are given an impossible task to complete by your father, husband or son. You fail. What should happen and why?”
“Failure to obey a higher being in the Celestial Order is a cause for punishment. I should be punished for my failure. A caning is the least I can expect.”
“Follow-up question: It is an impossible task which you had no chance of success. Is a caning fair?”
“Order within society must be maintained. I was given a command; I failed, so a caning is fair.”
“Question 4: You are pregnant with a child and your husband decided that a caning is out of the question due to your condition. What alternative punishment is suitable in place of the caning?”
“I should be made to shout out my disgrace to the public. I should be made to stand outside my house and shout out to everyone who passes that I had failed my duties as a woman and as a wife.”
“Follow-up question: Wouldn’t the public humiliation shame your husband as well? To be known as a man who has failed to properly train his wife?”
“I would make it know in my words that the failure was mine alone. That I am a failure as a wife and it is through the mercy of my husband that I am still a member of the household.”
“Question 5: You are married and one day your husband returns home saying he will be taking in a concubine. What do you say?”
“It is a joy that my husband is wealthy and successful enough to take in a concubine. I will welcome her with open arms.”
“Follow-up question: What if it was you who was chosen to be a concubine?”
Meiling seems surprised by the question but answered almost immediately. “I will remain myself that a woman is a woman. If it was the choice of my father that I am to be a concubine, then that is what I am to be. If there is anyone to blame, then I can only blame myself for not being beautiful enough to be a wife.”
“The 5 questions are over. Take your leave girl.”
Meiling stood up and demurely kneeled on the floor again. She put her hands on the floor and bowed her head. Again the room echoed with the sound of her head hitting the floor. She stood up and slowly walked out the pavilion towards the exit of the garden.
Tan started the ball rolling. “Pass, she answered all the questions satisfactorily.”
“Agreed,” I admitted. “But I don’t like the way she answered. She had too much confidence. Even if she knows she was right, she should have hesitated more.”
“A woman shouldn’t have too much confidence,” Jailong agreed, “but we can’t fail someone for knowing the answers to our question. Even your follow-up questions didn’t faze her.”
“That’s my point.” I said. “She didn’t even think about her answers to my questions. She believes she knew the answers and said them without thinking. A woman should have more doubts about herself than that. She should always think about how her actions would reflect on herself and her family.”
“I get your point.” Tan said. “So how about we pass her but without a recommendation.”
“That’s fair.” Jailong said.
“Even I had to admit she passed.” I said. “We really should have better system to judge the girls, more than just “Pass” or “Fail.”
“And give ourselves more work?” Jailong laughed. “Next thing you know, the Ministry of Education will have us giving them written exams like the boys!”
Tan and I laughed at that. Judging girls the way we judge boys? Teaching them to read and write? The ideas were laughable. Girls, all women in fact, they were just not worth the effort. After all, they were the least of Heaven’s children. The next girl came into the garden and walked towards the pavilion. Back to work.
“Thank you for your hard work.” The principal said with a bow. “I hope you did not face any problems today.”
“Oh no,” I replied. “Your students have been excellent. As principal of the school, you have every reason to be proud of them.”
I handed the papers over to him. As principal of the school, Neo Jipang was anxious to see the results of the exams. It would not make any difference to the results but in my experience, most principals wanted to see the results as soon as possible. I also found that humoring the principal was the easier thing to do.
“There are few recommendations in these?”
The principal seem surprised by the results. That was good; as long as he was not offended. “Yes. All your girls pass, however…”
“Yes? Please feel free to speak your mind?”
“The problem lies in the way your girls answer the questions.”
“I do not understand.”
“Do you feel that it’s important that a girl show confidence in public?”
“No, quite the opposite in fact.”
“Actually, it’s bad if a girl show too much confidence. In our exam, your girls got almost all the answer correct but they answered them in certain, confident tones. That is the reason why there are few recommendations.”
“But if the girls know the answer, they will answer them. Surely you are not asking to “pretend” to be ignorant?”
“There is no need to “pretend” as you say it. Even if they know the answers to our question, girls should not have the confidence to show the certainty your girls show in the exams.”
“I ensure you we here at East River Finishing School trained our girls to be…”
“Please, please do not take this the wrong way Principal Neo.” I quickly said. “I am not saying there is anything wrong with the way your school teaches your students; it just that we feel that your students are showing too much confidence in public.”
“Oh…I see.” Principal Neo paused as if he was thinking about something. “Do you have any idea to change this?”
“First thing is to find out why there is such a problem in the first place. In most schools I’ve been, this is not that much of a problem; at least not to this degree.” That was true. This was an unusual problem. “Do you have idea on why your school has such a problem in the first place?”
“Maybe…would you please come with me?”
I followed the principal out of his office. He led me to out of the main building and along the way, all the girls we passed paused whatever they were doing and bowed to us. Only after we had passed them did they continue with what they were doing. If nothing else, East River Finishing School trained their girls well in social graces.
The principal led me to another building and turned to me as we reached the door. “This is our gym. I believe our fourth year students are having a concubine session now.”
I was shocked. “A…concubine what?”
“You will see. Please come in.” He waved me into the building. Left with no choice without causing insult, I had to enter.
Principal Neo led me to a staircase where we climbed to the second floor. He then led me further into the building onto a balcony. Below the balcony was a class of girls dressed like Meiling…with one huge exception! They were standing side-by-side of each other and their eyes were covered by a cloth; the mark of a second concubine.
“What in the…” I quickly recovered and lowered my voice. “Those students are veiled! Fully veiled with a cloth over their eyes!”
“Yes. They are in training for the day they might be second concubines.”
“Second concubines?” That made no sense but I looked closer and then noticed the girls were also wearing pants! “But…why? Girls are sent school to learn to be proper women. Why are you…”
“You and I both know that not all the girls in the school will be wives.” Principal Neo said this in a patient manner, as if he had done this countless times before. “Men want beautiful women as wives and even with beauty it is not a sure thing. Some of the…less pretty students will be first or second concubines. The concubine sessions are lessons for the day “if” the girls become concubines. If such a day were to occur in their future, the girls from East River would be ready.”
At least the explanation made sense but…“This is highly irregular Principal Neo. To spilt the beautiful and non-beautiful students at such a young age is…”
“Oh no!” Principal Neo waved his hands in protest. “All the students have to take the concubine lessons.”
“Even the beautiful girls? They will probably be wives of men; these lessons will be useless for them.”
“I understand what you mean. However, we believe that our job is to prepare our girls for the rest of their life in Songhan society, and if any of them becomes a first or second concubine, no matter how beautiful they are, well maybe this training will help them.”
“Well at least they will be used to the full veil of a second concubine but what does this has to do with your girls having confidence?”
“Ha, this way please.” Principal Neo led me to another part of the building. “This is our third and fifth year students.”
There were 2 groups of girls facing each other. One set of them were dressed normally while the other were wearing a veil that covered the lower part of their face. After what I had just seen, I was no longer surprised to see a group of girls dressed like first concubines and the set of unveiled girls seem to be directing the veiled girls.
“I can see one set of students are veiled and another is not…”
“Yes. The fifth year students are playing the roles of concubines while the third years are playing the roles of wives.”
“I see,” another strange session, “but why not the other way?”
“Take for example a scenario where a wife died in an accident. In such a case, it is not uncommon for the husband to marry a younger, more beautiful woman and place her as the wife, the mistress of the house. In such cases, the older concubine will need to follow the orders of the younger woman.”
“So this…role-play,” it seen as good a word as any, “of the girls being ordered around by someone younger than themselves.”
“It is one of the possibilities of their life and we believe in preparing them for all eventualities.” Principal Neo looked proud that the school had such a program for their girls.
“And this is the reason why your girls are having confidence in their exams?”
“Yes. Maybe our younger girls are having too much of a taste of control over other older girls and it is showing in the results.” The proud look Principal Neo had disappeared immediately. “It could be other reasons but it could also be this. Maybe we need to shut this program down.”
“Maybe…but…” The idea was intriguing; shutting down the sessions may be overkill.
“Principal Neo, why don’t you keep it as it is now?”
“I do not understand.”
Yes he won’t but the thing was I was part of the conservative movement. A social movement that was growing in Songhan, one of the things we believed was that the difference between wives and concubines was too huge. Wives had great power over the concubines of the family and this was something the conservative movement wished to curb. There would always be ranks among the women but in Songhan, wives could literally control the concubine like a slave. To have a man controlling a woman like that was one thing but to have one woman controlling other women like that was something the conservative movement wanted to control.
It was a lesson all women learned from young. Beautiful women become wives while plain women become concubines. Powerful men loved beautiful women and the more beautiful you were, the more power you had. Power the women do not deserve unless you count being born beautiful a right to power. However we had faced strong opposition in the country as most of the older people were set in their ways. Even older concubines thought there was nothing wrong with their lives being controlled by their mistresses. However if we can get the women young, to show them both sides of the equation…
“What your school is teaching now is unusual, almost shocking,” I said to the principal, “but I see your point in having these…concubine sessions. I will like to make a report to the Ministry of Education on your sessions and see if we can improve on it.”
Now it was the principal’s turn to be surprised. “You wish to…”
“Recommend your concubine sessions to the ministry and see if we can improve on it.” I answered. “It is true these sessions could be the reason for the confidence shown by your girls but the reasoning behind them is solid. We should prepare girls for the day they become concubines as no doubt some of them will be.”
“You want to recommend us to the ministry?”
“Who knows?” I smiled as I said, “Maybe these concubine sessions will one day be something we see in all finishing schools in our country.”
The principal smiled and so did I. Hopefully, this was the beginning of something grand.