Backward and in high heels

My friend Mary Ellen Foley – who blogs at M E Foley’s Anglo-American Experience Blog – shared a story with me.

So I went to a Tai Chi class today, taught by an Englishwoman who has studied Tai Chi for years, including various stints in China (one as long as 6 months), and she told some stories, including the one about how she went over there to study with a particular master and found that he didn’t like her, didn’t like women, probably didn’t like foreigners — he clearly could teach her a lot of stuff, but she wasn’t welcome and he made sure she knew it.  But she was determined to win him over, so one day she came early, picked up a bamboo broom (bundle of bamboo sticks tied together with the leaves left on at one end of the stalks), and started to sweep the leaves from the courtyard where they were going to be practicing.  The master came up, clearly unhappy with this, said something in Chinese that she didn’t understand, and took away the broom.  Hmmm.  Then here he came with a different broom, with a very short handle, and indicated that she should sweep the courtyard with that, which was a lot harder, because you had to bend over so far to do the work, but she did it.

When the translator showed up, he told her that the problem was that the long-handled broom was only for men; the short-handled one was a woman’s broom.



  1. Rob says

    I’ve often looked at footage of people (women) using those really short brooms and wondered why they didn’t put a longer handle on it. Never occurred to me that they wanted the task to be difficult and unpleasant specifically for women. That is really fucked up.

  2. says

    This worries me.
    Chinese cultural attitudes toward women are as bad as in most places on earth, if not worse.
    It makes me uneasy for the young women and girls there now. As the gender imbalance increases, somehow I doubt that scarcity of women will mean an increase in status and safety and freedom. 🙁

  3. cactusren says

    Yup, China is quite the “chivalrous” place. I do field research there–the first time I showed up in camp, several men came over to help me set up my tent. Okay–setting up a tent is easier with at least two people, and I assumed they were helping all the newcomers. It was only after we finished with my tent that I realized my male colleagues were all setting up their tents themselves. I went around helping them, while the Chinese men returned to the central part of camp, bewildered why a woman would swing a hammer and pound tent stakes into the ground. While there never seemed to be any hostility towards me, there always seemed to be a sense of bemusement, like they weren’t quite sure what to think about my being there.

  4. rnilsson says

    And this Master Man was there to teach her something about philosophy, martial arts* and life? Almost reminds me of a couple of other Philosophical Master Men’s attitudes lately, though I can’t quite put my finger on them. Blackstagger? Longbroom?
    My staff is too short to reach their heights — yes, that must be it.
    * ALMOST wrote marital there! Whew, that was close.

  5. Pieter B, FCD says

    My first and best Tai Chi teacher, Ruth Naiman, learned the art from her roommate at Bryn Mawr, and after graduation went to China to study further. She did not return to the US until the master teacher told her she was ready to teach. I studied with her in the mid-’70’s, and she was in her 60s. That would mean she was there in the 1930s. I wonder what it was like for her then.

  6. says

    NOt only does a short handle mean horrible back-pain, it also means that the butt is up in the air and whatever you wear on your chest is obeying gravity, allowing for some “nice insights”.
    Honestly, I don’t understand this “winning over” thing. You’ll never convince them that women are actually OK. The “best” you can do is convince them that you’re “not like one of them”.
    I understand putting up with shit because you have no choice/need what they can give you, but this pleasing thingy is an opressor’s game.

  7. stewart henderson says

    Oooh, I really didn’t like reading that. But these things have to be faced.

  8. says

    Blimey – little did the woman know that the broom with the short handle that she had to use was a more opportunistic way for the master to let her know she was inferior. A woman.

    I knew somebody (now deceased) who spent 45 years in Japan. He told me that most foreigners were not even accepted after 300 years. Not even Koreans, their nearest neighbours.

    The long and short handled broom puts me in mind of the pinkification and ‘reduced in size’ new ePad Femme tablet on the market. It comes pre-loaded with apps concerning yoga, grocery shopping, and cooking. The slogan: “Thank the heavens, ladies may never trouble their pretty heads with such difficulties as finding and downloading their own apps ever again.”

  9. Kes says

    I spent some time in a Central Asian country where short, braided brooms were the norm for household cleaning. Women, naturally, did most of the cleaning-related household tasks, so I guess those shorter brooms could have been considered “women’s brooms”, but plenty of male students had to use them to clean class-rooms and school-yards. On days when all the city’s students were released from classes to clean up the streets (once a quarter), they did produce longer brooms with twigs for the sidewalks that the male students usually operated. But for the most part, short brooms were the only ones available, so everyone swept with them. Never could understand why they couldn’t think to attach long wooden handles to them. They used long-handles mops, after all. That was just the way it was done.

  10. left0ver1under says

    I live in Taiwan, and can vouch that all the brooms where I work have short handles, though there are long handled ones in the stores.

    I’ll have to ask about this tomorrow, no one has ever said any such thing to me, though it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true.

  11. Scote says

    That is messed up. Very much so. I didn’t know they had “man brooms” and “woman brooms” in china. It is curious and rather sad and offensive that hard to use brooms could remain the norm for woman and that only men could have “advanced” technology like long handled brooms.

    As to Tai Chi, what does one learn from a master? Tai Chi, from what little I know of it, based on martial moves but not really used as a martial art, more of a meditative slow exercise using arbitrary forms and motion. So what does a “master” know, and how is it objectively masterful?

  12. says

    It’s quite like footbinding, come to think of it. Just another way to hobble the woman. If she has to spend a lot of time sweeping, it’s a way to cripple her, literally.

  13. says


    Not even Koreans, their nearest neighbours.

    Japan and Korea spent a whole lot of time at war with each other. They both still remember that.

  14. Pieter B, FCD says

    @scote, all I know is that Ruth was far and away the best teacher I have ever had. She could face you and perform a mirror image of what you were doing, for example. Think about that for a bit; that’s not just knowing the moves, that’s grokking it. I don’t know if there’s any quantitative benefit to the precision with which she taught each move, but no teacher I have studied with since has been anywhere close to her skill level.

    The short-handled broom reminds me of the short-handled hoe that was finally outlawed by California-OSHA. Cesar Chavez had a permanent back problem because of it, as did many farm workers. It was claimed by the farm owners that it was a more precise tool than the long-handled hoe, and increased yield by avoiding damage to the crop plants. It also had the un-cited benefit of the foreman being able to look at a field full of workers and tell who was slacking.

  15. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Chinese society has many sexist traditions, but broom apartheid isn’t one of them.

    In rural parts of China most people are still very poor. A broom with a long handle costs a bit extra and would not be willingly shared with strangers. Although the translator may have translated literally what the guy said, his intent was probably more along the lines that he did not want any clumsy 鬼婆 fooling about and damaging his fancy new Nimbus 2000.

    His actions are still sexist, and he would be much less likely to confront a man in such a rude way. But he was not reciting from the ancient and revered Confucian Analects of the Broom. He was just saying the Chinese equivalent of “Hey you kids get off my lawn.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *