Vietnam 100 years ago: chief wives of the mandarins

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The chief wives of the mandarins do no manual labour, as that would be considered below their dignity. They occasionally make cakes or sweets for amusement, but the daily duties of the household, such as the preparation of meals, sewing and cleaning, are all left to the other women of the harem.

They never weave or embroider, in fact, how could they possibly do it ? for their nails are allowed to grow to ten or fifteen centimetres in length! They spend a good deal of time in music and singing.

It is rather surprising to find that among the Annamese women, who are naturally such good and healthy mothers, those of the richer classes never nurse their own babies, but allow them to be reared by a paid wet-nurse. A mandarin told me that only one in a thousand nursed her own baby.

The flowers are arranged by the mistress of the house, who is also responsible for the dwarf trees and miniature artificial gardens. Another of her principal duties is to fill and arrange the box of betel-nuts.

Much time is also devoted to her toilet, and there seems no end to all its details ; her ablutions and all sorts of massage, her lips and eyebrows to paint, her nails to polish, different costumes to try on, her head-dress to change, the different perfumed pomades to choose for her hands, and last but not least, the smiles to practise in the glass. She smokes numbers of tiny thin cigarettes.

The wife of a mandarin is by no means a recluse, and she often pays visits to the wives of other mandarins. But her principal pastime is cards, and it is no exaggeration to say that more than half her life is spent in games.

Read more:
Vietnam 100 years ago: table manners
Vietnam 100 years ago: chewing the betel-nut
Vietnam 100 years ago: how to become a mandarin
Vietnam 100 years ago: religion and superstitions
Vietnam 100 years ago: worshiping ancestors

Vietnam 100 years ago: practice of polygamy
Vietnam 100 years ago: chief wives of the mandarins
Vietnam 100 years ago: numerous wives of the Emperor
Vietnam 100 years ago: beauty standards
Vietnam 100 years ago: emperor and aristocracy

Text: Gabrielle Vassal
On & off duty in Annam, London 1910
Photo: old photo from internet

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