Two Movies, Two Perspectives – Emotional Journey of the Comb Sisters

Doing background research about this particular group of women left us unsatisfied.  We wanted to get past the background and statistical facts about them.  We want to gain an insight and understanding of them emotionally.  This will allow us to better understand the decisions made by those women (as a result of their emotional experiences and processes), and their impact and influence towards the modern day Chinese culture.  We hope through our analysis, we may gain inspirations towards our artifact’s interaction and aesthetics.

Some of the questions we listed out are as follows:

  1. Why did they pursue this identity?
  2. How did they devote their soul and body to a life of “isolation” from the society.
  3. Why were these women significant?
  4. Why are they called “comb sisters”?  What is the significance behind “combing” ?

We spent a good deal of time watching and doing an analysis on two different movies.  Each of these movies provided a different perspective in this identity as a “comb sister” as they followed individual women and their journey and experiences.

The two videos we watched are:

  1. Intimates /自梳  –  Movie (1997).
  2. Living Without Men /自梳  – Documentary (2010).


More Information: [Link 1] [Link 2]

This movie provides a highly emotional experience and journey of a comb sister.  The movie presented a good insight towards the traditions behind the life as a comb sister.  Some of the noteworthy observations include:

1. Buying a Marriage.  I was believed that women that die without marrying and a virgin will become wandering souls/ghosts.  This is equivalent to the western perception of “going to Hell”.  To avoid this, comb sisters will buy themselves a marriage with a family.  Essentially, they will become officially the wife and a part of that family without the physical union with the husband.  They do not live with the family but back in the community of the comb sisters.  However, they are required to attend family functions and occasions whenever needed.  When they die, they are able to be buried with their “family” instead of a no-name grave.

2. Living in a community of comb sisters. 

3. The ceremony of the becoming a comb sister. (check out blog post on this, quite extensive to fit everything in here)


[Link 2]

This 26 minute documentary introduces three women who chose the path of celibacy in their early twenties.  They share their stories and journeys living the lives as comb sisters.

This particular documentary provided a different, a more positive outlook and attitude towards one’s decision to become a comb sister.  The family of those women were involved (unlike the movie Intimates).  The perception towards this identity was accepted by their family and their community.

The documentary draws upon a critical question ” To marry by match-making or to live alone.   This can be expanded to a modern day values of female power and strength, and gender equality.  It also further addresses the statements: Women are able to be successful and self sufficient without men.  Life can be just as fulfilling without having children and marriage.

Furthermore, there were two additional cultural observations made from the interviews of these women.

1. Family values, traditions, structure, and hierarchy are highly respected.  The oldest must marry before the younger sibling, regardless of gender.  For some of the women, there were family pressure and ultimatums as the younger sibling wanted to get married.

2. One’s reputation and name is more important than one’s status.  The women explained that some women went into this identity for survival and protection due to the Japanese Invasion.  For the women, their reputation and their virginity were their value.  Unless they were married, loosing their virginity is a disgrace.

From the two videos, we noticed the heavy use of cultural metaphors and idioms/phrases used in everyday context and special occasions in Chinese culture.