Connections and articulations of Chinese women

shifting gender roles within Chinese history:

Connections, differentiations, and articulations of Chinese women within the ideology of Confucianism

The common stereotype of the East Asian female in the West is that of a frail flower: the most popular Westernized conceptions which leap to mind are that of the bound feet of a Chinese woman. However, the reality in early Chinese history was far more complex. As in the West, Chinese women often struggled for parity in East Asia with their male counterparts, but many were able to distinguish themselves despite certain societal constraints placed upon their behavior. Some of the venues in which women were allowed to exhibit their intellectual prowess, particularly upper-class women, were quite wide, even though (just as in the West) there were also equally vehement cultural stereotypes which questioned the mental and moral character of women. Although the dominant ideology of Confucianism defined a relatively circumscribed role for women, women were able to reconfigure that ideology to create pockets of resistance and articulate feminist aspirations, even though the existing legal and cultural structures worked to circumvent such ideals.

This paper will suggest that Chinese women were able to create creative ideological methods of resistance to what could be read as anti-woman rhetoric within Confucian ideology about the family. Thus, the roles of women in China cannot be viewed in terms of linear progress but as the product of ever-shifting historical and ideological influences. Even while women might have conceded that the appropriate attitude of a woman was one of wifely deference, women often used this as an example of the need to educate and honor the future mothers of sons.

An excellent example of apparent deference actually concealing strength can be seen in the writings of Ban Zhao (48-116 CE) entitled Admonitions for Women. Despite this title, Zhao was extremely firm in her insistence that the Confucian ideal of mutual obligations between husband and wife must be honored: it was not the woman alone who must perform acts of devotion. To soften her message, Zhao begins her treatise by taking a stance of extreme humility — “this lowly one [meaning herself] is ignorant and by nature unclever” (De Bary 412). However, this should be placed in the context of a Confucian ideal which stressed that all persons outside of the shaping influence of society and moral teaching were potentially troublesome and character was something that had to be learned and cultivated and was not innate. Indeed, Zhao states she is relying upon the instructions of good governesses and instructors when she began to “sweep the broom” as befits a young girl in her new husband’s household (De Bary 412).

Zhao notes that when a baby girl was born on the third day she would be placed beneath the bed (to show her humility); given a spindle to illustrate her primary task in the world of being a wife and mother; and yet her birth would also be announced to the ancestors, signifying the major role women had in preserving connections of the present world to the ancestral world, a vital component of Confucianism (De Bary 412). Women should place their own needs second to others and modestly yield, Zhao agreed. But she made a bold case for the education of women, stating that “only to teach men and not to teach women — is this not ignoring the reciprocal relationship between them” (De Bary 413). To be the ideal wife serving her husband in the hierarchy of the universe required education, not mere blind obedience. “The correct relationship between husband and wife is based upon harmony and intimacy and [conjugal] love is grounded in proper union” (De Bary 414).

It is true that Admonitions for Women call a wife the yin (the feminine, yielding principle) to her husband’s yang (wolf-like strength and masculinity) but in some ways this could be read as subtly subversive, given that yang cannot exist without the counterbalancing principle of yin, and in a yin-yang sign the complementary forces are perfectly equal, perfectly meshed, and there is always a ‘drop’ of yin in yang and vice versa for the harmony of the two opposing principles and thus the harmony of the world to be preserved. Although the forces of yin must be balanced with the forces of yang, too much yang can also create a lack of harmony in the universe. These two principles must not be at war with one another, nor must one surmount the other: rather, they must be in a continual state of balance.

Over and over in Zhao’s prose, the emphasis on teaching and cultivation occurs and reoccurs. This is likely not simply due to the peculiarities of the translation: the importance of the concept of ‘cultivation’ in Confucianism is significant. Although women did not have the same access, regardless of class, to the formal education of men, even in male-directed Confucian literature there was always a strong strain of belief in the fallibility of human nature in the absence of social constraints. The human character was something that had to be shaped and formed by society; it did not come prefabricated as innately ‘good.’ Thus, as men needed social influence to become better human beings, it was not necessarily evidence of a defect within the female character that women needed such influences as well.

Additionally, in China in particular because of the Confucian tradition, the role of women as educators was paramount — a woman who was not educated and virtuous would not be a good teacher of her young male children. Thus, there was a paradoxical nature in the focus upon women as mothers: on one hand, the education of women was not emphasized for the woman’s own sake, and women clearly had a subservient place to males, given that young boys were placed under the tutelage of males for higher-level learning. On the other hand, because women had the grave responsibility of tending to young male children and laying the groundwork for later study, they should not be kept in ignorance. Thus the reproductive capacity of women, which was often cast as evidence that they were more open to engage in sexual follies, was also a source of the justification of the education of women.

This creative response to what could be a purely misogynistic reading of traditional Confucian ethics dominates Zhao’s text. It is as if she says: ‘I will take what you say about women, oh males, and turn it against you.’ If a woman is apt to be licentious, why not teach her? If a young girl is to grow up to be a mother to sons, therefore the future mother of sons must be honored. The reproductive capacity of women was particularly important, given that childlessness in Chinese culture for both the upper and middle-classes was considered a kind of blight.

This stress upon the need to cultivate the nature of the female self as a justification for the education of women can also be seen in the writings of the Empress Xu who wished to carry on the example of her predecessor, the Empress Ma, in Xu’s didactic work entitled Instructions for the Inner Quarters (De Bary 422). Empress Ma was unusual in that she was a lower-class woman who had assumed a position of ultimate authority, engaged in a great degree of self-study once she became Empress, and also was praised for restraining her husband upon numerous occasions when he acted too rashly, which was considered to be antithetical to Confucian ethics.

Interestingly enough, the legendary Empress Ma was not replaced by her husband when she died, in an era where even outright polygamy was common. This is testimony to her greatness as a wife as well as a leader and how she was beloved by men as well as women. The honorable behavior of women such as the Empress Ma, Xu suggested was due to education. “I have often read accounts in the histories, searching for virtuous wives and chaste woman of the past…none of them has succeeded without having some instruction” (De Bary 425). A particularly radical element of Instructions for the Inner Quarters is that Xu explicitly says that she is inspired by a woman, not a man, and that she is carrying on the principles of virtuous womanhood, not merely repeating the words of a man admonishing women.

Xu notes that the pure character is something that demands instruction, thus just as young boys must be instructed, so much young girls. Virtues are being “modest, reserved and quiet, correct and dignified, sincere and honest,” the last four of which would be equally well-found within the cultivated, socially shaped male character (De Bary 425). Perhaps the most radical element of Xu’s text, however, is that she stresses that women themselves must take control of their education, not merely submit to men. It is not assumed that men are so wise that they will always do the right thing by women. Instead, the woman herself has the responsibility of self-cultivation, just like the man in Confucian ethics. “The wife, while at rest, will certainly be correct so as to guard against harm” to being exposed to evil sights, sounds, and talk, and “fulfill her moral character” (De Bary 426). Hard work is essential for both men and women: a life of unreflective, decorative ease is harmful to women just as it is to men and a moral character for a woman enables her to order her household correctly (De Bary 427).

Thus, although Xu seemed to accept the traditional place of woman as caretaker of the home, within their roles women actually had the duties of study and self-scrutiny comparable with the duties of their husbands. Xu’s investiture of the importance of the duties of woman stood in stark contrast to the laws banning women from inheriting property and even from remarrying (by prohibiting offspring of remarriages from taking the prestigious civil service exams) across all of East Asia (De Bary 586). Faithfulness was supposed to last indefinitely for the woman, even after her husband’s demise. However, as noted in the text Sejong Sillok, when males showed disregard for the union between husband and wife that for the wife was to last after death, there was considerable social censure of males who acted carelessly towards their wife’s needs: “If someone loves his concubine and estranges his main wife, his property is generally transferred entirely to the concubine’s house, leaving the main wife poor and destitute and causing mutual resentment” and thus the man was to be punished, noted one official (De Bary 586). This is no doubt partially to the female authorship of Confucian texts counterbalancing the views of males.

Even in female-authored texts specifically emphasizing the ‘instruction’ of wives can be read as subliminally highlighting how men could be bad husbands (given the many missives to women about the need to cope with bad husbands). Song Ruozhao, author of Analects for Women, tells her wifely readers “don’t be like those women who do not correct their husband but also lead them into indecent ways” (De Bary 421). Implied in this statement is that the woman is the educator of the man, a man who can possibly go astray. Education is mutual in the relationship; it is not merely the elder teaching the younger, even though the wife has the socially subordinate position.

Ruozhao’s words “to be a woman, you must first learn to establish yourself as a person,” even have an explicitly feminist ring (De Bary 418). Someone cannot be a bad person who gives little care and attention to herself and a good woman. Even though Ruozhao urges women not to raise her voice and go into the men’s quarters, she simultaneously makes a case for the critical place of women that extends to every sphere of society, well outside the home. Even a well-prepared dinner is essential to ensure that the household runs smoothly. “As a couple, you and your husband share the bitter and the sweet, poverty and riches” (De Bary 421).

If a woman shirks her duties, chaos ensues, including the education of her daughters. “Worthy of derision are those who do not take charge of their responsibility…The sons of such women remain illiterate…The daughters of such women know nothing about ritual decorum (De Bary 421). A woman with ill-behaved children is directly responsible for their misbehavior, thus she must strive to educate herself and be educated to ensure that the next generation does not fall into ruin and folly. Women also have the economic responsibility for the entire household: “if she is diligent, the household thrives, if it is lazy, it declines” (De Bary 421).

Of course, it is possible to argue that one cannot read these texts as ‘feminist’ because virtually all of these women re-interpreting Confucianism still view the role of the woman as home-bound and the fact that men undeniably had more political power in society. Because of inheritance laws, there was a limit to the degree to which a woman could make her will felt in a palpable, legal fashion. But given the defined limits of their roles, the rhetorical artistry to make a claim for the vital place of women and the need for education is striking in the words of Ban Zhao and Empress Xu. Even Song Ruozhao who stresses the separation of the spheres of influence of male and female notes that the household will fall and thus all of society will fall if women do not fulfill their duties. In doing so, all of these women made a case for the significance of the female gender in a male-dominated world. Confucian ideals were primarily responsible for shaping the intellectual landscape of China, but all of these women show that Confucian notions were not as fixed and unchanging as a male-dominated version of history might lead us to believe.

Works Cited

De Bary, William Theodore. Sources of East Asian Tradition: Premodern Asia, Volume 1.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

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