Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Women in Traditional China

A group of Beijing women pose in the courtyard of a wealthy Chinese home. (Okinawa Soba/flickr)

A group of Beijing women pose in the courtyard of a wealthy Chinese home. (Okinawa Soba/flickr)

by Patricia Ebrey

In China from very early times, men have been seen as the core of the family. The ancestors to whom a Shang or Zhou dynasty king made sacrifices were his patrilineal ancestors, that is, his ancestors linked exclusively through men (his father’s father, his father’s father’s father, and so on). When women enter the early historical record, it is often because they caused men problems. Some women schemed to advance their own sons when their husband had sons by several women. Women’s loyalties were often in question. In 697 BCE, for instance, the daughter of one of the most powerful ministers in the state of Zheng learned from her husband that the ruler had ordered him to kill her father. After her mother advised her that “All men are potential husbands, but you have only one father,” she told her father of the plot, and he promptly killed her husband. The ruler of Zheng placed the blame on the husband for foolishly confiding in his wife. Taken together, accounts of these sorts present a mixed picture of women and the problems they presented for men in the nobility. The women in their lives were capable of loyalty, courage, and devotion, but also of intrigue, manipulation, and selfishness.

Confucius probably took for granted these sorts of attitudes toward women, common in his society. He greatly esteemed ancestral rites and related family virtues such as filial piety. He hoped that through the practice of ritual everyone, male and female, high and low, old and young, would learn to fulfill the duties of their roles. Women’s roles were primarily kinship roles: daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, and mother-in-law. In all these roles, it was incumbent on women to accord with the wishes and needs of closely-related men: their fathers when young, their husbands when married, their sons when widowed. Confucius’s follower Mencius declared that the worst of unfilial acts was a failure to have descendants (Mencius 4A.26). In later centuries this emphasis on the necessity of sons led many to be disappointed at the birth of a daughter.

In the centuries after Confucius, it became common for writers to discuss gender in terms of yin and yang. Women were yin, men were yang. Yin was soft, yielding, receptive, passive, reflective, and tranquil, whereas yang was hard, active, assertive, and dominating. Day and night, winter and summer, birth and death, indeed all natural processes occur though processes of interaction of yin and yang. Conceptualizing the differences between men and women in terms of yin and yang stresses that these differences are part of the natural order of the universe, not part of the social institutions artificially created by human beings. In yin yang theory the two forces complement each other but not in strictly equal ways. The natural relationship between yin and yang is the reason that men lead and women follow. If yin unnaturally gains the upper hand, order at both the cosmic and social level are endangered.

Maintaining a physical separation between the worlds of men and the worlds of women was viewed as an important first step toward assuring that yin would not dominate yang. The Confucian classic the Book of Rites stressed the value of segregation even within the home; houses should be divided into an inner and an outer section, with the women staying in the inner part. One poem in the Book of Poetry concluded: “Women should not take part in public affairs; they should devote themselves to tending silkworms and weaving.” A similar sentiment was expressed in the Book of Documents in proverbial form: “When the hen announces the dawn, it signals the demise of the family.”

During Han times (202 BCE – 220 CE), both the administrative structure of the centralized state and the success of Confucianism helped shape the Chinese family system and women’s place in it. Han laws supported the authority of family heads over the other members of their families. The family head was generally the senior male, but if a man died before his sons were grown, his widow would serve as family head until they were of age. The law codes of the imperial period enforced monogamy and provided a variety of punishments for bigamy and for promoting a concubine to the status of wife. Men could divorce their wives on any of seven grounds, which included barrenness, jealousy, and talkativeness, but could do so only if there was a family for her to return to. There were no grounds on which a woman could divorce her husband, but divorce by mutual agreement was possible.

Much was written in Han times on the virtues women should cultivate. The Biographies of Exemplary Women told the stories of women from China’s past who had given their husbands good advice, sacrificed themselves when forced to choose between their fathers and husbands, or performed other heroic deeds. It also contained cautionary tales about scheming, jealous, and manipulative women who brought destruction to all around them. Another very influential book was written by Ban Zhao, a well-educated woman from a prominent family. Her Admonitions for Women urged girls to master the seven virtues appropriate to women: humility, resignation, subservience, self-abasement, obedience, cleanliness, and industry.