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Gender Roles in Asian Culture: Their Reflection in Literature

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When we read literature, we see many different aspects and features of human life. Some of these are more present than others. As long as people have existed on the planet, they have always had defined roles. From the neanderthals to the homo sapiens, humans have always had separated roles, that have defined the society in question. When we read through writings from a wide span of time and cultures it betrays the undertone of implicit gender bias and stereotypes that negatively affect the lives of people all over the world. This is an ongoing fight to this day. When people disregard traditional gender roles, they can grow to live their fullest and freest life.

Gender stereotypes in Asia are often reflected in literature from the period. The feminine and masculine roles are clear cut in this period of history and we see that quiet undertone in many of that Asian era’s finest writings. One of the most definitive examples is seen in the Man’yōsho collection of poems from 759 AD.:

“Maiden, picking herbs on this hillside

I would ask you: Where is your home?… It is I who rule so wide and far.

I myself, as your lord, will tell you

Of my home, and my name.’

We find that in the Man’yōsho excerpt the undertone of a male-dominated society. Even though this poem has been through many translations, the singular voice of oppression is still present. From the poem, we see the unspoken voice of male dominance “I myself, as you lord, will tell you”. He might not be saying these things out loud, but they are his unconscious motives, his mindset. However, we do not only see the undertone in poems. Other writings from women-and men let us see the way their society conformed to traditional gender roles, both in quiet and loud ways. “When I make myself imagine what it is like to be one of those women who live at home, faithfully serving their husbands – women have not a single exciting prospect in life yet who believe that they are perfectly happy.” (Morris 43) As we look at these different types of writings, from different cultures and perspectives, the patriarchy is still present in these depictions of life from that time, and how women moved forward from it.

Nonetheless, when we look at anything prevailing in a culture, of any time, there is always this pushback, a counter-culture. We’ve seen this reaction in many different times, from the ancient Greeks to the present. However, we now look at the time encompassed by those two periods. In Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” (1002), her personal diary, we see her own private opinions on who she is and her role in society. We can compare “The Pillow Book” to another entry, the Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto (1988). The two comparisons of writing from different times, but the same culture, reveals the evolution of gender roles as well as societal change. From this comparison we can see the growth and widening of a society’s mindset, even one that is relatively closed off from western influences. “Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking.” From Sei Shonagon, we see that in her society, she has the choice of who she loves. She has a choice of a partner, a spouse. These free choices and changes that women make are seen and expanded upon in the Kitchen. “ ‘Mikage’, he said, ‘were you a little bit intimidated by my mother?’… ‘Guess what else- she’s a man.” There is quite a bit to unpack in this excerpt. The fact that someone was courageous, brave enough to transition in an extremely conservative society tells us a lot about the inner strength of people to be themselves and who they truly are. When they are brave enough to live outside the norms, they can live their fullest and freest lives, true to who they are.

It is possible for people to choose to be who they want to be and live their lives the way they want to. Gender roles are changing. Somewhere, someone has stood up for themselves. This light of literature provides us a lamp to guide the steps of tomorrow, where a brighter future awaits us all. These writings are like the stepping stones of equality, leading us to a more open world for all.

Works Cited

  • Miller, David Y. Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: a Guide for Teaching. Routledge, 2016.
  • Shōnagon Sei, and Ivan Morris. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • Yoshimoto, Banana, and Megan Backus. Kitchen. Grove Press, 2006.        

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