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Confucianism is the core value of Chinese society and profoundly influenced many other Asian countries like Japan and Korea. However, it also has a reputation for its repressive and degrading attitude toward women and for its history of the women-oppressive practice. The Confucianism we are discussing here is mainly the school of thought by Confucius, Mencius, and Xun Zi and includes its later development in another dynasty. Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of gender equality, which is getting more awareness along with the #MeToo movement. These two sets of concepts seem to contradict other. Therefore, this paper aims to study how Confucianism affected the status and power of women and women’s status in ancient China.
Liji is one from the Four books. It has put together a comprehensive account of all the rules of propriety (li) that were codified during the Warring States and the early Han dynasty. Its contents range from government regulations to detailed instructions on how to manage a household or even how to behave. Most of these rules were formulated by the early disciples of Confucius and thus are expressed and illustrated in the form of anecdotes about Confucius and his disciples. Liji contains much legislation on the roles and virtues of women. It is believed that this text contains the earliest formulation of the Confucian code for women, what later become the three obediences and four virtues.
A woman should be obedient to her father before marriage, the husband after marriage, and the son in the case of widows. Whereas, the four virtues instruct women in proper etiquette that displays the excellence of women’s virtue, women’s speech, women’s appearance, and women’s work. These four virtues became the important core of the teachings for women throughout Chinese history. Its idea that “ men are superior and women are inferior” and that “ the absence of talent in a woman is a virtue” had held women back and affected the morale of patriarchal society for a long time.
According to Li Yun, faithfulness is especially the virtue of a wife. Once married to her husband, her feeling of duty to him for all her life should not be changed, even when the husband dies, she will not marry again. Other than that, the husband and wife built the mansion and its apartments, distinguishing between the exterior and interior parts. The men occupied the exterior; the women the interior. In the patriarchal society in ancient China, women’s had power only at home and their power is not nearly comparable to men’s power in the society.
There is a controversial passage in the Analects: “ Only nüzi and petty people are hard to rear. If you are close to them, they behave inappropriately; If you keep a distance from them, they become resentful. Although some argue that the explanation about nüzi could have be maids, and young children but not women in general, it is also a fact that the term nüzi has been used to refer to women. In this case, even though Confucius’s intention in that passage is unclear. However, this passage has been used in to degrade women in later days. The influence of this patriarchal moral has still affected women in modern society. Women are defaulted to be responsible in taking care of the children and house chores, while men will be the breadwinner of the family.
The suppression on women had improved when the intellectuals were affected by Western Liberalism. Influenced directly or indirectly by Western feminists, the Chinese reformers decried the deleterious effects of Confucianism on women. They supposed that Confucianism sacrificed individuals for the sake of families and fell particularly hard on women. According to the founder of the influential vernacular Chinese periodical New Youth, Chen Duxiu, women would not be able to take their proper place in society as long as they were bound by Confucian teachings such as “ To be a woman is to submit”, “ Never disobey or be lazy in carrying out the orders of parents or parents-in-law.”
Notably, Confucius and Mencius were not as degrading to women as later ones such as Song Ming neo-Confucians. The women-oppressiveness of Confucianism may be largely an add-on by later Confucians to the core doctrines outlined by Confucius and Mencius. Degrading attitudes toward women became extreme during the period of Song-Ming neo-Confucianism.
During the Song dynasty, commoner widows are allowed to remarry after completing three years of mourning for their husbands. According to neo-Confucian Chen Yi, it is a small matter to starve to death, but a large matter to lose integrity, implying that widows getting remarried are immoral, while it is all right for widowers to remarry. However, starting from the Yuan dynasty forward, the widows of officials were prohibited from ever remarrying.
During the Ming precedents, imperial chastity was greatly expanded over. For women who have extramarital affairs, the betrayed husband will be authorized to sell to other families but not to her lover. Authorized wife-selling seems to have been based on the logic that an unchaste wife might be treated legitimately as a commodity, like a slave or a prostitute. For the case of adultery, the code specifies that a woman who is convicted of adultery should be “ sold in marriage”, meaning that she will be given a second chance in starting a new family. However, the magistrates will accept if those women are sold as slaves. A similar logic informed a Yuan law that permitted a “ wife of commoner household who has been discarded by her husband because she committed illicit sexual intercourse” to become a prostitute which results in relinquishment of her commoner status and the mandatory chastity that went with it. Leaving aside moral ethics, women ’s sexual autonomy and even personal liberty are completely deprived in Ming and Yuan dynasties. Being traded like a commodity once convicted of adultery is proof that women’s status is inferior to men and their rights are violated as the males could have several concubines and be free to commit extramarital sex. The ancient society had imposed high expectations and standards on women and had double standards towards similar affairs of men and women.
Qing dynasty had modified rape law in order to suppress women more effectively; that it allowed the high arts of the courtesans to fall into decay; and that it largely succeeded in supplanting “ a world of robust popular practicality and sensuality” with a state religion of female chastity. Commoner and elite women were expected to remain absolutely chaste, and sexual intercourse between a commoner woman and a man, not her husband was always considered a serious offense. People of mean status were not entitled to conform to this standard. However, female slaves and bondservants married or not were sexually available to their masters which is a fact explicitly recognized by law. During the Qianlong reign, the sexual use of servile women by their masters was curtailed as the law implied that if masters wanted to sleep with their female slaves, they should promote them to legitimate concubine status. It is clear that the rights and freedom of women had improved through times but still the power women had, even on her personal freedom and sexual rights was still incomparable to men.
Foot-binding is performed on girls about six to eight years old. The notorious practice of women’s foot-binding was also institutionalized during Song and lasted till the early twentieth century. Foot-binding was a feminine mystique designed to please men. The practice spread from the imperial palace to court circles, to the larger upper classes, and then to the middle and lower classes. Eventually, the women from higher social status have smaller feet. It prevailed in the whole empire among the Chinese, the disgraceful exceptions only among the lowest classes, wherever woman’s work was needed in the field or workshop. It is seen as a sign of “gentility”. Thus, even poor families were willing to struggle to raise a daughter with small feet out of the intention to have a proper marriage. It controls sexual access to females and ensures female chastity and fidelity due to the physical barrier. It also made it harder for the barbarian raiders to steal the palace women because they would have had to carry rather than drive.
Pain experienced in binding and oozing sores, bandages stiff with dried pus and blood, and sloughed-off gobs of flesh had caused severe traumas which last for months and even years. In the struggle with her mother over the painful, bloody, and terrifying labor of making the brute nature of her feet materialize into an object of beauty, mystery, and discipline, the daughter formed a new self-consciousness based outwardly on a sense of dependency and attachment to a male-dominated world and inwardly on an ability to exercise some control over her own destiny and that of the persons to whom she was attached. Anti-foot binding is one of the earliest movements of Chinese feminism and free women which were once confined to their homes.
Marriage was not a personal matter but the fulfillment of one’s duty in preserving the family line. Polygamy is a prominent component of imperial China’s marriage. Standard marriage was between one man and woman of roughly the same social status who ideally last for a lifetime; polygamy was built on top of that by adding concubines. Women have no choice but to submit to the order of polygamy. However, it was mainly available to elite and wealthy men, who were a small proportion of the Chinese population. The legal wife became a member of her husband’s clan and worshipped his ancestors. The secondary wife was of distinctly lower status than the legal wife. No marriage ceremony was necessary, the marriage being consummated in her residence in her husband’s household.
Despite Confucian rhetoric that emphasized the patrilineal male line and succession to ancestral sacrifices, from the earliest times on parents regularly transmitted a portion of their property to their daughters. Women enjoyed strong customary rights to dowry, which for the elite usually included land, and could sometimes inherit considerable wealth over and above dowry. Inheritance rights of women were strengthened and codified into law in the Song, even as the state limited the transmission of property in general.
Within marriage, women maintained separate ownership of their personal assets, including land and other property purchased after their marriage. Song law especially protected women in joint family households; but even after family division, when husband and wife set up an independent family unit, the wife’s property was clearly demarcated from that of her husband.
This gave Song women considerable economic independence and the freedom to remarry with their personal property at any time in their life in case of widowhood or divorce. Neo-Confucians opposed both inheritances by women and the possession of personal property within marriage. They praised wives for donating their personal wealth to their husband’s family, and Neo-Confucian judges in the late Song tried consciously to change laws and customs so that women would no longer take property out of their marriages. In the Yuan dynasty, these efforts succeeded and the law was changed, forcing widows to leave their property behind if they remarried. While Neo-Confucians opposed women’s rights to private property, they nevertheless granted wives a major role in managing the financial resources of the household. Changes in women’s property rights at the end of the Song were part of their social vision, which called for widow chastity and a strong female head of household.
In the context of the patriarchal system running through the entire patriarchal society, the inequality of the social position between men and women was doomed. Through various feudal obligations, men form an inseparable dependency relationship with the entire state institution. Family obligations are only part of various social activities, and a patriarchal society deprives women of all rights associated with society, confining them to the only manifestation at home. In contrast to the stable and strong relationship between women and their parents and children, husbands will not become persistent and dedicated because of their marriage. Therefore, women will have to face the situation of being left at any time, which directly affects their happiness in life. In this social context, the characteristics of catering to men, convergence, and regularity in women’s clothing are actually out of helplessness, and the related ideas and concepts developed in different periods in ancient times also restricted women’s pursuit of personality and self-expression right. Under those layers of clothing, was actually the ideal image and personality of a Chinese female. They should be petite and slender, with sloping shoulders and a restrained chest, making herself pleasantly unobtrusive, one of the most desirable qualities in a woman. The weakening of the basic features of women’s clothing has shown the main idea of ‘destroying people’s desire’ in neo-Confucianism.
The idea of dressing and clothing changed drastically in the Republic era when women were influenced by Western cultures and started to move away from the traditional gender roles ascribed to them in the past. Qipao, which also known as Cheongsam, emerged from men’s garment changpao, have become a cultural symbol for Chinese women both domestically and abroad at that period. Antonia Finnane attributes the rise in the popularity of qipao as the symbol of modern Nationalist Chinese women to the influence of Soong Ching Ling, the wife of Sun Yat-sen. Qipao was said to be a modification of the changpao—the dress of elite and educated men in China. According to Soong, women adopted the changpao style in much the same way as women in the west adopted pants as a way to express their modernity and independence. It became a representation of liberation due to the many ways in which women used the garment to express their political and social ideologies.
In conclusion, it has no doubt that Confucianism has oppressed women and they do not agree as to what extent women as a whole. Therefore, Confucianism has to accommodate to all the changes that have occurred in the family system as well as ideas about the equality of males and females introduced by feminism. This could help to remain its influential and prominent status in the Chinese and other Asia societies. However, I agree that Confucianism does not have to take all responsibility to the oppression imposed on women. Moreover, women’s rights in politics, society, as well as economics have improved significantly and feminist movements have made monumental strides.
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