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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…[continue]
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