China has held within its territorial lines three ways of thinking that aided the Chinese in creating a way of life and culture. The three ways of thinking include: Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. These three philosophies and/or religion promoted peace, balance, hard work, and most importantly, how to lead a good life. Although they promoted positive aspects of society, Confucianism was a way of thinking that held women at a much lower status than men.
Women were at the base of the Confucian pyramid. Honorable behavior consisted of uncomplaining obedience. Men were allowed multiple wives and concubines, while women could only be around close relatives, husbands, masters, or palace eunuchs. A quote from Confucianism demonstrates how women were expected to be: "To do wrong is unbecoming to a wife, and to do good is also unbecoming to a wife. A woman is only to be obedient to what is proper."
Leaders like Mao Zedong of China saw the rampant inequality between men and women and used his writings as an attempts at working toward gender equality. Mao Zedong utilized Communism to fight for gender equality by enabling women to join the workforce and earn their independence from men. (Thesis) And although his actions did not fully realize gender equality, it inspired films like "To Live" directed by Zhang Yimou and books like China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom to illustrate China and its long-standing issue of gender inequality.
Although Confucianism played and still plays a major role in China's society, two other ways of thinking became prominent. Taoism is a form of philosophy first constructed by Laozi (Lao-tzu). In his wanderings toward Tibet, he found happiness in a simple life near nature. "Live a simple life, be free, be yourself, and be close to nature. Do these things and you will be happy." from the book titled: Tao Te Ching, the Writing of God's Way for a Good Life.
Through his teaching people learned of the concept of Yin Yang theory, and the feminine/masculine qualities related to each respectively such as Yin being dark and Yang being light. Through Taoism, the people of China formed feminine and masculine constructs and a desire to create virtue befitting their contentment. Mao Zedong was considered by some a Taoist more so than a Buddhist or follower of Confucianism. With Taoism, there exists a strong political element which advocates for equality.
Unlike Taoism, Buddhism was and is generally viewed as a religion for men's attainment of enlightenment not woman's such as Buddha's stricter regulations on his female followers. One of the most well-known religions in China, Buddhism, came from the life and teachings of Siddhartha, a prince who wandered the land in search of enlightenment. The core of his teaching reflect Four Noble Truths: life is suffering, all suffering is caused by ignorance, suffering can be by overcoming ignorance and attachment, and the path of suppression of suffering is the Noble Eightfold path. Buddhism in China has lasted for more than two millennia and shaped Chinese thought and action from their aesthetics, to politics, literature, philosophy and medicine.
Confucianism although considered a religion is a social code of behavior or way of behaving that emphasized honoring ancestors, mercy, social order, and fulfillment of responsibilities. As with Buddhism, Confucianism became a major system of thought in China and influenced the Chinese attitude toward life by setting the patterns of living standards, social value, and providing the background for Chinese political theories and institutions. Women were regarded through Confucianism as the ones who must obey and follow men. In Confucianism, the idea of equality is based on five relationships: sovereign to subjects, father to son, husband to wife, older brother to younger brother, and friend to friend.
In the husband to wife relationship, for example, women are the inferior. This relationship establishes dependency on men. To further elaborate, in Confucianism it is considered heroic for widows to remain chaste. Because women needed men to survive financially, widows who followed Confucianism remained impoverished after the deaths of their husbands. Although systematic discrimination against women in Confucian' philosophy doesn't truly exist, it is heavily used as a means to control women and prevent them from gaining independence and power. For years the social code of Confucianism led China and its beliefs.
Mao was born in 1893, into a chaotic China. The fading Qin dynasty could not sustain the economy nor the people. There was civil unrest and much of China's revenues had gone to foreign powers. It was during these turbulent times that Mao's idea of country and people developed. He believed change could start through the youth of the country. This change included an attempt to restructure the rules that apply to women.
In Mao Zedong: A Life, Jonathan Spence shows a piece written by Mao Zedong himself on Miss Chao's (Zhao's) suicide. In it, Zedong examines the reasons behind her suicide: Chinese society, the Chao family of Nanyang Street in Changsha, and the Wu family of Kantzuyuan Street in Changsha, and the family of the husband she greatly opposed in marrying. Spence goes on to write how Mao used this event to formulate the ideas he gained from Yang Changji, and other writers for New Youth, concerning the need to abolish old marriage customs, matchmakers who take advantage of the process, and inaugurate a period of freedom of choice as well as financial opportunities for women in the new China. His desire to see change in China amidst harsh repression by the likes of general Zhang, began a desire in the people of China to change as well.
"To Live" a film by Zhang Yimou illustrates that change as it recounts a story set in 1940's China. The character of Xu Fugui goes through life in a Communist China and learns to exist in poverty. He once rich faced hardships as many of his relatives die around him. Although not really mentioned in the film, the book elaborates on why Fugui's family became impoverished from his father's death.
His mother, following the ways of Confucianism, elected to not re-marry and remain chaste. Back to the film, his new life of struggle along with the Mao's form of leadership, generated many unsettling events in his life like the burning of his puppets during the Cultural Revolution. Although Fugui was shown to support Mao Zedong, it was a glimpse of how China existed in that time period and how difficult it was for some to accept Communist rule. It also highlighted people's sentiments towards Mao Zedong.
Mao Zedong as mentioned before, was inspired by his contemporaries like Ding Ling. Ding Ling, the most admired female writer of her time, was a voice who opposed sexist attitudes and was consequently suppressed for it. She influenced many women to fight for equality and was one of the main supporters for the Chinese Communist Party. She like others in her time believed through Communism the women of China could begin the pursuit for equality.
During Zedong's lifetime, China witnessed long revolutionary years that promoted and negated new roles for women. The Communists, like Mao, turned away from what they saw as bourgeois feminist reforms and focused on changing the socio economic conditions they viewed as the source of female oppression. They felt that once gender difference was abolished, women could spark change in society. Mao Zedong coined the phrase "Women Hold Up Half the Sky," and started key events that led to a campaign to get women to leave their home to work.
Working, enabling women to earn money, was what Mao believed would mobilize even the female peasant to confront their male oppressors and seize independence. The Marriage Law of 1950, which granted young people the right to elect their own marriage partners, and women to start the process of divorce and inherit property was a significant step forward in gender equality. It was also a rebellion against Confucianism thinking in that married couples bowed before an image of Mao instead of the husband's parents. It was seen as an important mechanism of disrupting gender inequality by taking the power away from the elders and giving it to the women.
Still, as time continued, female-specific concerns were continuously ignored, especially during the Cultural Revolution when gender equality was assumed and class war became the main focus. As Wasserstrom points out in his book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, the revolutionary actions to remake gender and family relations although had some successes, such as women's right to vote after the 1911 revolution, Confucianism again took the forefront of societal thinking as Chiang Kai-shek came into power. Women were expected to feminize their appearance, become concubines, and stay at home to do "women's work." It was and still is a constant struggle.
In conclusion, China is shaped through thousands of years of philosophy and religion that promoted a patriarchal structure and society. Confucianism being the main oppressive force behind…