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Throwback To A Woman's Life in Ancient China

Dear UGC111, As most of us might know, a day in a life of a Chinese woman today is no longer different from a day in a life of a woman anywhere else due to the influence of Western culture.

Today, China is one of the world’s fastest-developing countries filled with modern homes, sky-high buildings and rising demands for gender equality between men and women (in rural areas).

Unlike the past, women today are just as valued as their male counterparts. They are no longer confined in their own home; instead, they may now work outside of their home.

However, this could not be said for women in ancient China, way back during the days.

50% of all Chinese movies tell of an aspiring Confucius-spouting martial artist who goes on to defeat thousands of other kungfu experts to claim the title of the ultimate victor. Cue: Ip Man, The Grandmaster, Wing Chun etc.

50% of all these Chinese movies also tell of a delicate and submissive wife who delicately renders supports to her husband’s ambitions. Cue: Every other periodical movie you can find in the cinemas. Most Chinese films paint a picture that perpetuates the old Chinese saying that “men belong in public, women belong at home”. However, the adage has already become passe, where unlike the past, women today are valued as much as their male counterparts. No longer confined in their own homes, women have now infiltrated into the workplace, claiming a foothold in the society.

Women have come a long way from the ancient times, and this change has not been easy. Let us now examine the roles of women in the ancient Chinese civilization. The picture below depicts the development of the Chinese character for the word, “woman”. The first character on the left is a pictographic character that originates from ancient China. Upon closer examination, you will realize that it is an image of a person on her knees, implying a meek and subservient role. This gives us great insight on the role of a woman in ancient China.


Women’s Roles in Confucianism

The Chinese have always been looked up to as the core of the family. The dynasty kings only made sacrifices to patrimonial ancestors, with women rarely found in ancestral or history records.

Kong-Fuzi himself also asserted that each of us has a role and duty to life and we should obey our calling. Rulers had an obligation to be kind-hearted while subjects should be humble and obedient.

The concept of gender and the model of a “home” was a key foundation to Confucianism. His teachings in turn greatly shaped gender roles, keeping women at the bottom of the Confucian hierarchy. He detailed the roles of women as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a daughter-in-law, a mother and a mother-in-law. Such roles were incumbent on the women to follow with the needs and demands of the male counterparts, expected to bear “three obedience and four virtues”. The three obediences outlines that a woman should, throughout her life, “obey her father as a daughter, her husband as a wife and her sons in widowhood”. The four virtues that she should bear are the properties in behavior, speech, demeanor and diligent work.


Fun fact: Did you know women were not given any names back then?

they were called daughter 1, daughter 2, and so on so forth.

In our opinion, this could be due to the fact that the birth of a baby girl might be deemed humiliating in ancient China.


Moreover, meritorious behavior was expected, and women had to serve men (father/husband/son) without a single word of complaint. Additionally, a man is able to marry multiple wives, while a woman is expected to remain faithful to only her husband, with minimal contact with outsiders (only allowed to keep in contact with her relatives). A woman has no rights to charge her husband for infidelity, yet a man is allowed to divorce his wife if she is disobedient towards his family.

Point of interest: no surprises here, did you know that Ancient Chinese women (divorcee/widower) were not allowed to remarry?

According to the practice back then, they would be awarded by the death penalty if they do so.

Such roles may sound utterly absurd now, but this was the way of life for the women back in early China. In fact, Confucius’s follower Mencius perpetuated the gender discrimination further by dictating that the worst of all unfilial acts was the failure to procreate and have descendants.


Did you know?

The family tree of Confucius (the Kongs) details the longest recorded extant pedigree found in the world today. Since the death of Confucius, the family tree has extended to the 83rd generation today. Women’s roles in Chinese Philosophy

The segregation of gender roles was still rampant even centuries after Confucius. It grew to become a foundation in Chinese philosophy, whereby core elements of Chinese cosmogony represented the gender roles. Known as Yin and Yang, it involves the correlative aspects of “dark and light”, “soft and hard”, “female and male”. Women were Yin, while men were Yang. Both the Yin and Yang are part of the natural order of the universe, necessary to maintain balance in the world. While it may seem like it suggests an equality between gender, the Yang (men) actually leads this natural relationship. Should the Yin (women) overpower, both the order at the social and cosmic level will be adversely affected.

Did you know?

Yin and Yang is borne of out the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. The foundation of its philosophy is that we are meant to be in one with nature, and this constant flow of Yin and Yang forms the balance of the Earth.

Women’s roles in the Han dynasty (220 BCE - 220 CE)

The popularization of Confucianism rose, with Confucianism later being adopted in the administrative structure of the Han dynasty. Confucius’ teachings became part of the official education. As you can imagine, the Han Dynasty was one that was intensely patriarchal, with a women’s standing in life dependent on the birth of male offsprings. The law encouraged the authority of the male family heads over the other members in the family. It also enforced monogamy, and men could divorce their wives based on several reasons, which include barrenness, jealousy and even (atrociously) talkativeness. In this period, many literature was produced to dictate how a woman should act to be considered virtuous. This included famous books such as The Biographies of Exemplary Women, as well as Ban Zhao’s Admonitions for Women. Did you know?

The Biographies of Exemplary Women reveals accounts of women resorting to suicide and self-mutilation in order to prove and/or preserve their chastity and ritual orthodoxy. The book is available online at:


These traditions lasted until the qing dynasty, perhaps it might still be practiced in rural areas due to strong religious practices, however in the urban areas women’s roles are equal to that of men. The role of women has evolved over the various dynasties, shaped by philosophies and teachings to reach what it is today. So anyway, just in case if you aren't clear about anything we said up to this point, here is a quick video summary of what my group and i have just elaborated on in 40 seconds!