Who Run the World? GIRLS!

Amos Cheng | Deborah Tan | Nicholas Chow | Vanessa Chan

 

Roles of the Ancient Chinese Woman

Women in Ancient China were subjected to the male-centered ideology of the Chinese family culture. The society was patrilineal1 and the standings of an ancient Chinese woman was so low that she would never be included in her family registry nor inherit any property or titles as the term ‘heir’ was only applicable to males.

  1. Relating to or based on relationship to the father or descent through the male line.

Women in Ancient China were subjected to the male-centered ideology of the Chinese family culture. The society was patrilineal and the standings of an ancient Chinese woman was so low that she would never be included in her family registry nor inherit any property or titles as the term ‘heir’ was only applicable to males. 

They had to adhere to social customs and moral codes found in doctrines such as the Three Obediences and Four virtues and Husband and Guidance. As part of their post-marital duties, women were expected to produce heirs for their husbands as quickly as possible. Failure to do so would invite scorn from others, and she would be encouraged to find a mistress (qie) for him. Not only were these husbands allowed to have as many wives as they liked under the 三妻四妾 (pinyin: Sān qī sì qiè) or “Three Wives Four Concubine” rule, they were also free to divorce their wives at any time on a wide variety of grounds. The wives, on the other hand, were not free to leave or divorce their husbands at any time or she would be out casted by society and remain single for the duration of her life. 

How The Sexism Started

A statue of Confucian By: Rob Web (28 November 2012) Retrieved from: Ancient History Encyclopedia Rights: Creative Commons- Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

A statue of Confucian

By: Rob Web (28 November 2012)
Retrieved from: Ancient History Encyclopedia
Rights: Creative Commons- Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Even though we learnt in class that Confucius had a great role to play in setting the philosophical and cultural context of China, particularly after his death, the Confucianism ideology had actually indirectly played a huge part in causing ancient Chinese women to be discriminated against. Confucianism, in a large part was focused mainly on rebuilding morals and making sure that the building blocks of family and society remain intact. Confucianism greatly emphasized the downward cascading hierarchy of power that was as such:

Ruler Guides Subject

Father Guides Son

Husband Guides Wife

However, his disciples expanded on his theory and built on his concept of Li 1 to enforce a set of behaviors onto women in Ancient China. After the widespread adoption of Confucianism by the Chinese citizens, such views on women became the norm, and anything beyond that was seen as unacceptable.

  1. Li, or the concept of mannerism, structure or ritual was a concept invented by Confucius. Li- Encyclopedia Britannica

In fact, sexual segregation of women, foot-binding and arranged marriages are among the unfair practices that women had to endure under Confucianism teachings (Wang,1999). To really cement the teachings, men began spreading the concept that “The Wife’s Place is in the Home” and it’s safe to say that due to this, formal education for women back then were little to none.

 

Economic Influence

The type of work that a woman does largely depends on her economic status. Women of higher social class could order the servant around to complete tasks such as cooking, washing and cleaning so as to lessen their own workload in the household. However, these women were also responsible for managing the family’s finances, sometimes even helping with the family’s business

On the other hand, women from the lower social class lived with long days of hard work. Besides having to take care of their children, they had to take care of tasks which the wealthier women would task to her servants. On top of that, she would have to work to help the family finances too. However, as women were largely in charge of domestic affairs, they could only have jobs that were close to home which also allowed them to leave abruptly when needed at home.

Women making silk in Ancient China By: New York Public Archives (28 August, 2011) Retrieved from: Wikicommons  Rights: United States Public Domain

Women making silk in Ancient China

By: New York Public Archives (28 August, 2011)
Retrieved from: Wikicommons 
Rights: United States Public Domain

As such, many jobs were off limits for women and they were stuck with more gender appropriate jobs such as textile production . That includes silk making, which we have learnt in class, something men were unwilling to do.

Given that women were producing silk, which was the currency of trade on the Silk Road1, coupled with the lavish lifestyles of the women in the upper class who spent their money on jewelry and makeup, we can really say that women were the backbone of the economy of Ancient China.

  1. Travel China Guide did a good job of summing up the basic facts of the Silk Road

 

Social Influence

Women in ancient China, particularly those from the higher class, brought about new elements to the already rich Chinese culture. To ensure their superior cultivation, these upper class women were subject to the Four Arts 1 as it was the basic requirements of entering the palace.

Within the imperial court, these women would pit their talents against each other in order to vie for the attention of the sole man in the palace - the emperor. Such competition within the palace also allowed for the flourishing of art and culture as these women would constantly practice four arts to catch the emperor’s eye. This really aided in the continuation of such culture within the community.

  1. Four Arts, which entails Qin (chinese instrument guzheng), Qi (chess), Shu (literature) and Hua (visual art).
¼ of art piece “Eighteen Scholars” By: Du Jin (16th c.) Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons Rights: Public Domain

¼ of art piece “Eighteen Scholars”

By: Du Jin (16th c.)
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
Rights: Public Domain

In order for young maidens to have self-confidence their activities should often include the four arts: qin, chess, painting and calligraphy.
— Sketches of Idle Pleasures (Xianqing Ouji) by Li Yu
Yao Niang binding her feet By: Wang Hui (Qing Dynasty) Retrieved from: Wikimedia Commons Rights: Public Domain

Yao Niang binding her feet

By: Wang Hui (Qing Dynasty)
Retrieved from: Wikimedia Commons
Rights: Public Domain

Somewhere around 700 CE, in the Tang Dynasty, women also turned Foot-binding, a unique aspect of Chinese culture. Body image became a huge problem as the unrealistic body expectation of having “lotus feet” really took off. Believing to have its roots in a courthouse where a dancer named Yao Niang (image below) danced for Emperor Li Yu, foot-binding was picked up by wealthy court-ladies who took up the bizarre practice, transforming it into a status symbol for the elite.

Since then, society held the twisted belief that the 3-inch foot was the ideal standard of beauty and achieving such a tiny foot would allow them to marry better. This practice was a torturous procedure that women not only endured, but also self-initiated, to make sure they conformed to the beauty standards that were ambiguously accepted to be the norm, such as the Victorian era ladies and their incredulously slim waistlines. 1

 

Political Influence

  

The Rites of Zhou states that for Emperors, they are entitled to the following women By: Deborah Tan Source: (Wikipedia)

The Rites of Zhou states that for Emperors, they are entitled to the following women


By: Deborah Tan
Source: (Wikipedia)

Women from the noble lineage were expected to be trained to become cultured and well-mannered ladies of the court. However, their education was limited to the arts and they were strictly forbidden to learn about the political or economic on goings of their nation. Legally, the closest a woman could get to politics would be to enter the palace as either a palace maid, or to enter the palace as an Imperial Concubine and slowly climb the ranks into becoming an Imperial Noble Consort.1

This however, did not mean that the women had no place in the political running of the nation. Some women helped their brothers or fathers gain favor with the Emperor, while others had their own ambitions to manipulate the political on goings from behind the scenes. Today, we focus on the Empress Lü Zhi and the first female emperor of China, Wu Zetian2 .

  1. Fun fact: Even if you were an Empress in Ancient China, you might not gain the legal rights to participate in court!
  2. We have summarised the stories of these two great female characters. You can read more about them here and here respectively.

Empress Lü Zhi1 was the consort of emperor Gaozu. Lü Zhi began dabbling in politics in Emperor Gaozu’s late years when he started favoring one of his younger consorts, Concubine Qi. After his attempt to replace Lü Zhi’s son, Lü Zhi rallied the help of many other ministers and wise men to change his mind. Emperor Gaozu, upon seeing the strong support for the crown prince, eventually decided against replacing him. 2 After the death of Emperor Gaozu, Lü Zhi cold-bloodedly had Concubine Qi and her son put to death, which marked the start of her cruel but efficient domination of the political scene for 15 years until her death in 180 BCE.3

  1. Fun fact: Empress Lü Zhi (241 BCE – 180 BCE) would go on to become the first female ruler of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).
  2. By then, Lü Zhi had already gained the respect of many of the ministers and wise men in court.
  3. Source: (Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 55, House of the Marquis of Liu)

Empress Lü (Regent of the Tang Dynasty) By: biubiuqq (October 5, 2009) Retrieved from: Flickr Commons Rights: Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic

Empress Lü (Regent of the Tang Dynasty)

By: biubiuqq (October 5, 2009)
Retrieved from: Flickr Commons
Rights: Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic

Even though Lü Zhi made a commendable effort in being one of the first prominent female character in politics, it is another famous female ruler of China, Wu Zetian, who would eventually dominate the history books.

  

Unlike Lü Zhi, Wu Zetian did not start off in a position of power, but was instead a lowly concubine of Emperor Taizong who eventually made use of her wits and beauty to become the concubine of his son, Li Zhi.1 To top her incredible feat, she managed to struggle up the ranks of the Li Zhi’s harem, eventually making it into the position of Empress. After Li Zhi passed away, Wu Zetian’s presence in the political scene grew as she ruled in the stead of her young son. Eventually, when her son developed a stroke in 690 CE, she officially declared herself the first female emperor of China.

  1. Considering the Chinese’ value for a women’s chastity and filial piety, this was something that is practically unheard of.

These impressive women were great role models who proved that even though the system worked against them, if there is a will, there is a way. Though they might not be remembered fondly, their wit, strength and talent is undeniably what brought them so much significance in history today as the first females who fought for their voices to be heard in the male-centered society of Ancient China. 

 

CONCLUSION

The study of the treatment of women in Ancient China is important for us as a benchmark for measuring the decrease in sexism from then to present date. While the women in Ancient China faced oppression, they did not waver, allowing their legacy to live on to inspire women all around the world to fight for their equal rights. The eventual reassignment of women's responsibilities for them to formally receive education allowed them to make significant political and economical impacts that came to shock the males that suppressed them.

 

 

 


REFERENCES

Chinese American Women, A History of Resilience and Resistance:
https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/chinese/10.html

 

Classroom Lessons Series: Women and Confucianism
http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/lesson3.html

 

Women in Traditional China:
http://asiasociety.org/education/women-traditional-china

 

Foot Binding:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11675327/Chinese-women-with-bound-feet-Photographs-show-the-surprising-truth.html

 

The Role of Women in China:
http://www.fairobserver.com/region/central_south_asia/role-women-china/

 

The Female Analects:
https://goo.gl/unQSDy

 

Lü Zhi:
Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 55, House of the Marquis of Liu.

 

Wu Ze Tian:
http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine6.html

http://www.ancient.eu/Wu_Zetian/

 

Women in Early Imperial China:
https://goo.gl/KGwbd1