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.
- 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 .
- 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). ↩
- By then, Lü Zhi had already gained the respect of many of the ministers and wise men in court. ↩
- Source: (Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 55, House of the Marquis of Liu) ↩
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.
- 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.
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.
Chinese American Women, A History of Resilience and Resistance:
Classroom Lessons Series: Women and Confucianism
Women in Traditional China:
The Role of Women in China:
The Female Analects:
Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 55, House of the Marquis of Liu.
Wu Ze Tian:
Women in Early Imperial China: