Women in Traditional China

by Patricia Ebrey

In China from very early times, men have been seen as the core of the family. The ancestors to whom a Shang or Zhou dynasty king made sacrifices were his patrilineal ancestors, that is, his ancestors linked exclusively through men (his father’s father, his father’s father’s father, and so on). When women enter the early historical record, it is often because they caused men problems. Some women schemed to advance their own sons when their husband had sons by several women. Women’s loyalties were often in question. In 697 BCE, for instance, the daughter of one of the most powerful ministers in the state of Zheng learned from her husband that the ruler had ordered him to kill her father. After her mother advised her that “All men are potential husbands, but you have only one father,” she told her father of the plot, and he promptly killed her husband. The ruler of Zheng placed the blame on the husband for foolishly confiding in his wife. Taken together, accounts of these sorts present a mixed picture of women and the problems they presented for men in the nobility. The women in their lives were capable of loyalty, courage, and devotion, but also of intrigue, manipulation, and selfishness.

Confucius probably took for granted these sorts of attitudes toward women, common in his society. He greatly esteemed ancestral rites and related family virtues such as filial piety. He hoped that through the practice of ritual everyone, male and female, high and low, old and young, would learn to fulfill the duties of their roles. Women’s roles were primarily kinship roles: daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, and mother-in-law. In all these roles, it was incumbent on women to accord with the wishes and needs of closely-related men: their fathers when young, their husbands when married, their sons when widowed. Confucius’s follower Mencius declared that the worst of unfilial acts was a failure to have descendants (Mencius 4A.26). In later centuries this emphasis on the necessity of sons led many to be disappointed at the birth of a daughter.

In the centuries after Confucius, it became common for writers to discuss gender in terms of yin and yang. Women were yin, men were yang. Yin was soft, yielding, receptive, passive, reflective, and tranquil, whereas yang was hard, active, assertive, and dominating. Day and night, winter and summer, birth and death, indeed all natural processes occur though processes of interaction of yin and yang. Conceptualizing the differences between men and women in terms of yin and yang stresses that these differences are part of the natural order of the universe, not part of the social institutions artificially created by human beings. In yin yang theory the two forces complement each other but not in strictly equal ways. The natural relationship between yin and yang is the reason that men lead and women follow. If yin unnaturally gains the upper hand, order at both the cosmic and social level are endangered.

Maintaining a physical separation between the worlds of men and the worlds of women was viewed as an important first step toward assuring that yin would not dominate yang. The Confucian classic the Book of Rites stressed the value of segregation even within the home; houses should be divided into an inner and an outer section, with the women staying in the inner part. One poem in the Book of Poetry concluded: “Women should not take part in public affairs; they should devote themselves to tending silkworms and weaving.” A similar sentiment was expressed in the Book of Documents in proverbial form: “When the hen announces the dawn, it signals the demise of the family.”

During Han times (202 BCE – 220 CE), both the administrative structure of the centralized state and the success of Confucianism helped shape the Chinese family system and women’s place in it. Han laws supported the authority of family heads over the other members of their families. The family head was generally the senior male, but if a man died before his sons were grown, his widow would serve as family head until they were of age. The law codes of the imperial period enforced monogamy and provided a variety of punishments for bigamy and for promoting a concubine to the status of wife. Men could divorce their wives on any of seven grounds, which included barrenness, jealousy, and talkativeness, but could do so only if there was a family for her to return to. There were no grounds on which a woman could divorce her husband, but divorce by mutual agreement was possible.

Much was written in Han times on the virtues women should cultivate. The Biographies of Exemplary Women told the stories of women from China’s past who had given their husbands good advice, sacrificed themselves when forced to choose between their fathers and husbands, or performed other heroic deeds. It also contained cautionary tales about scheming, jealous, and manipulative women who brought destruction to all around them. Another very influential book was written by Ban Zhao, a well-educated woman from a prominent family. Her Admonitions for Women urged girls to master the seven virtues appropriate to women: humility, resignation, subservience, self-abasement, obedience, cleanliness, and industry.

By the end of the Han period, the Confucian vocabulary for talking about women, their natures, their weaknesses, and their proper roles and virtues was largely established. The durability of these ways of thinking undoubtedly owes much to continuities in the family system, which from Han times on was patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchical, and allowed concubinage. At marriage a woman had to move from the household of her father to that of her husband’s parents. Given the importance assigned to continuing the ancestral sacrifices through patrilineal descendants, a wife’s standing within her family of marriage depended on the birth of male heirs. Yet, because of the practice of concubinage, even if a wife bore sons, her standing could be undermined if her husband took concubines who also bore sons. Thus, so long as the family system continued without major change, women would continue to resort to strategies that seemed petty or threatening to men, and not until a woman became a grandmother was she likely to see the interests of the family in the same way men in the family did. To most of those who left written record, however, the problem did not lie in the family system, but in moral lapses. Thus, moralists held up models of self-sacrificing women for emulation, women who adhered to principles of loyalty, chastity, and faithfulness, often at great personal cost.

By Song (960-1279) times, historical sources are diverse enough to see that women undertook a wide range of activities never prescribed in Confucian didactic texts. There were widows who ran inns, midwives delivering babies, pious women who spent their days chanting sutras, nuns who called on such women to explain Buddhist doctrine, girls who learned to read with their brothers, farmers’ daughters who made money by weaving mats, childless widows who accused their nephews of seizing their property, wives who were jealous of the concubines their husbands brought home, and women who drew from their dowries to help their husband’s sisters marry well.

It is often said that the status of women began to decline in the Song period, just when Neo-Confucianism was gaining sway. The two signs of this decline most frequently mentioned are the pressure on widows not to remarry and the practice of binding young girls’ feet to prevent them from growing more than a few inches long. Foot binding seems to have steadily spread during Song times, and explanations for it should be sought in Song circumstances, but widow chastity had very little specific connection to the Song, the idea predating the Song and the exaggerated emphasis on it developing much later.

Foot binding was never recommended by Confucian teachers; rather, it was associated with the pleasure quarters and with women’s efforts to beautify themselves. Mothers bound the feet of girls aged five to eight, using long strips of cloth. The goal was to keep their feet from growing and to bend the four smaller toes under to make the foot narrow and arched. Foot binding spread gradually during Song times but probably remained largely an elite practice. In later centuries, it became extremely common in north and central China, eventually spreading to all classes. Women with bound feet were less mobile than women with natural feet, but only those who could afford servants bound their feet so tight that walking was difficult.

By contrast, the idea of widow chastity was not new in Song times. Ban Zhao had written, “According to ritual, husbands have a duty to marry again, but there is no text that authorizes a woman to remarry.” The increased emphasis on widow chastity has usually been blamed on the Neo-Confucian philosopher Cheng Yi, who once told a follower that it would be better for a widow to die of starvation than to lose her virtue by remarrying. In later centuries, this saying was often quoted to justify pressuring widows, even very young ones, to stay with their husband’s family and not marry someone else. One reason widows in Yuan (Mongol) (1215-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) times might have wanted to remain with their husbands’ families is that they no longer could take their dowries into a new marriage. When the husband’s family did not want to provide support for a son’s widow, the moral stricture against remarriage would have helped the widow insist that she be allowed to stay and adopt a son.

By the early Qing period (1644-1911), the cult of widow chastity had gained a remarkably strong hold, especially in the educated class. Childless widows might even commit suicide. Young women whose weddings had not yet taken place sometimes refused to enter into another engagement after their fiancé died. Instead, they would move to their fiancé’s home and serve his parents as a daughter-in-law. Although most Confucian scholars and government officials disapproved of widow suicide and chaste fiancées, they often expressed great admiration for the determination of particular women they knew, thus helping spread the custom.

At the same time that widow chastity was becoming more prevalent, more and more women were learning to read and write. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a surprising number had their poetry published. Women with poetic talents figure prominently in the great eighteenth-century novel, The Dream of Red Mansions (also called Story of the Stone). Although the male hero, Baoyu, is a young man of great sensitivity, several of his female cousins are even more talented as poets. Some women in this large fictional family have considerable power—especially the grandmother who can force her sons and nephews to do what she wants, and the daughter-in-law who handles the family’s finances. The young unmarried women, however, may have been able to acquire literary educations as good as the boys, but they had even less control over their fates than he had.

As in much of the rest of the world, in twentieth century China, intellectuals and social activists leveled many criticisms against the old family system and especially the ways it limited women’s chances. Foot binding, widow chastity, parental control of marriage, and concubinage have all been eliminated. It should always be kept in mind, however, that a great many women were able to fashion satisfying lives under the old system.

The Three Teachings

A painting that has traces of the three teachings (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

By Chris Livaccari
March 2010

I recently had occasion to reflect on the construction of the image and legacy of Confucius while talking with Dr. Agnes Hsu of New York’s China Institute, where there is currently a fantastic exhibition on Confucianism. (If you are in NYC, I encourage you to pay a visit.)

There is an enduring significance of Confucianism in East Asian culture, and its intersections with Daoism and Buddhism, collectively known as the “three teachings” of Chinese tradition. Confucianism’s emphasis on modesty and humility is something that I have always loved about Chinese culture, and it lends a kind of ritualistic elegance to doing business in China. This can be frustrating, infuriating, and confusing, but also wonderfully clear and well-structured, depending on your degree of patience and familiarity with the system. Most foreigners who arrive in China will hear the expression 有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎 ? (Isn’t it pleasurable to have friends come from afar?) This is straight out of The Analects, so next time you’re in China being banqueted and gifted to death, remember who started all this!

For me, the kind of guest-host culture so valorized in Confucian culture has felt very personal and familiar, and it took me a while to figure out exactly why this is so. My first stay in China was in the city of Yantai in Shandong province, a place with a relatively small number of foreigners. I taught at a small college owned by what was then China’s Coal Ministry. On the other side of a small village not far from our Coal College was the much larger Yantai University, which had a contingent of foreign teachers, at that time almost exclusively Christian missionaries from the American South. My Chinese friends tried very hard to introduce me to and help me become friends with my “country fellows” (as they often translated the term 老乡 into English), but I just couldn’t help thinking that these “other Americans” were much more strange to me than my Chinese friends. In fact, when I went to my Chinese friends’ homes and visited their families, I felt almost as if I had been transported back to my Sicilian-American family in New York. That was it! I gradually discovered that what made Chinese culture seem so familiar and comfortable to me is that its Confucian family dynamic and guest-host culture was remarkably similar to the Old World Italian culture that somehow had persisted in my Americanized family. Trying to relate to Southerners whose culture revolved around the Bible and pot-luck parties was completely alien to me. But huge, loud dinners with extended family and non-negotiable bonds of family and friendship was something I knew intimately and lived with all my life. Thanks for that, Confucius!

So: family, friendship, and social duty–check. But what about our environment and the world around us? Of course, in the time of Confucius, people were not actively destroying the planet with carbon emissions, so there was nothing like the kind of environmental crisis we now face. In general, Confucians are pretty silent about the natural world, just as they are about the supernatural world, and they tend to focus squarely on the social realm. People, of course, still had to think about nature, and that’s where Daoism came in. Confucianism simply could not exist on its own as a comprehensive philosophical system for traditional China. I still remember my first encounter with Daoism, when I read a line from Laozi about “the highest good” being like water (上善若水) and the notion that water is both the weakest and at the same time most powerful substance on earth. Like Confucianism, in Daoism the emphasis is on not boasting and “putting all your cards on the table,” so to speak. Rather, the consistency of the Confucian view of the social world–the true gentleman or junzi does not insist on recognition, and the Daoist view of the natural world–there are forces in nature powerful beyond our perception and one should never go against nature, have truly made these two complementary philosophies throughout Chinese history.

There is certainly one other area of human life that seems to be missing from the Confucian-Daoist synthesis that characterized Chinese thought before the introduction of Buddhism in the Han Dynasty, probably around the first century of the Common Era. This has to do with the metaphysical and existential concerns of Buddhism, some of which were also addressed in early Daoism. Whereas Daoism focused a lot on nature and “going with the flow,” Buddhism delved into the nature of existence, suffering, death, and rebirth–important and extremely compelling concepts for anybody living on earth. Buddhism was initially understood by the Chinese as a form of Daoism, and there were even some spurious scriptures circulated that talked of the Daoist sage Laozi crossing the mountains to convert the “barbarians” of South Asia to Buddhism. Gradually, however, the deep insights of Buddhism into these existential and spiritual concerns made it the fundamental third tradition in traditional Chinese philosophy. The Buddhist concept of sunyata or “emptiness” (空 in Chinese) was interpreted as either a world of illusory experiences with a deeper truth behind, or as a world in which every experience was read as open to interpretation and understanding relative to a multiplicity of other phenomena and experiences. The concept of pratityasamutpada or “interdependent causation” (缘起 in Chinese) spoke of a world in which every phenomena was related and dependent upon every other. This all sounds remarkably twentieth-century, and there has been no shortage of comparisons between these ideas and quantum mechanics, relativity, existentialism, Heideggerian, and Wittgensteinian philosophy. Whatever the validity of such comparisons, there is simply no doubt that these ideas are some of the most powerful in the cultural and intellectual history of the world.

As time went on, Daoism and Buddhism were eventually harmonized and synthesized in the teachings of the Chan or Zen school, staring with the Tang dynasty text of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇经). The fundamental point here, of course, is that Confucianism could not exist without Daoism and Buddhism, and East Asian religion and philosophy have been characterized by their syncretic nature throughout history. Europe and the Middle East could certainly have taken a lesson here in its conflicts among Paganism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. While Confucianism was often understood as an orthodoxy, over the long scope of history, it was more often seen as part of this larger whole formed by the “three teachings.” And just as this should be a lesson for Western religion, it should also be one for our teaching of language. While debates continue about various “methods” of language instruction, it is clear that there is no one approach that accomplishes everything that needs to happen in the foreign language classroom. Communicative approaches, kinesthetic and physical approaches, and even old-school grammar translation strategies have their appropriateness and efficacy. The American philosopher Richard Rorty talked about a tradition of “liberal irony” that reflected a kind of pragmatic and holistic attitude toward knowledge, and I think we should bring that same syncretic spirit to our teaching methodologies.

The World’s Most Incredible Alphabet

October 9 is the only national holiday dedicated to a writing system.

By Chris Livaccari

From my perspective, there’s almost nothing more thrilling than learning to use a new writing system. You’re gaining access to a whole secret code that many others cannot penetrate. The romance of Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs or Michael Ventris’ work on Linear B, not to mention the fascinating story of what archaeologist Michael Coe has dubbed “breaking the Maya code,” simply continue to inspire. It’s the sheer pleasure of those old Hollywood movies with archaeologists breaking into sealed tombs by lamplight. Advanced mathematics is pretty much the same story—lots of symbols that most ordinary mortals cannot fathom.

If you’ve ever tried to learn a new writing system, you’ll know how exhilarating it can be. Of course, it can also be a frustrating process, and one which makes us wonder why the whole world doesn’t just speak English and write with the Latin script! If you’ve learned Greek or Russian, you’ll realize that it’s a pretty easy transition from English, and that they operate with essentially the same set of rules and use many similar letters. If you’ve tried Sanskrit, Arabic, or Chinese, for example, you’ll know that those languages take quite a bit more effort for an English speaker. They may be written in different directions, or leave out vowel sounds, and the letter forms may change depending on the context (that is, what other letters appear with them). And Chinese, of course, is another matter entirely, with a logographic system that has developed over millennia, and that encodes both sound and meaning, with thousands of unique characters.

Learning to write Korean, however, is one of the great pleasures for any language learner—it’s logical, consistent, and wonderfully elegant in its construction. It’s no exaggeration to say that one can get a fairly good grasp of it in just a few hours. In fact, it’s one of the youngest writing systems in the entire world: it was officially announced by the Choson dynasty King Sejong in 1446. Before that time, Koreans wrote almost exclusively in Classical Chinese, and less often in a number of different adaptations of Chinese characters to write the Korean language. The Chinese script is very well suited to the nature of the Chinese language, but not so wonderful for writing languages with more complex grammatical systems, like Japanese and Korean.

Korea is perhaps the only country in the world to have a holiday to celebrate the development of its writing system, known as hangul. In South Korea, they do so on October 9, close to the date on which the script was officially promulgated by the king. Because of the sheer sophistication and elegance of the Korean alphabet, Hangul Day should be an annual celebration for linguists, writers, language educators, and frankly anyone else who cares about language.

Indeed, legendary University of Chicago linguist James McCawley was famous for holding Hangul Day celebrations every year and for championing the holiday as an international celebration for linguists. In an interview shortly before his death in 1999, McCawely noted that “Hangul is the most ingeniously devised writing system that exists, and it occupies a special place in the typology of writing systems.” He adds that it is “the only writing system in the world that divides sentences not only into words and syllables and individual sounds, but also articulatory features, and the achievement of its creators in the 1440s was really amazing. They were doing work that would qualify as excellent linguistics by the standards of 5oo years later.”

Hangul is an alphabet. That is, each letter corresponds to what linguists refer to as a phoneme—essentially just an individual sound (a vowel or consonant). This differs from other writing systems, like Japanese, that are syllabaries, in which each letter represents a full syllable. So in Korean, to write the sound /ka/, like in English, you write the two letters “k” ㄱ + “a” ㅏ to make the compound 가. In Japanese, by contrast, for the sound “ka,” you only write one letter, “ka” か. That sounds convenient, until you realize that you then have to learn separate letters to write “ki” き, “ku” く, “ke” け, “ko” こ, and “ra”ら, “ri”り, “ru”る, “re” れ, “ro” ろ, etc. This results in 46 distinct letters, almost double the number used in the English alphabet. The phonology of Japanese is mercifully quite simple. If we were to use a syllabic writing system for English or Korean, we’d need many more letters to record the individual sounds of the language.

What’s great about Korean is that you write words with individual letters (phonemes) but also keep them in syllabic units. So the word for “Korea,” hanguk 한국 is written as two syllables, /han/한 + /guk/ 국. McCawley also mentions articulatory features, which are things like aspiration (exhaling from the mouth when pronouncing a sound) or voicing (vibration in the vocal cords when pronouncing a sound). Korean letters show the connections, for example, between aspirated and unaspirated, and unvoiced versions of the same sound, e.g. /ga/가and /ka/카, /da/다and /ta/타, /ba/바and /pa/파, and /ja/자 and /cha/ 차. What’s even more interesting about Korean is that the letter shapes for the consonants are made to look like the positions of the mouth, teeth, tongue, and throat when pronouncing the sounds. Some of these are a bit hard to see, but the /n/ ㄴ , for example, represents the tip of the tongue raised toward the soft palate (the upper gum line) and the /k/ㄱ represents the back of the tongue being raised in the same direction. The vowels have associations with traditional philosophical ideas, especially yin and yang.

It’s clear that King Sejong and the linguists who helped to devise the script had a clear understanding of Chinese phonetics, phonology, and linguistic theory, and also familiarity with the ‘Phags-pa script, which was designed by a Tibetan monk for Kubhilai Khan as a universal writing system for all the languages of the empire, including Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese. In this sense, more than almost any other script in use today, hangul was the culmination of an organized, scientific process aimed at creating an efficiently elegant writing system.

If Korean TV dramas, movies, pop songs, or video games aren’t reason enough to start learning Korean, then hangul might just be all the motivation you need!