Tang Empress Wu Zetian

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “In its earliest history, China was a matriarchal society, until Confucius and Mencius defined the superior-inferior relationship between men and women as heaven-ordained more than two thousand years ago. In traditional Chinese society, women should observe the Three Obediences and the Four Virtues. Women were to be obedient to the father and elder brothers when young, to the husband when married, and to the sons when widowed. Thus the Chinese women were controlled and dominated by men from cradle to grave. [This may not apply to the lower class and marginal people. (Lau)] [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D.Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

“The ideal of feminine behavior created a dependent being, at once inferior, passive, and obedient. Thus for more than 2,000 years, for the vast majority of Chinese women, belonging to a home was the only means to economic survival, but they had no right to select a husband, let alone the right to divorce or to remarry if widowed. They had no right to their physical bodies. Those who defied such institutionalized oppression were persecuted, ostracized, and sometimes driven to suicide. =

“The functional importance of all women in traditional China lay in their reproductive role. In a patriarchal and authoritarian society, this reproductive function took the form of reproducing male descendents. Since descent was patrilineal, a woman's position within her natal family was temporary and of no great importance. The predominant patrilineal household model, in combination with early marriage, meant that a young girl often left home before she was of significant labor value to her natal family. Hence, education or development of publicly useful skills for a girl was not encouraged in any way. Marriage was arranged by the parents with the family interests of continuity by bearing male children and running an efficient household in mind. Her position and security within her husband's family remained ambiguous until she produced male heirs. [Then she might become manipulative and exploitive. (Lau)] In addition to the wife's reproductive duties, the strict sexual division of labor demanded that she undertake total responsibility for child care, cooking, cleaning, and other domestic tasks. Women were like slaves or merchandize.” =

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Confucianism ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Cult of Confucius / ; ; Virtual Temple tour; Wikipedia article on Chinese religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies; Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Confucianism, Men and Women

The Analects, the main Confucian text that dates back to the Classical Period, has relatively little to say about women. One passage on “On Women and Servants” says: “Women and servants are most difficult to nurture. If one is close to them, they lose their reserve, while if one is distant, they feel resentful.” (17:25)

In a traditional male-dominated Confucian family, the eldest son is held in the highest esteem and is responsible for carrying on the family name and lineage, keeping property in the family and presiding over ancestral rites.

The preference for boy babies over girls in Asian society is tied up in part in the Confucian belief that a male heir is necessary to carry on the family name, provide leadership for the family, and take care of the family ancestors. Chinese parents worry that if they don't produce a male heir no one will take care of them in their old age and no one will keep them company or look after them in the afterlife.

Confucius famously said that a good woman is an illiterate one. Women often suffered under the Confucian system. Not only are they ordered around by men, they are often ordered around by each other in very vicious or mean ways. Older sisters have traditionally pushed their younger sisters around with impunity, and mothers of sons are notorious for treating their daughters-in-law like servants.

Confucianism and Sexuality and Love

Ming era erotica

In sexual matters, Confucianism is quite “puritanic.” A “good” young girl is not only expected to keep her virginity until she gets married and to get married only once in her life, she is not supposed to make herself attractive, even to her own husband. Confucianism does not consider sexual activity as wrong, but love and tenderness are treated with mistrust, and physical displays of them are considered at least questionable. This rule applies not only to showing affection in public, but also to its display in the privacy of the home. As early as in the seventeenth century, male and female poets protested against it. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 ]

Confucianism is based on writings which are attributed to Confucius (551-479 B.C.), the first great educator, philosopher, and statesman of China, and his followers, including Mencius (372-289 B.C.), a political thinker who believed in democracy. Confucianism dominated Chinese sociopolitical life for most of Chinese history. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

Confucius and Mencius themselves expressed rather a positive view of human sexuality. For example. The Master (Confucius) said, “I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves sex” (Confucian Analects Book IX, chapter 17); “Food and drink and the sexual relation between men and women compose the major human desires” (The Book of Rites, one of the major Confucianism classics, chapter 9). In The Works of Mencius, one of the major Confucianism classics (book 6, part 1), we find: “Eating food and having sex are both of human nature.” =

It was not until much later that sexual conservatism became a feature of Neo-Confucian philosophy. The crucial change was initiated by several famous Neo-Confucianists, including Ch’eng I (1033-1107), and Chu Hsi (1130-1200). Ch’eng I summarized the Neo-Confucian viewpoint as “Discard human desires to retain the heavenly principles.” =

When asked whether it was justifiable for a widow to remarry when pressed by poverty and hunger, he replied, “It is a small matter to die as a result of starvation, but a serious evil to lose chastity toward one’s dead husband by remarrying.” Chu Hsi stressed the inferiority of women and the strict separation of the sexes, and forbade any manifestation of heterosexual love outside of wedlock. Chu Hsi laid the foundations of Neo-Confucianism as the sole state religion. It encouraged a puritanical and strictly authoritarian form of government, including the establishment of censorship and thought control. However, the government had difficulty enforcing these views on the lower class or sciao-ren (the non-exemplary class of people). =

Analects for Women

Tang dancers

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucius had very little to say about the roles and expectations of women in the family or in society. Thus it was left for Confucian scholars to apply the principles enunciated by Confucius and Mencius to the task of prescribing expectations and behavioral norms for women in a Confucian family and a Confucian society. To these scholars also fell the task of justifying the education of women and the task of laying forth the parameters and techniques for the education of girls and women. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Two of the most influential scholars in this area were women of the Tang dynasty: Song Ruohua and her sister, Song Ruozhao. Both were daughters of a high-ranking Tang official, Song Fen. Ruohua wrote the text below, while her sister, Ruozhao, propagated it. Ruozhao did not marry, but dedicated her life to the instruction of women, being invited to the court of the Tang Dezong Emperor in the late eighth century to serve as instructor of the royal princesses. The “Analects for Women” was one of the most popular texts for women’s education in pre-modern China.

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “To be a woman, you must first learn how to establish yourself as a person. The way to do this is simply by working hard to establish one’s purity and chastity. By purity, one keeps one’s self undefiled; by chastity, one preserves one’s honor. [Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831]

“When walking, don’t turn your head; when talking, don’t open your mouth wide; when sitting, don’t move your knees; when standing, don’t rustle your skirts; when happy, don’t exult withloud laughter; when angry, don’t raise your voice. The inner and outer quarters are each distinct; the sexes should be segregated. Don’t peer over the outer wall or go beyond the outer courtyard. If you have to go outside, cover your face; if you peep outside, conceal yourself as much as possible. Do not be on familiar terms with men outside the family; have nothing to do with women of bad character. Establish your proper self so as to become a [true] human being.

Analects for Women: On Chores and Work

Tang lady horse riders

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “Learning How to WorkTo be a woman one must learn the details of women’s work. Learn how to weave with hemp and ramie; don’t mix fine and rough fibers. Don’t run the shuttle of the loom so quickly that you make a mess. When you see the silkworms spinning their cocoons, you must attend to them day and night, picking mulberry leaves to feed them. … Learn how to cut out shoes and make socks. Learn how to cut fabric and sew it into garments. Learn how to embroider, mend, and darn. [Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831]

“Do not learn the ways of lazy women who from an early age are silly and shiftless and who have a distaste for women’s work. They don’t plan ahead in making clothes to fit the needs of each season and hardly ever pick up a needle to sew. … Married, they bring shame upon their new family, who go around in ill-fitted, patched, and ragged clothing, so that meeting others they are pointed to as the laughingstock of the neighborhood...Their inconsiderate manners are displayed to all their neighbors, to the humiliation of theirparents-in-law. Talked about by everyone, how can they not be overcome with shame!

“Rising Early [to Begin Household Work]: To be a woman one must learn to make it a regular practice, at the fifth watch when the cock crows, to rise and dress. After cleaning your face and teeth, fix your hair and makeup simply. Then go to the kitchen, light the fire, and start the morning meal. Scrub the pots and wash the pans; boil the tea water and cook the gruel. Plan your meals according to the resources of the family and the seasons of the year, making sure that they are fragrant and tasty, served in the appropriate dishes and in the proper manner at the table. If you start early, there is nothing you can’t get done in a day!

“Do not learn the ways of those lazy women who are thoughtless and do not plan ahead. The sun is already high in the sky before they manage to get themselves out of bed. Then they stagger to the kitchen, disheveled and unwashed, and throw a meal together, long past the hour. What is more, they are overly fond of eating and compete to get the tastiest morsels at each meal. If there is not enough of the best to go around, they steal some to eat later on the sly.

“Managing the Household: A woman who manages the household should be thrifty and diligent. If she is diligent, the household thrives; if lazy, it declines. If she is thrifty, the household becomes enriched; if extravagant, it becomes impoverished … If your husband has money and rice, store and conserve them. If he has wine or foodstuffs, save and keep them for the use of guests when they come; do not take any to indulge your own desires. Great wealth is a matter of fate and fortune; a little wealth comes from persistent thrift… Thus a couple may be blessed with riches and enjoy life.”

Analects for Women: Proper Etiquette

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “Ritual Decorum: Learning Proper Etiquette: To be a woman one must learn the rules of ritual decorum. When you expect a female guest, carefully clean and arrange the furniture and tea implements. When she arrives, take time to adjust your clothing, and then, with light steps and your hands drawn up in your sleeves, walk slowly to the door and with lowered voice, invite her in. Ask after her health and how her family is doing. Be attentive to what she says. After chatting in a leisurely way, serve the tea. When she leaves, send her off in a proper manner.[Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831]

Tang court ladies preparing newly-woven silk

“If you are invited to someone’s house, understand your female duties and help with the preparation of the tea. After having talked for a time, rise to leave. Don’t overstay your welcome. If your hostess presses you to stay longer to share a meal, conduct yourself with propriety. Don’t drink so much that your face turns red and you get sloppy in the handling of your chopsticks. Take your leave before all the food is gone and before you forget your manners.

“Entertaining Guests: Most families have guests. You should have hot water and clean bottles, and keep the table clean and neat, ready for guests. When a guest arrives, serve him tea and then retire to the rear of the hall and await your husband’s orders about the meal. Don’t learn the ways of the lazy woman who doesn’t attend to household matters anyway, so that when a guest arrives, the place is in a mess and she is unprepared to offer him tea right away. She is so flustered that she loses her head. If her husband asks the guest to stay for a meal, she is annoyed and loses her temper. She has chopsticks but no soup spoons, soy sauce but no vinegar. She scolds and slaps the servants around, to her husband’s great chagrin and the guest’s embarrassment.”

Analects for Women: on Parents-in-Law and Husbands

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “Serving One’s Parents-in-Law: Your father-in-law and mother-in-law are the heads of your husband’s family … You must care for them as your own father and mother- Respectfully serve your father-in-law. Do not look at him directly [when he speaks to you], do not follow him around, and do not engage him in conversation. If he has an order for you, listen and obey. [Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 827-831]

“When your mother-in-law is sitting, you should stand. When she gives an order, you should carry it out right away. Rise early in the morning and open up the household, but don’t make any noise that would disturb your mother-in-law’s sleep. Sweep and mop the floors, wash and rinse the clothes. When your mother-in-law wakes up, present her with her toiletry articles, withdraw while she bathes until she beckons you. Greet her and then withdraw. Prepare tea and broth; set out spoons and chopsticks. As long known, the aged have poor teeth, so you should be especially careful in the preparation of food for them, so that they might enjoy their old age with all sorts of delicacies, cooked in a manner that allows them to be easily chewed and swallowed. At night before retiring, check to see if they are comfortably settled for the night. Bid them good night and then go to bed.

Tang-era concert

“Serving a Husband: Women leave their families to marry, and the husband is the master of the household [they marry into]. … The husband is to be firm, the wife soft; conjugal affections follow from this. While at home, the two of you should treat each other with the formality and reserve of a guest. Listen carefully to and obey whatever your husband tells you. If he does something wrong, gently correct him. Don’t be like those women who not only do not correct their husbands but actually lead them into indecent ways. … Don’t imitate those shrewish wives who love to clash head on with their husbands all the time. Take care of your husband’s clothing so that he is never cold in winter, and of his meals so that he never gets thin and sickly from not being fed enough. As a couple, you and your husband share the bitter and the sweet, poverty and riches. In life you share the same bed; in death the same grave.

Analects for Women: Instructing Sons and Daughters

Song Ruozhao wrote in “Analects for Women”: “Most all families have sons and daughters. As they grow and develop, there should be adefinite sequence and order in their education. But the authority/responsibility to instruct them rests solely with the mother. When the sons go out to school, they seek instruction from a teacher who teaches them proper [ritual] form and etiquette, how to chant poetry, how to write essays. [Source:“Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao, A.D. 8th Century from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) ,827-831]

“Daughters remain behind in the women’s quarters and should not be allowed to go out very often. … Teach them sewing, cooking, and etiquette. … Don’t allow them to be indulged, lest they throw tantrums to get their own way; don’t allow them to defy authority, lest they become rude and haughty; don’t allow them to sing songs, lest they become dissolute; and don’t allow them to go on outings, lest some scandal spoil their good names.

“Worthy of derision are those who don’t take charge of their responsibility [in this area]. The sons of such women remain illiterate, they poke fun at their elders, they get into fights and drink too much, and they become addicted to singing and dancing. … The daughters of such women know nothing about ritual decorum, speak in an overbearing manner, can’t distinguish between the honorable and the mean, and don’t know how to serve or sew. They bring shame on their honorable relatives and disgrace on their father and mother. Mothers who fail to raise their children correctly are as if they had raised pigs and rats!”

Tang court ladies preparing newly-woven silk

Admonitions for Women by Ban Zhao

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Ban Zhao (c. 48.c. 116 CE) was an educated aristocratic woman of the Later (Eastern) Han dynasty. Members of the Ban family, including her father, Ban Biao, and elder brother, Ban Gu, were renowned for scholarship and for service. “Highly educated and widowed (the Cao household to which Ban Zhao refers in the text is the household of her husband, Cao Shishu), Ban Zhao played an important part in completing the dynastic history of the Former Han, which her brother had been working on when he died in 92 CE. Ban Zhao was called to court regularly to serve as instructor to the empress and other imperial women. She left behind a substantial corpus of writing, including Admonitions for Women, of which excerpts appear below. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

In “Admonitions for Women” Ban Zhao wrote: “This lowly one is ignorant and by nature unclever. I was favored because of my ancestry and relying on the teachings of governess and instructress, at fourteen I clutched dustbasket and broom [as a young wife] in the Cao household. Now more than forty years have passed … and at last I am released [from such duties]. …Yet I am anxious for you, [my daughters] who are about to marry and have not been instructed over the course of time nor heard about proper behavior for wives. I dread that you will lose face [when you are living behind] another’s gate and bring shame on our lineage. … Whenever I think of you like this, I am fearful and anxious and so have written these “Admonitions for Women” in seven sections. … Now that it is done, I urge you to study them. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 821-824; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“In womanly behavior there are four things [to be considered]: womanly virtue, womanly speech, womanly appearance, and womanly work. To guard carefully her chastity, to control circumspectly her behavior, in every motion to exhibit modesty, and to model each act on the best usage: this may be called womanly virtue. To choose her words with care, to avoid vulgar language, to speak at appropriate times, and not to be offensive to others may be called womanly speech. To wash and scrub dirt and grime, to keep clothes and ornaments fresh and clean, to wash the head and bathe the body regularly, and to keep the person free from disgraceful filth may be called womanly appearance. With wholehearted devotion to sew and weave, not to love gossip and silly laughter, in cleanliness and order [to prepare] the wine and food for serving guests may be called womanly work.

Ban Zhao on a Woman’s Humility

Ban Zhao

In “Admonitions for Women” Ban Zhao wrote: On the third day after the birth of a girl, the ancients observed three customs: [first] for three days to place the baby below the bed; [second] to give her a spindle with which to play; and [third] to fast and announce her birth to her ancestors by an offering. Now to lay the baby below the bed plainly indicated that she was lowly and humble and should regard it as a prime duty to submit to others. To give her a spindle with which to play signified that she should accustom herself to labor and consider it a prime duty to be industrious. To announce her birth before her ancestors clearly meant that she ought to esteem it a prime duty to see to the continuation of the ancestral sacrifices. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 821-824; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“These three ancient customs epitomize a woman’s ordinary way of life and the teachings of the rites and regulations. Let a woman modestly yield to others; let her respect others; let her put others first, herself last. Should she do something good, let her not mention it; should she do something bad, let her not deny it. Let her bear contempt; let her even endure when others speak or do evil to her. Always let her seem to tremble and to fear. [When a woman follows such maxims as these] then she may be said to humble herself before others.

“Let a woman retire late to bed, but rise early to her duties; let her not dread tasks by day or by night. Let her not refuse to perform domestic duties whether easy or difficult. That which must be done, let her finish completely, tidily, and systematically. [When a woman follows such rules as these] then she may be said to be industrious. “Let a woman be composed in demeanor and upright in bearing in the service of her husband. Let her live in purity and quietness [of spirit] and keep watch over herself. Let her not love gossip and silly laughter. Let her cleanse, purify, and arrange in order the wine and the food for the offerings to the ancestors. [Observing such principles as these] is what it means to continue the ancestral rites.

Ban Zhao on Husband and Wife

Ming Empress

In “Admonitions for Women” Ban Zhao wrote: “The Way of husband and wife is intimately connected with yin and yang and relates the individual to gods and ancestors. Truly it confirms the great principle of Heaven and Earth and the great rule of human relationships. Therefore the Rites honor the interrelation of man and woman; and in the Odes the first Ode manifests the principle of marriage. For these reasons the relationship cannot but be an important one. If a husband be unworthy, then he possesses nothing by which to control his wife. If a wife be unworthy, then she possesses nothing with which to serve her husband. If a husband does not control his wife, then he loses his authority. If a wife does not serve her husband, then right principles [the natural order] are neglected and destroyed. As a matter of fact, in practice these two [the controlling of women by men and the serving of men by women] work out in the same way. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 821-824; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Now examine the gentlemen of the present age. They only know that wives must be controlled and that the husband’s authority must be maintained. They therefore teach their boys to read books and [study] histories. But they do not in the least understand how husbands and masters are to be served or how rites and right principles are to be maintained.

“Yet only to teach men and not to teach women — is this not ignoring the reciprocal relation between them? According to the Rites, book learning begins at the age of eight, and at the age of fifteen one goes off to school. Why, however, should this principle not apply to girls as well as boys?

As yin and yang are not of the same nature, so man and woman differ in behavior. The virtue of yang is firmness; yin is manifested in yielding. Man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness. Hence there arose the common saying, “A man born as a wolf may, it is feared, become a woman; a woman born as a mouse may, it is feared, become a tigress.” Now for self-cultivation there is nothing like respectfulness. To avert harshness there is nothing like compliance. Consequently it can be said that the Way of respect and compliance is for women the most important element in ritual decorum. [If a wife] does not restrain her contempt for her husband, then it will be followed by scolding and shouting [from him]. [If a husband] does not restrain his anger, then there is certain to be beating [of the wife]. The correct relationship between husband and wife is based upon harmony and intimacy, and [conjugal] love is grounded in proper union. If it comes to blows how can the proper relationship be preserved? If sharp words are spoken, how can [conjugal] love exist? If love and proper relationship are both destroyed, then husband and wife are parted.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei\=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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