The status of women was always inferior to that of men in traditional Chinese society, but changes in their status over time can be understood within the broad chronological framework of the three major periods of social development in Chinese history.
The early period, the Han to T’ang Sung transition, saw the establishment of the official education system and the examinations which established the scholar officials as the upholders of the Confucian state orthodoxy. This period, of around fourteen hundred years, codified the social and family norms which made women dependent on and subservient to men. In the ideal Confucian family, women were strictly secluded, though this was only possible if women were not required to work on the land or in a family business.
The middle period, Neo-Confucianism, which lasted from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, did not change the position of women; it simply added one further burden to their already hard lives. This was the practice of footbinding, which was practiced in some way for around eight hundred years.
The third period, from the end of the imperial system to the present, has seen women enjoy increased opportunities in education, employment and public life. However, this has not completely changed their position within the family structure.
Han to T’ang Sung transition 206 BCE to 1200 CE
The short-lived Chin dynasty attempted to overthrow all earlier traditions; they persecuted the scholars and burned the ancient books. Their authority lasted only sixteen years before they were overthrown by the first Han Emperor in 206 BCE. The rulers then looked to the past to authenticate their right to rule and established the code by which China was governed for the next two thousand years. Fundamental social structures and ways of understanding the world were established. There were three fundamental ideas which underpinned this system; the adoption of yin yang cosmology, the patrilinear family system and the reverence of ancestors.
Yin yang cosmology was seen as the principle that governed all natural things; yin was the attribute of all things female, dark, weak and passive. Yang was the attribute of all things male, bright, strong and active. Whilst male and female were seen as both necessary and complementary, one was by nature passive towards the other Conceptualising the differences between men and women in terms of yin yang stresses that these differences are part of the natural order; a part of the universe rather than part of the institutions and societies created by men. However reciprocal in theory, yang was always favoured and the inequality of man and women is established as simply the way of nature. The yin yang classification and the favouring of yang over yin become so much a part of the understanding of the world that it was impossible for anyone to question the established orthodoxy.
The patrilinear system is based on this understanding of the natural order. The family structure is mapped onto the state and relationships between the emperors and the people reflect this. The necessity for a male heir to carry on the sacrifices along with the complex organisation of kinsmen on the basis of common patrilinear descent is crucial to the development of the Chinese family. Thus, the men stay in the family while women marry into other family households. Within the extended family, every child was involved in a highly ordered system of kinship relations with elder brothers, sisters, maternal elder brothers’ wives many kinds of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and in-laws. These relationships were clearly named and differentiated and carried with them clearly defined rights and duties dependent upon status. Family members were addressed by their relationship to the person addressing them. These family relationships were of much greater significance than any individual. The relationship between the women of the family were to some extent more codified than those of the men, for what little power and influence a women had was dependent on their status with regard to age, position in the family and whether or not she had produced sons.
Ancestral rites could only be carried out by male descendents and the worst fate that could befall a family was lack of heirs to carry on the rituals, since ancestors were a representation of continuity. Close observance of the rites regarding funerals and ceremonies was essential to the prosperity of the family. The pressure on women to ensure the continuation and future prosperity of the family by bearing sons was immense and cannot be overstated. Women who produced sons had some hope of gaining status within the family, with both the male and female members, whilst those who did not drifted down the scale and were despised by everyone.
Women had a precarious social position in both their families. Their natural family had to raise them to be suitable daughters-in-law for their husband’s family, as they would be judged on how their daughter behaved. When a young girl, probably around the age of fifteen, arrived at her new home, it was not so much the relationship between husband and wife that was important, but rather the relationships between the new wife and the other women. There would be many women in the household and she would have to quickly remember each relationship. She would be at the beck and call of those who were superior and there would be few who were not. She would be criticised and talked about, she would, if very lucky, have married a man who had some authority within the family and who would stand up for her. The women’s relationship to each other was based on their husband’s place within the family. There was only one head man and either his mother or his wife would be the superior female in the house. However, if the wife failed to produce a son, her husband would take a concubine. This lowered the position of the wife still further. Wives who did not produce sons were a burden on the family and their suicides were often encouraged. Women had no rights to property, their children were ‘owned’ by their husbands’ family and they could never return to their natural family. The disgrace of taking back a daughter would be avoided at all costs. The best a woman could hope for was to produce sons, and in her old age to be the revered matriarch waited on and obeyed by their wives.
In all of the three major ideas that governed Chinese society, women were inferior. The yin yang cosmology made their subservience a natural state and this was manifest in the patrilineal family structure. The women played no part in the sacrifices to the ancestors and thereby had no formal spiritual role. Boys were celebrated additions to the family, but girls were thought of as a burden. In this very hierarchic and traditional society, the ways of the gentry and the rulers permeated through society and, by the end of this period, to be Chinese was to uphold these traditions. To question them was to question the fabric of society and one’s own existence. However, the poorer people could not always afford to take care of their daughters when times were hard. The sons had absolute priority and female infanticide and the selling of daughters was common. This was the position of women for around fourteen hundred years, until their position becomes even worse from the twelfth century until the end of the Imperial system in the early twentieth century.
1200 CE to early twentieth century
In the twelfth century the Confucian tradition, which had been in decline, underwent a reassertion and synthesis. The Neo-Confucianism of this period remained the orthodoxy until the decline of the Imperial state in the twentieth century. This led to new ideas of masculinity: the ideal man among the educated classes was relatively subdued, refined and elegant. The scholar officials despised the military life, and rejected commercial enterprise as being beneath them. Women were expected to be even more docile, reticent and decorative then before. This is the time when footbinding became part of the life of women and as this is the major change in this period, it is the focus of this section. This practice is thought to have begun with the courtesans and concubines of the palace and then spread to the families of the scholar officials, however there is little research and much reticence about the origins of this practice. If the practice began at court, it is likely that those who bound their feet were dancers and entertainers and although these women would have been young they were not children. There is little in the literature that shows how this practice spread to girls as young as four or five.
It is impossible to write about the status of women without talking in some detail about this practice, which by the nineteenth century had spread to many classes of society. Fairbank (1992) writes ‘the first thing to note about footbinding is that the feet did not cease to grow. They were simply made to grow into a deformed shape. Imagine yourself a girl child – who for some six to ten long years, beginning at the age of 5 to 8 and lasting until 13 or 15, the years of your childhood, and getting your growth – has her feet always bound up in long strips of binding cloth night and day with no let up in order to deform them into 3-inch long “golden-lilies”….. The result is that you will never run again and can walk on the base of your heels only with difficulty. Even standing will be uncomfortable.’ (P 174) The cruellest aspect of this practice was that the peasant masses imitated the upper classes. Among Chinese farmwomen who had to lead lives of hard work, footbinding became widespread. Marriage brokers stressed the importance of foot size and it was thought that the smaller the foot size the better the marriage. Marriage was the only thing a girl could look forward to, this was her only ‘right’, so mothers bound the feet of their daughters to ensure a good marriage.
The Mongols, Manchu’s and other minorities did not practice footbinding and it is difficult to reconcile this practice with the Confucian dictum that ‘our bodies are given to us by our parents and are thereby sacred and not to be allowed to suffer mutilation’. Footbinding shows that women were believed to be so inferior that the most basic of Confucian doctrines did not apply to them. It is also an important example of the practices of the elite spreading to the masses where it made women even more of an economic burden and reduced their capacity to work on the land. Along with their inferiority in the natural order, the male-dominated family and their exclusion from the spiritual life of the ancestors was added a physical inferiority that made the lives of many women unbearable.
Twentieth century to present
Old China died at the beginning of the twentieth century with the abolition of the examination system, and the overthrow of the imperial state. The years of upheaval which followed did somewhat alleviate the position of women. In 1950 the Communist government passed new marriage laws which gave women equality with men in rights of marriage, divorce and property ownership. However laws do not change attitudes overnight and women still have to fight for their position in the family and the wider society.
Women in rural communities run the household and farm, they support both the old and the young. Despite the new laws, men still inherit the land and the family name, and look after the graves of the ancestors. Some families still seek to get back what they have spent raising their daughters through dowries paid by their husbands. Daughters are still seen as a drain on family resources and female infanticide and the abandonment of female children, although illegal, is still practiced. The one child policy of the government is less strictly applied in rural areas or where the only child is a girl. There are many government initiatives to raise the status of rural women and they are encouraged to study hard in order to get better jobs and realise their potential. However, many of those who leave for the factories in the towns and cities use part of their income to support the education of brothers. This is still expected.
Marriage is still important for women and, although some marriages are still arranged, this practice is rapidly changing. Chinese women want what they have never had: an education, a career and marriages for love. However, many married couples work hundred of miles apart and only meet on public holidays, whilst their children are left with grandparents in the countryside. The family structure is still strong and there is a widening gap between the status of women in the public arena, where government policies are implemented, and their status within the family, where old attitudes remain.
The position of women has changed beyond recognition in the last hundred years. They are no longer secluded and they take part in public life. The communist government has done a great deal to improve their status but in China, as elsewhere, it takes time for these changes to be accepted. Women are still responsible for the young and the old, they work to support their families and they get little help from the men. As the economic status of the people improve so does the position of women and the young are more independent than their elders. However there are many who live two lives, one in which they behave much as young women everywhere and another where they defer to their families.
Marriage and children are still important though they are no longer prepared to be subservient to their husbands, they expect their husbands to be loving and faithful and are prepared to instigate divorce if they are not. A major change involves women having custody of their children, something that was unthinkable in the past. There is still an emphasis on producing sons and one rarely finds abandoned boys, whilst the orphanages are full of abandoned girls. However, as families become wealthier, it can be hoped that this practice will die out and that the birth of a girl will be celebrated as much as the birth of a boy.
Fairbank, J.K. China A New History Harvard University Press 1992