Women in ming & qing dynasties china 1368-1830



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WOMEN IN MING & QING DYNASTIES CHINA 1368-1830

China has been an exceedingly traditional society for thousands of years, especially the last 2500 years. This is exemplified by the low status accorded women since Confucius’ ideas were presented through his Analects and Five Classics, and utilized for civil service examinations. The patriarchal structure of the family was clearly defined. While ancestor worship began long before Confucius’ time (circa 500 B.C.E.), and women ancestors were worshiped in the Hsia and Shang dynasties 2500- B.C.E. The influence of Confucianism resulted in only male names being placed on the altar list of ancestors, and presumably the female gender was omitted from the propitiation of their deceased relatives. In China there was a huge social influence of the patriarchal family, especially compared to the West throughout Chinese history. While there was early goddess worship and female shamanism, over time these practices were eliminated. Nu Wa, was the creatrix who made the Chinese people out of mud, and female shamans communicated with the spirit world.1 Ti or Di was the name for the god of the Heavens, and at the beginning of the Chou Dynasty (11th century B.C.E), the new ruler issued his statement that Heaven had granted him the Mandate of Heaven to rule China. From then on, all new dynasties claimed this providence.

Here are some of the blatant misogynistic statements purported

made by Confucius and his followers relating to girls/women that were passed down through the centuries:

When the coat upon your back is old, worn or no longer is in fashion, do you not take another?”

The most beautiful and talented daughter is not as desirable as a deformed son.”

Married women were never allowed to get a divorce, and when the arranged marriage took place, she went to the home of her in-laws where she was to live more or less as a servant to the family. If she was divorced, her natal family did not want to suffer the shame if she came home, so she was sold into slavery or prostitution. This arrangement continued throughout the centuries in China up to modern times. One of the positive actions credited to a woman was when the wife of a Hsia emperor discovered that the white worms crawling on the mulberry tree leaves when dropped in hot water could be unraveled to produce silk thread. Exportation of silk material began and it was the major income for centuries for the Chinese. Girls and women fed the mulberry leaves to the worms, and processed the silk into material. In the southern regions of China, girls and women worked in the rice paddies as well. Beginning in the Tang Dynasty, (circa 11-12th centuries), foot binding started as a beauty statement for aristocratic women, but over the years was passed to nearly all girls in the northern half of China, and became a rite of passage to get married. More discussion on this is available in the chapter on Women in Medieval China.

Scholars were the most revered group of people in China rather than soldiers as in other cultures, but unfortunately education for girls and women was not thought important. When Buddhism travelled to China via the trade routes, Buddha became a god, and his helpers were referred to as bodhisattvas. Interestingly, a male avatar from Hinduism in India, made the transition to a female bodhisattva named Kuan Yin, and she became the Goddess of Compassion. There are many similarities to her and the Virgin Mary in the West, and even today, most Chinese families have a statue of Kuan Yin in their homes. There has been some research that proposes that the female symbol of Kuan Yin helped Chinese women transcend the restrictions of a Confucian-defined, male-dominated society, and clearly liberated them from the psychological suffering particular to their gender. 2 Hsi Wang Mu or Xi Wang Mu, or the Queen Mother of the West, was and is the highest female goddess in what is now the Taoist religion (it was once a major philosophy developing about the same time as Confucius’ ideas.)

When the Mongols ruled China for several hundred years, they treated their women folk well, and many famous Mongolian women have surfaced in the written records. When the Manchus took over rule from the Mings, again the Manchus as outsiders, they maintained distance for their women from Chinese culture up until the last Manchu or Qing ruler, an empress Tsi Hsi or what she is sometimes derogatorily referred to as the “Old Buddha”.

Beginning in 1368 it was the Ming Dynasty that was able to rid China of the Mongolians, and revert back to traditional Chinese customs. The founder of the Ming Dynasty Hung Wu, introduced an agricultural revolution that increased the rice crop to two a year instead of one, thus giving peasant women plenty of work to help support their families. He also engaged in reforestation, by requiring the peasants to plant over one billion fruit and mulberry trees, again providing employment for women making silk and preserving fruit. By the turn of the fourteen century into the fifteenth century, the famous Forbidden City was built outside Beijing. Undoubtedly, Empress Ma was instrumental in this giant project, where color and directions of buildings were essential to the Feng Shui philosophy. Hung Wu is known to have treasured his wife Empress Ma, and she served as an administrator, diplomat, and humanizing influence on her husband until she died. By that time, Hung Wu had created a large bureaucracy of eunuchs. Another empress that is barely mentioned in the sources is Xiao Gong Zhang, who was married to the Emperor Xuande, the fifth emperor of the Ming Dynasty. She was also regent for her son from 1435-1442. She died twenty years later, so it appears her regency was successful. Both of these empresses wore the Phoenix crown, which was a symbol of virtue and grace to the Chinese, and also represented power and prosperity, as reflected in the position of empress. The crowns were all unique, but they used kingfisher and pheasant feathers, along with gold, pearls, and precious stones. Because of their high status both of these women are buried in the famous Imperial Ming cemetery in Nanking. We know that many prominent women were excluded from the history books in China, and there are scholars working to find out their history, including Susan Cahill. .3

Also during the Ming Dynasty that lasted until 1644, mercantile expansion occurred, and merchants moved from investing in land to investing in manufacturing of goods, such as cotton, porcelain, printing, and many other items. Here women would make some of these items in their homes as in the putting out system or cottage industry, long before the West began their Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century in England. Women also worked in rice paddies, produced silk from silk worms, domestic servants, gathered tea leaves, and were prostitutes. Women workers in the Palace of Rulers or Rich Homes had varied and professional occupations as they treated and administered to these high status women. These women served as physicians, wet nurses, midwives, pharmacologists, coroners’ assistants, undertakers, Yin-yang specialists, and shamanesses.4

The next dynasty was called the Ch’ing or Qing, when the Manchurians ruled, that lasted from 1644-1912. As the last eighty years were composed of the West and Japan invading China which led to many uprisings and wars, this period will be covered in another chapter. How were one million Manchus able to govern 350 million Chinese? Here are some of the main reasons: They kept most all of the indigenous traditional Chinese institutions; they removed eunuchs from power, they wore distinctive clothes, no foot binding for their women, forced the Chinese males to wear their long hair in a braided queue with the forehead shaved, disallowed intermarriage with the Chinese, and the rulers supported the arts and letters in China.

During the Manchu Dynasty most women kept up their occupations they held in the Ming Dynasty, but there is evidence of more writers, poets, and painters from the upper classes. Hung O or Huang E or Huang Xiumei, 1498-1569 was even well known before marriage, indicating that she was a well educated scholar. After her husband was banished from the Ming Court she personally tended his estate, even sending him money while he whiled away his time with concubines. Even after his death, she continued her same activities, and educated his two sons by concubines. A century later the courtesan Liu Yin (1618-1664) became a respected poet and painter. The leading literary critic of the time, Ch’ien Ch’ien-I became her protector, and she worked with him, continuing to compose poetry and editing an anthology of poems. More than a century after Liu Yin another impressive woman was Ching Shih, a warrior, pirate, politician, and businesswoman. She too started life as a prostitute, but after her marriage she became ambitious and eventually by 1804 commanded 400 Chinese junks (small ships), and 70,000 men, who did her bidding in legal and illegal trade and “piracy.” As more research is done, many more incredible women will undoubtedly surface from this period of Chinese history.

As the Chinese family had greater social influence than the family did in Europe, their responsibilities were vast, including taking care of the sick, indigent, and elderly. The family was responsible for the moral education of the children as well as regular secular education. Religious life was taught and practiced through ancestor worship at the family altar in the home. We do know that Buddhist monasteries and nunneries all had statues of Kuan Yin on their premises. A Chinese person without a family had no material or psychological support. We have learned that the poor families were generally nuclear in living arrangements, while the educated, middle and wealthy had generally extended families living together. The father was the patriarch of the family or if he was not available then the eldest son was. Officially they had autocratic power. Marriages were arranged, and even sons were married shortly after puberty. Women were not allowed to obtain a divorce. Reasons for divorce were barrenness of the wife, wife having a disgusting illness, wife neglected her father-in-law, she talked too much, she maliciously gossiped, was habitually disobedient, committed adultery, or was jealous of the concubines her husband brought home permanently to live in better quarters than she occupied. Infant girls were subject to infanticide as soon as they were born, and it was not considered a crime. They could also be sold into servitude or concubinage. Beginning at the age of three, the girls’ toes were broken, and made to turn under bound with material. Deaths did occur from infection, but this practice was done for centuries until theoretically outlawed in 1902.



1 The many myths connected to Nu Wa connect her with holding up the four rungs of heaven.

2 Barbara E. Reed in “The Gender Symbolism of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva in Buddhismn, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon, Albany, New York, State University of New York, 1991, pp. 159 ff.

3 Mythical birds were named Feng for the male and Haung for the female and sometimes used in conjunction with the Phoenix crowns.

4 This spelling for shamans is what was given in one of the scholarly sources.


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