WOMEN IN ANCIENT CHINA The ancient civilizations of Egyptians and Mesopotamians have disappeared, but the ancient Chinese civilization did not vanish, it slowly evolved to the present, with many of its leitmotifs intact following thousands of years of usage: ancestral worship, Mandate of Heaven, writing symbols, racial ethnicity, culture, Confucius philosophical ideals, and women’s lower status than men’s. China is the only civilization where Western thought had no influence until modern times, and where such a large region was not ruled by the West. Chinese culture has many opposites with the W: in China white is the color of mourning, not black; the left is the side of honor, not the right, and writing is read vertically not horizontally.
Geography has played an important role in Chinese History as in most ancient cultures. China has three distinct ecogeographical zones: the temperate North China, South China, and Deep South China. While eighty-five percent of China is arid or inaccessible steppes, desert or mountainous, China from the Neolithic period creatively developed its natural resources to today where it supports the largest populated country in the world. As in ancient India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, China’s rivers and their valleys were the site of the earliest civilizations. The Yellow or Huang-Ho River valley was the initial site of development, but the Yangtze River area closely followed. The silt left behind after the rivers flooded left great loess soil for growing crops, a prerequisite for the development of permanent settlements. In the north, millet, hemp, mulberry and fruit trees were cultivated. In the Yangtze River Basin rice, beans, lotus, bamboo, fish and turtles were raised, and in the Deep South tropical ecosystem, there were rich coastal fishing grounds. Women were an integral part of the economy in all these regions.
Chinese history is divided into dynasties like ancient Egypt, but with names not numbers. With only a couple of exceptions, China will be ruled by dynasties for four thousand years. A particular dynasty was a family that stayed in power for a few to many centuries. Huang-Ti, the Yellow Emperor, circa 2500 b.c.e is considered the legendary founder of Chinese civilization. Legends say that during the reign of Huang-Ti and his four successors, who succeeded to power after the gods ruled, the government of the world was perfect. Yu, who was the last of these five emperors, founded the Hsia Dynasty around 2000 b.c.e., which has now been grounded in history archaeologically.
During this dynasty the lunar calendar of 366 days a year was fixed, and is still used by the Chinese for the dating of their traditional festivals. This was also the time China changed from a Neolithic culture to a Bronze Age one, and seri-culture was invented. Chinese legends say that Empress Hsi Ling-Shi discovered silk around 2000 b.c.e. She had been directed by the emperor to investigate what was wrong with the mulberry trees in his garden. Hsi Ling-Shi found them covered with white worms spinning sparkling cocoons. When the empress accidently dropped one of the cocoons into hot water, the cobweb-like mass separated into a single slender thread. After gathering more thread, it was woven into cloth, and became the first full-scale industry in China, employing millions of women over the centuries. Recently discovered in an Egyptian tomb was a piece of silk from the Shang Dynasty. To discuss silk making with an outsider was punishable by death, so the secret remained with the Chinese for about 2500 years.
Sometime in the sixteenth century b.c.e. the Hsia Dynasty was militarily defeated by a neighboring tribe called the Shang. This new dynasty, the Shang, marks the beginning of documented written Chinese history. Twenty thousand inscribed oracle bones are the key documents that preserve the incipient written language that evolved into modern Chinese writing. Oracle bones were originally used for divination, and as the ruler of the Shang dynasty was a priestly king, he made the divinations to the royal ancestors as well as his appointed priests. The king’s diviner would write down a question on the bone, then drill holes in the bone, and when heated or stabbed with a hot poker further cracks appeared; these were interpreted as an answer from the gods or ancestors. From these serendipitous cracks writing was developed. Analysis of these bones are giving us information into the lives of the ancient Chinese. Relative to women’s history these oracle bones refer to mainly aristocratic women. Of the seven hundred personal names found, one hundred and seventy are women’s names. These women participated in a wide range of activities including politics, the military, religious sacrifices, and the economy. As the Shang kings practiced polygamy, including concubinage, this set up contentious relationships among the wives and concubines. Disputes over succession were common and it was natural for mothers to advocate and strive for their son’s political advancement to the kingship. While primogeniture was the de jure route of inheritance, in practice a father could bypass this, and a mother could manipulate it. On some of the oracle bones, are the first written evidence that girls and women were not as important as boys and men in Chinese society, a recurrent theme in Chinese history. “If she gives birth on the day, it will be unlucky and she will give birth to a girl.” Archaeological remains, however, do not reinforce this inferior status for girls/women in this early period of China, for while decapitated skeletons of young girls were found buried around foundations of houses, more male sacrificial victims have been found than female ones. As the male offerings appear to be prisoners of war, this interpretation is still open to change.
Fu Hao ca. 1250 b.c.e. was a powerful wife of Shang King Wu Ding. Inscriptions on oracle bones state: “Fu Hao has been a leader of military campaigns; she [was] made mistress of landed estate outside royal capital; she occasionally took charge of specific rituals; and she was subject of Wu Ding’s divinations concerning her illnesses, childbirths, and general well being.” 1Based on the divinations, it appears that her husband cared about her welfare, but the divinations could also be interpreted that since she was a wealthy individual, the king needed her wealth to stay in power. In her burial site there is considerable evidence of her power and wealth. Fu Hao’s tomb is the only one of the Shang Royal tombs not robbed before modern excavation. There were a large number of weapons in her tomb, many inscribed with her name, that make a clear connection to military campaigns that she led, once with 13,000 troops. It is also known that she owned a walled town where she served as their military, agricultural and ritual leader. These actions resonate with similar activities of an early medieval powerful Queen in England, Aethelflaeda. Sixteen human skeletons of males, females, and children, indicate they were sacrificed, but not to the extent found in larger tombs. Ritual bronze vessels, common items in aristocratic graves, were found in her tomb, including many with her name inscribed on them. Thousands of other miscellaneous objects uncovered were made from jade, bone, ivory, stone, and pottery. In keeping with her high and mighty place in society, sacrifices were made to her spirit after her death.
The next dynasty in China, the Chou or Zhou was the longest-lasting one, 1045-256 b.c.e. Extant paleographic sources for reconstructing women are many, but have not been studied yet. China’s earliest text, the Classic of Poetry was written circa 600 b.c.e. and records the Chinese fables, although sparingly in contrast to the fulsome myths by Greek authors such as Homer and Hesiod as recorded respectfully in their Iliad and Theogony. The Chinese great thinkers and writers of the sixth and seventh centuries Confucius, Mencius and Zhuang Zhou of the Daoists school introduced only fragmentary passages of mythic stories into their works of philosophy and history to augment their arguments and authority. As in other cultures, the themes of Chinese myths tell of creation and floods. While these early deities are mostly male, female goddesses were there, but obscured by later scribal prejudice.A creator goddess and mother goddesses of the sun and moon have been identified. One of these earliest creation myths has Woman Gua (Nu Gua) making seventy transformations from which the cosmos and all living things took shape by her kneading yellow clay into humans. She was also the savior of the world during catastrophes of fire and flood, and inaugurator of marriage, like Isis in Egypt. Female ancestors are incorporated when dynastic foundations are presented in these myths. In one story a lovely virgin girl called Bambooslip Maid (Jian Di) while bathing saw a black bird drop its egg. She picked it up and swallowed it, becoming pregnant and giving birth to a boy deity, who founded the Shang Dynasty. Another story gives credit to a girl also as the divine ancestress of the Zhou, whose son became the grain deity. Chinese mythology has no fixed pantheon as in other ancient cultures, but in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, goddesses are more prominent. Both gods and goddesses are incorporated into their myths. Some of the major feminine deities were Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wang Mu), the sun mother Breath Blend (Xi He), and the moon mother Ever Breath (Chang Xi). The Queen Mother of the West had two functions: she sent disease and disaster down to earth, but also presided over the western mountain paradise. Xi He gave birth to the ten suns of the archaic calendrical week and Chang Xi gave birth to the twelve moons. In the Tang dynasty period 618-907 c.e, the Queen Mother of the West will be the most important goddess of Taoism. As in Greek mythology, Chinese myths relate narratives of virgin birth from divine goddesses or semi-divine female figures, but later on in their histories, it is male gods who will give birth through parthenogenesis, (without a female) like Zeus giving birth to Athena through his head. In keeping with this demoting of goddesses, the three major goddesses were turned into male divinities as China became more patriarchal in its structure. While there are fewer female than male deities in Chinese mythology, a significant number of goddesses are superior to or equal to male gods in terms of role, function and following in antiquity. When classical texts were being edited and printed around 1100 c.e. as the history was being rewritten, so too was the mythology. In both areas women were obscured and demoted.
It was during the Chou Dynasty when Confucist philosophy was introduced and adopted, impacting greatly the lives and status of women. DISCUSS THE 5 RELTIONSHIPS & ONE BETWEEN HUSBAND & WIFE
According to an old Chinese proverb: “The most beautiful and talented daughter is not as desirable as a deformed son.” Considered a matter of supreme importance was the birth of a son, while the birth of a daughter was not. Preference for boys was so obvious in the upper class families, that a son was occasionally given a girl’s name during his childhood. This was done because the Chinese belief in evil spirits led them to thinking that if an evil spirit thought the child was a girl because of the name, they therefore would pass her (him) by because of girls’ lesser value. In a verse from the Book of Poetry is clearly another prescriptive passage showing preference and privilege for males: “Sons shall be born to him. They will be put to sleep on couches; they will be clothed in robes; they will have scepters to play with; their cry will be loud, hereafter they will be resplendent with red knee covers, the future king, the princes of the land. Daughters shall be born to him. They will be put to sleep on the ground; they will be clothed in wrappers; they will have titles to play with. It will be theirs neither to do wrong nor to do good. Only about the liquor and the food will they have to think, and to cause no sorrow to their parents.” Any girl who did not dutifully serve her parents and grandparents was beaten with one hundred strokes of the pan-tse bamboo stick. If she insulted them she was strangled, and if she physically wounded them then she was tortured and cut up into pieces. Peasant fathers committed infanticide by drowning their newborn daughters when they were unwilling or unable to support them. While the practice of infanticide was not common, it did increase during times of economic hardship. Girls were often removed from their natal homes and placed in other ones to serve as cooks, musicians, future wives, and concubines.
Girls of all class levels were expected to marry. Their most vital social function was to bear male children. A female’s life was one of subjugation under her father and eldest brother in her childhood, then under her husband and mother-in-law after her marriage, and then when a widow under her own sons’ dominance. A new wife was on probation for three months not only to her husband, but to his family also, for the married son customarily brought his bride home to his father’s house. Once married the wife was known by only two surnames, her husband’s and her father’s. A first name was not used. While marriages were generally arranged for the upper classes, it was not true for the peasants. Peasants did not even celebrate individual weddings, but took part in the annual spring festival when young men and women from the surrounding villages met in the woods to play the time-honored game in Shakespeare’s England as “making green backs,” the subject of the famous folk song “Greensleeves.” If the maiden was pregnant by autumn, then she and her man would settled down to married life.
Only the husband was entitled to divorce his wife. She could not obtain a divorce. Many reasons were legal for the husband to obtain a divorce: barrenness of his wife, an illness which provoked disgust such as leprosy or epilepsy, a chronic illness, neglect of her father-in-law, talking too much, gossiping maliciously, habitually disobedient, adultery, jealousy, and when she stole from her husband to enrich her own family.
By now the typical Chinese family was a large extended one. While only one wife was allowed, the husband was free to take several concubines. A Confucian statement seems to justify this: “When the coat upon your back is old, worn or no longer is in fashion, do you not take another?
Women continued to exert influence behind the scenes in the political arena as before, but it was not as extensive due to the incorporation of Confucian ideas. “A woman with a long tongue is a stepping-stone to disorder. Disorder does not come down from heaven, it is produced by women, those from whom come no lessons, no instruction, are women and eunuchs.”
The Han dynasty
There is considerable evidence that women from powerful scholarly gentry households enjoyed more freedom and status during the Han era than in later Chinese history.
1 Chang Kwang-chih, Shang Civilization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 89-90 but taken from Vivante