Chinese patriarchy

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Chinese patriarchy refers to the history and prevalence of male dominance in Chinese society and culture.


Mencius outlined the three subordinations. A woman was to be subordinate to her father in youth, her husband in maturity, and her son in old age.[1]

Another one of these famous quotes is also related to the patriarchy found in Athens. "Men are free to roam outside, but the woman must stay inside."

A cliché of classical texts, which is repeated throughout the tradition, is the familiar notion that men govern the outer world, while women govern the home. In the Han dynasty, the female historian Ban Zhao wrote the Lessons for Women, advice on how women should behave. She outlines the four virtues women must abide by: proper virtue, proper speech, proper countenance, proper merit. The "three subordinations and the four virtues" is a common four-character phrase throughout the imperial period.

As for the historical development of Chinese patriarchy, women's status was highest in the Tang dynasty, when women played sports (polo) and were generally freer in fashion and conduct. Between the Tang and Song dynasties, a fad for little feet arose, and from the Song dynasty onwards foot binding became more and more common for the elite. In the Ming dynasty, a tradition of virtuous widowhood developed. Widows, even if widowed at a young age, would be expected not to remarry. Their virtuous names might be displayed on the arch at the entrance of the village.

Confucian conceptions of "respect for the elders" has been focused on preserving the traditional role of the father as the primary leader and decision maker of the family. In the hierarchy of traditional Chinese cultural family life, the father and sons take prominence over the mother and daughters.

20th century[edit]

Features of patriarchy in 20th and 21st century China are a combination of contemporary problems found even in the West and traditional Chinese issues.

Men hold most of the major positions of power within the country, especially in the political and military spheres. However, with the decline of traditional practices through the 20th century, women have come to enjoy virtually equal economic power. This is especially true in the cities, where the social stigma of being a working woman is virtually nonexistent, although skepticism of unmarried, career-minded women is increasing.[2] Although both genders face strong pressure to be married, women who remain unmarried past the age of 25 are shamed by state media with the label leftover women.[3]

In addition, foot binding and arranged marriages have been virtually eradicated.[4]

There is also the issue of forced abortions in China, especially for sex selection purposes; authorities have been accused of giving the women virtually no control over their bodies in this area.[5]

Female Body Regulation[edit]

China has a more than five-thousand-year history and Chinese culture has been passed down through generations. Some traditions started since the very beginning in history still can be found in the twenty-first century Chinese society. Patriarchy is definitely one of those traditions. Almost every dynasty in China is ruled by male and maintains a patriarchal society. Chinese philosopher Confucius stated Three Guidelines and Five Virtues in Confucianism. One of those guidelines requests that ministers must submit to the king, sons must submit to the father, and wives must submit to the husband.[6] Along with other countless rules made by male to rule female, these guidelines provide evidences which prove that the status of Chinese female in Chinese society is incredibly low and the patriarchy is reasonable and undoubtable. Even though sometimes the patriarchy could be cruel and damage female’s body, women are still willing to follow those traditions due to the social pressure. While Chinese people and society have realized the importance of equal-rights between two genders, the patriarchy still exists in today’s Chinese society. This entry will provide various evidences, analyze the patriarchy in both old and new Chinese society, and prove that women are willing to regulate their body to gain power, or to survive, in Chinese patriarchal society. In old China, women’s status in both family and society is extremely low. Women are mostly served as trading objects and reproduction tools and they should not only submit to her husband, but also totally submit to her grown son. In this extreme patriarchal society, foot-binding was created. Foot-binding is a procedure that break bones in women’s foot and bind it to fit in a three-inches long shoe, called “Lotus Shoes”.[7] This procedure is “a voluntary ordeal undertaken by mothers to inform their daughters of how to succeed in a world authored by men” and “it informed a daughter of the necessity of sacrificing the products of her body in service to the Neo-Confucian family system.”[7] All these descriptions of foot-binding still might not fully present the true cruelty and sexual depravity of foot-binding and patriarchy in old Chinese society. The following paragraphs will discuss more details about foot-binding’s origin, cruelty of the procedure and the reasons for following this tradition.

Foot-binding was created for several reasons. First, foot-binding is actually created by a women to please men. YaoNiang, a concubine of the king at that time, LiYu, used silk to bind her feet into shape of moon and danced wearing “Golden Lotus”, a three-inch-long shoe in order to make the king happy. After that, this procedure of foot-binding get spread around the country and created a new set of values. “Impossibly small, these feet were originally a source of great pride. Small feet added prestige to a family.”[8] If a woman has a smaller foot, she is considered more beautiful and more valuable. Instead of considering one’s ability, intelligence, face and body, size of the feet is the only standard of evaluating a women in old Chinese society. Second, in male-dominated China, leaders of the country are afraid of women taking away their power because women can reproduce and create labor force and even army. In order to eliminate this threat and maintain the power, male leaders gives “the cultural necessity that a woman properly orient her body—that is bend it to the will of male authority”. “Through the bending, twisting, and compressing of the feet, a girl’s sense of managing space was radically modified”.[7] Foot-binding not only constrains women’s mind, it also physically makes women weaker. Women begin foot-binding at age five and when women finally finished this cruel procedure around at age fifteen, women’s feet are distorted beyond recognition and can barely run, not mentioning starting a war.[9]

Though foot-binding is widespread, it is extremely cruel. Foot-binding starts as early as age five because at that time, girl’s physical, mental, and social maturation are in the optimal stage. Girl at that age can appreciate the necessity of a bodily discipline and can endure the severe, protracted pain. “Although largely filtered through male voices during the period when foot-binding was under attack, testimonies of foot-bound women attempted to find words for the kind of pain experienced in binding—burning, throbbing feet swallowing the body in fire—from sever traumas that created months, even years, of oozing sores, bandages stiff with dried pus and blood, and sloughed-off gobs of flesh.”[7] No one will know the pain without going through the procedure, however, these words could give a clue how much pain it could be.

Knowing the pain and consequences, women are still willing to bind their feet and pass down this tradition. As stated above, women’s value is determined by the size of her feet. Mothers want the best for their daughters, which is marriage, so they forced their daughters to bind their feet. “The tradition could not have passed from mothers to daughters if not for mothers credibility as “caring”.”[7] It is interesting that in Chinese “caring” and “pain” actually are the same word, “Teng”. This proves a Chinese ideology: Beating is caring, scolding is loving.[7] In terms of foot-binding, mothers showed no pity forcing their daughters to bind feet because they thought they were helping her to be better so that she can get married when she grow up, which is the best result for a women at that time. In other words, women have no other choice but to sacrifice their body in order to survive the old Chinese patriarchal society.

Nowadays, China plays a more and more important role in the world and its economy grows at an amazing speed. Society is more civilized and has abandoned the foot-binding for a long time. Nonetheless the patriarchy is passed down as a tradition. Chinese society is still patriarchal and inequality between male and female still exists. Comparing with old China, today’s patriarchy causes a similar but different damage to female’s body. Under the influence of globalization, Chinese culture has been fused with Western culture and values. Instead of binding their feet, today’s Chinese women apply various different methods to regulate their body to gain power and to survive modern Chinese patriarchal society. The following paragraphs discuss in detail about the ways of body-regulation and reasons behind it.

In today’s Chinese society, the beauty standard has changed from size of feet to facial and body appearance. To fit in the new standard and to survive the patriarchal society, women exercises several body-regulations. First, women use new cosmetics and health products to look younger and more attractive. Jie Yang interviewed a women in a beauty salon in Beijing and Jie Yang learnt that this women has spent a fortune purchasing cosmetics in order to look younger and more attractive and try to get her husband back who had had a series of affairs with younger women. In fact, this women is not a special case. “The beauty economy was ranked fifth in China’s consumer goods industry.”[10] Second, advanced medical technology allows women to do plastic surgery at a lower cost. Chinese women now consider performing a plastic surgery as a usual thing and exercise various surgeries on their body—abdominoplasty, blepharoplasty, breast augmentations, chemical peel, lip enhancement and so on.[11] “China performs more cosmetic surgery than any country except America and Brazil.”[12] Third, women also restrict their body movements. In order to be considered as a classy lady, women have to exercise a set of particular gestures, postures, and movements. Sandra Lee Bartky believes that “Women sit waiting for trains with arms close to the body, hands folded together in their laps, toes pointing straight ahead or turned inward, and legs pressed together.” and “women are trained to smile more than man.”[13] All these body-regulations requires not only a relentless surveillance, but also a strong economical support.

Women need those regulations to gain power and to survive the Chinese patriarchal society. Hong Chen and Todd Jackson states in their research that “sociocultural factors including appearance pressure, teasing, and social comparison” make adolescent girls and young women in China concern and dissatisfied about their body image.[14] “Highly collectivistic nations including China emphasize cooperation” so that its people “are particularly sensitive to others’ opinions when judging their own physical appearance and more likely to engage in appearance comparisons with others.”[15] When women have their concerns and dissatisfactions, they will follow those regulations so that they can fit in the norm. Another reason is that a more attractive woman is easier to get a job. Even though Chinese government tried hard to make employment opportunities equal for both genders, discriminations in job market still prevails. “An attractive face was more important then either grade point average or public exam performance in observer judgments of work skills of Hong Kong job candidates.”[16] London Guildhall University Researcher Killings states that prettier female officer could earn 11% more salary than her less pretty colleague.[17] Therefore, women are willing to improve body image and facial appearance so that they can improve the odds of success in work and love.

As this article has shown, the desire for women to gain power and survive within a patriarchal society has resulted in their willingness to transform their body image. The issue has become so pervasive that modern Chinese women still adopt these practices. While women’s low social status leaves much to be desired, their willingness is not their fault and can mainly be attributed to the patriarchal system itself, which is a social problem that has persisted for many generations. Even though ancient China's rule dates back thousands of years, New China currently has less than seventy years of history. As more and more people become increasingly civilized and connected with the outside world, inequality between genders will eventually be reduced. Given the fact that Chinese people are deeply influenced their traditional heritage, much still needs to be accomplished before gender equality can be achieved where Chinese women will no longer be required to sacrifice their body image.

See also[edit]

Selection of children by gender:


  1. ^ Joanne D. Birdwhistell (2007). Mencius and Masculinities: Dynamics of Power, Morality, and Maternal Thinking. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-8038-0. Retrieved 31 July 2013. 
  2. ^ Tatlow, Didi Christian; Forsythe, Michael (20 February 2015). "In China's Modern Economy, a Retro Push Against Women". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Magistad, Mary Kay (20 February 2013). "BBC News - China's 'leftover women', unmarried at 27". BBC News. Beijing. Retrieved 29 March 2013. 
  4. ^ Schiavenza, Matt (16 September 2013). "The Peculiar History of Foot Binding in China". The Atlantic. 
  5. ^ Fong, Mei (5 January 2016). One Child. 
  6. ^ Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals
  7. ^ a b c d e f Blake, Fred (1 April 1994). Foot-Binding in Neo-Confucian China and the Appropriation of Female Labor. University of Chicago Press. p. 691. 
  8. ^ Ross, Kaz (Nov 2001). '(Hand)Made In China': The Curious Return Of The Footbinding Shoe. Postcolonial Studies. p. 313. 
  9. ^ Ross, Kaz (Nov 2001). '(Hand)Made In China': The Curious Return Of The Footbinding Shoe. Postcolonial Studies. p. 315. 
  10. ^ Yang, Jie (2011). Nennu And Shunu: Gender, Body Politics, And The Beauty Economy In China. Signs. p. 334. 
  11. ^ Plastic surgery
  12. ^ Worstall, Tim. "China, Brazil, USA Lead For Plastic Surgery: Why?". Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  13. ^ Bartky, Sandra Lee (1997). Foucault, Femininity, And The Modernization Of Patriarchal Power. Columbia University Press. p. 67. 
  14. ^ Jackson, Todd; Hong, Chen (2008). Sociocultural Predictors Of Physical Appearance Concerns Among Adolescent Girls And Young Women From China. Sex Roles. p. 410. 
  15. ^ Jackson, Todd; Hong, Chen (2008). Sociocultural Predictors Of Physical Appearance Concerns Among Adolescent Girls And Young Women From China. Sex Roles. p. 403. 
  16. ^ Jackson, Todd; Hong, Chen (2008). Sociocultural Predictors Of Physical Appearance Concerns Among Adolescent Girls And Young Women From China. Sex Roles. p. 404. 
  17. ^ Zhang, Debi. "Student Plastic Surgery's Reality". Tecent News. Retrieved 16 April 2015.