Women in ancient and imperial China

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History of China
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Pre-modern Chinese society was predominantly patriarchal and patrilineal from at least the 11th century BCE onwards.[1] The freedoms and opportunities available to women varied depending on the time period and regional situation. The status of women was, similar to men, closely tied to the Chinese kinship system.[2]

Sons were preferred to daughters, and women were expected to be subordinate to fathers, husbands, and sons. Far fewer women were educated than men, and many of their readings consist of book such as Nü Xun (, Advice for Women) and Lienü zhuan (, Biographies of Notable Women), which instruct them to be subjects of men. Bound feet, which were customary even for peasant women, symbolized the painful constraints of the female role.

Ancient China[edit]

Received Chinese historiography about ancient China was edited heavily by Confucian scholars in the 4th century BCE, who aimed to show that the dynastic system of government extended as far back into the past as possible.[3] These texts, like the Zuo zhuan and Classic of Poetry, focus on male nobles and scholars, with infrequent references to women. One exception is Biographies of Exemplary Women, compiled in the 1st century BCE as a collection of cautionary tales for men, highlighting the advantages of virtuous women, as well as the dangers posed by loose ones.[4] All women included in this biography were members of the nobility and were generally depicted as passive, with their male guardians (husbands or fathers) controlling their actions.[4] In contrast, archaeological remains from pre-Confucian periods show that women played active roles at all levels of society.[5]


Vessel from the Majiayao culture decorated with a female-male figure

Neolithic society in China is perceived to be matrilineal, with patrilineal societies becoming dominant later with the rise of pastoralism and the first social division of labor. This originates from Marxist theories of historical materialism, which argue that social structure is determined by the economy. The fact that burials of both women and men of the Yangshao culture have grave goods, even though each had different types of items, was used to show that Marx's first great social division of labor had not occurred, thus the Yangshao culture is presumed to have been matrilineal.[6] This assumption continues to be influential in modern archaeology.[7]

Female figurines representing either goddesses or fertility symbols have been found at several sites of the Hongshan culture in Liaoning province, as well as the Xinglongwa culture in eastern Inner Mongolia. These figures are posed with their hands resting on their large bellies and the Niuheliang figure was found inside a temple, supporting the idea that they were worshipped.[8] The division between female and male was also likely less rigid in the Neolithic than in later periods, as demonstrated by a vessel from the Majiayao culture site of Liupingtai (Chinese: 六平台) in Qinghai. The figure on the pot has both male and female genitalia, leading some archaeologists to argue that the genders combined were considered to be powerful, perhaps as a precursor to later yin and yang philosophy.[9]

Women buried at sites belonging to the Majiayao culture are often accompanied by spindle whorls, suggesting that weaving was an important occupation for women.[10] When a male and female were buried together, they lay next to each other in the same positions, suggesting no difference in social status between the genders.[11] By the Qijia culture, the woman is found buried outside of the main coffin along with the grave goods, as at Liuwan (Chinese: 柳湾) in Ledu District.[12] This suggests that the women were being treated as possessions of the men buried in the main grave. The left leg of one female in a double burial was even caught beneath the coffin lid, which the archaeologists suggest indicates that she was buried alive.[13]

Shang Dynasty[edit]

Statue of Fu Hao by a modern artist

Women's status varied between regions, as the Lower Xiajiadian culture cemetery of Dadianzi (Chinese: 大甸子) in the north contained equal numbers of men and women, suggesting that both were given equal burial rites. In addition, the women's average age at death was slightly higher than the men's, which indicates that they lived longer. This contrasts with the pattern at other cemeteries of the same period, where fewer women received formal burial.[14]

While Shang Dynasty women are thought to have been considered lower in status to men,[15] archaeological excavations of burials have shown that women could not only reach high status, but that they also exercised political power. The tomb of Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding, contained precious jade objects and ritual bronze vessels, demonstrating her wealth. In addition, texts from the Shang Dynasty have been excavated that record Fu Hao leading troops into battle to the north of Shang territories, conquering states, leading services to worship ancestors, and assisting in political affairs at court.[16] After her death, Fu Hao was honoured by later rulers as Ancestor Xin and given sacrifices to ensure she remained benevolent.[17]

The topics of the oracle bones suggest that the Shang preferred male children, as the question posed to one bone was whether Fu Hao's pregnancy would be "good". The bone records that the pregnancy was, "not good; [the child] was a girl."[17] In addition, male rulers were allowed to marry several wives in order to improve their changes of having male children.[18] Fu Hao was, thus, referred to as consort, whereas Fu Jing (Chinese: 婦井) was also first wife. This difference in status is shown by Fu Jing's being buried in the king's precinct in a tomb with a ramp. In contrast, Fu Hao was buried outside the official cemetery.[19]

Zhou Dynasty[edit]

By the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese society was decidedly patriarchal, with female and male social roles determined by a strict, feudal hierarchy.[1] The foundation for enforced division of women and men in later times appeared during the Eastern Zhou period, when mohists and legalists began to espouse the advantanges to each sex performing stereotypical work roles; in theory, such a division guaranteed morality and social order. Well-ordered gender relations gradually came to be expressed in the phrase, "men plow, women weave," (Chinese: 男耕女织).[20] This division expanded to create social separation between men and women. The Book of Changes states that. 'among family members, women's proper place is inside and man's proper place is outside.'[21] The written sources indicate that women were increasingly confined to enforce this gender separation, with women of lower social status expected to return home when not engaged in unavoidable work outside. Noblewomen enjoyed the luxury of not having to work outside and their family's ability to sequester them from the male gaze became an indication of their status.[22]

Transmitted texts give a general impression of how literate, mainly male, Zhou people perceived women. They indicate that male children were preferred, with female children seen as less valuable to the family collective than males.[23] Up to age 9, a female child might receive the same education as a male, however, at age 10, girls were expected to study the Three Obediences and Four Virtues;[23] 'obediences' refers to the expectation that she would first obey her father, then her husband, then her sons after her husband's death. The Book of Rites dictates that a woman should be married by 20 or, "if there is a problem, be married by 23."[23] After marriage, women were expected to live with their husband's family and demonstrate filial piety towards his parents as if they were her own.[24] The custom of the groom's family financially compensating the bride's family for losing her can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty as set out in the Six Rites.[25]

The specifications of the Zhou ritual texts regarding women were not always followed. For example, the cemetery of the Marquises of Jin in Shanxi contained 19 joint burials of the Jin lords and their wives.[26] Based on the rich burial goods, archaeologists have suggested that women's status was closer to that of the men during the 10th century BCE, potentially because the Zhou Dynasty's rituals were not yet strictly implemented. In burials from the early 9th century, however, the quantity of bronze vessels accompanying the wives decreases markedly, suggesting that the Zhou ritual system dictating a wife's subordination to her husband was in place. The burial of a Jin lord dating to the 8th century BCE, in contrast, is smaller than either tomb of his two wives, an act explicitly forbidden by the Zhou texts. This demonstrates the waning power of the Zhou government, as well as the variability in the levels of application of the rituals.[27]

There are records of women during this period advising male relatives on political strategy,[28] defending themselves against harsh legal sentences,[29] teaching noblemen how to shoot arrows correctly,[30] admonishing their ruler for unacceptable behaviour,[31] and composing poetry.[32] There is also a record of King Wu of Zhou appointing his wife Yi Jiang (Chinese: 邑姜) as one of his nine ministers.[33]

Spring and Autumn period[edit]

Qing Dynasty woodblock print of Zheng Mao advising King Cheng of Chu on the succession.

The decline of the Zhou Dynasty's power heralded a period where its feudal states became increasingly independent and powerful in their own right. Philosophies that dictated how the world should be ordered became particularly abundant in this period of unrest, the majority of which emphasised women's inferiority to their male counterparts. Despite this, female relatives of rulers played key roles in diplomacy. For example, two wives of Duke Wen of Zheng personally visited King Cheng of Chu to thank him after he sent military aid to Zheng.[34]

In spite of social rules that the sexes should be segregated,[21] women were in charge of events held in their home (the domestic sphere), even if social rules meant that they should not appear to be. Even for meetings that were restricted to males, the woman of the house is often recorded as keeping a watchful eye on events. In one case, a minister of Jin requested that his wife assess his colleagues during a drinking party from behind a screen; his wife then gave the minister advice on the personalities of his guests.[35] Similarly, a minister of Cao allowed his wife to observe a meeting between himself and Chong'er of Jin. She judged that Chong'er would become an exception leader, however the ruler of Cao, Duke Gong, treated Chong'er with disrespect. After his reinstatement, Chong'er invaded Cao.[35] The evidence therefore suggests that women were closely involved with important political and social events, but they served as advisers, planners, and providers of food.[36]

Recorded professions for women of the lower social classes in this period include weavers,[37] cooks, and musical performers.[38] However the majority of textual and archaeological evidence concerns upper-class women, which makes it difficult to reconstruct the lives of everyday people.

Imperial China[edit]

Han Dynasty[edit]

The scholar Ban Zhao, author of Lessons for Women, describes 'womanly virtue' (Chinese: 女德; pinyin: nüde) as requiring no, "brilliant talent or remarkable difference. Womanly language need not be clever in disputation or sharp in conversation."[39]

Tang Dynasty[edit]

The Tang dynasty has been described as a golden age for women, in contrast to the Neo-Confucianism of the Song dynasty that saw practices like foot-binding, widow suicide, and widow chastity become socially normative.[40] This image of women's freedom comes from the fact that the Tang Empire was governed by several powerful women for half a century. Wu Zetian rose from the position of Emperor Gaozong's concubine to govern the country in various roles, first as his empress consort, later as regent for his heir, before declaring herself emperor (Chinese: 皇帝) of a new Zhou dynasty in 690. Other major female players in politics at this time included Empress Wei and Princess Taiping.[40]

Ceramic models of Tang women playing polo and wearing trousers

Tang society followed the traditions of Northern China, which was closely related to that of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia and the Eurasian Steppe. In these societies, women and men were more equal than had been permitted during the Han dynasty, with women recorded as handling legal disputes, involved in politics,[41] and warfare. Princess Pingyang, a daughter of the first emperor of the Tang, was instrumental in founding the Tang dynasty, raising and commanding an army of 70,000 soldiers to assist her father’s campaign.[42] In addition, women continued to occupy powerful positions in the social consciousness, appearing in tales as powerful spirits responsible for a household's fate,[43] as well as shamans, despite the fact that a secular class of physicians existed during the Tang.[44]

The frequency of marrying female relatives to foreign rulers to forge political alliances increased during the Tang. In contrast to earlier dynasties, the princesses sent by the Tang court were usually genuine members of the imperial house.[45] Far from being passive objects traded between states, the princesses were expected to act as Tang ambassadors and diplomats to the courts they married into. This could be as cultural ambassadors, as in the case of Princess Wencheng, who is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet along with her co-wife Bhrikuti of Licchavi.[46] An example of a princess acting as a political diplomat is seen in the marriage of Princess Taihe to the head of the Uyghur Khaganate. After being widowed in 824, Princess Taihe was kidnapped twice during conflict with the Yenisei Kirghiz and made to petition Emperor Wuzong of Tang to formally acknowledge the rebel leader. The message sent by Emperor Wuzong of Tang to Princess Taihe, recorded in the Zizhi Tongjian, reveals the political expectations placed on these female diplomats.[47]

Originally, the empire lost its beloved daughter for a marriage that would make peace and cause the Uyghur Khaganate to assist in stabilising and defending its borders. Recently, the actions of the khaganate have been thoroughly unreasonable and its horses have come south. Do you, Aunt, not fear the anger of Emperor Gaozu and Emperor Taizong's spirits! When the empire's borders are disturbed, do you not think of the love of the Grand Empress Dowager! You are the mother of the khaganate and should be powerful enough to issue orders. If the khaganate does not follow your orders, this will end the relationship between our two states and they will no longer be able to hide behind you!

The Tang saw an increasing perception of women as a commodity. Although previously only the upper classes had concubines (Chinese: ) in addition to one wife (Chinese: ), Tang legal codes set out the formal differences between wives and concubines, as well as the children born by each. A man was legally only allowed one wife, but could, "purchase as many concubines as he could afford."[48] The legal status of a concubine was very far from that of a maid (Chinese: ), with maids needing to be freed (Chinese: ) to change their position.[49] However, a concubine was expected to serve the wife in the same way as a maid, her sons were required to treat the wife as their legal mother, and, on her husband's death, she had no claims to the property he left.[48] Though wives were not supposed to be sold, the perception of women as marketable goods made it simple for husbands to sell their wives to brothel madams, such as those found in eastern Chang'an. The courtesans of Chang'an were employed to sing, converse with, and entertain customers, similar to the Japanese geisha. The girls had often been beggars or indentured to poor families. On entering the brothel, the girls took the madam's surname.[50] A way out was to either marry a client or become a concubine. Venereal diseases were recognised during the Tang and physicians document one similar to gonorrhea that was spread through sex.[51]

A troupe of musicians painted on the walls of the 7th century tomb of Li Shou

The level of education required of courtesans, coupled with their frequently literati clientele, meant that many wrote poetry commenting on current society and events.[52] Li Ye was so famed for her literary talents that she was summoned to the court of Emperor Dezong of Tang to compose poetry for him. Dezong was known for his appreciation of female scholars and talent, as he had previously summoned the five Song sisters and been so impressed with their knowledge of the Classics and poetry that he employed them as court poets.[53] Several other poets of the time, like Li Ye, bridged various social divides, being at different times courtesans and Taoist nuns. Examples of such women include Xue Tao and Yu Xuanji. Not all female poets during the Tang were courtesans, however, and women writers were common enough that the scholar Cai Xingfeng (Chinese: 蔡省風) edited a collection of poetry written exclusively by women, known as the Collection of New Songs from the Jade Lake (Chinese: 瑤池新詠集; pinyin: Yáochí xīn yǒng jí).[54]

Examples of occupations pursued by women included trade (selling foodstuffs),[55] weaving, tending silk worms,[56] singing, dancing,[57] acrobatics,[58] street performance,[59] storytelling,[60] and secretary to officials.[61] Joining a religious institution was also a career choice taken by many women. Chang'an alone reportedly had 27 Buddhist nunneries and six Taoist temples with priestesses in the early 8th century.[62] The nuns participated in religious processions, such as the arrival of a Buddhist relic to Chang'an, when nuns and monks walked behind the vehicle conveying the Buddha's finger bone.[63]

The Tang taxation system calculated the amount owed by every adult male to the state; women were not taxed. However, part of a male's tax included 20 feet of silk or 25 feet of linen woven by the women of his household.[64] In short, the government presumed that a women would be represented in official bureaucracy by a male guardian. Charles Benn notes that Tang women adopted a cloak that covered their bodies from head to foot, with only a small gap for their eyes, from the Tuyuhun. The intention was to avoid men's gazes when out and about. The fashion began to fade in the 8th century, which Emperor Gaozong of Tang found distressing, as women's faces were exposed when venturing outside. Gaozong issued two edicts attempting to revive the style, but the headwear was soon replaced by a wide-brimmed hat with a veil of gauze hanging from the brim to the shoulders.[65]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Wu (2009), p. 86.
  2. ^ Keightley (1999), p. 2.
  3. ^ Linduff (2003), pp. 60-61.
  4. ^ a b Linduff (2003), p. 61.
  5. ^ Lee, Stefanowska & Wiles (2007), p. vii.
  6. ^ Lee (1993), pp. 62-63.
  7. ^ Li & Chen (2012), p. 11.
  8. ^ Hinsch (2004), pp. 60-63.
  9. ^ Hinsch (2004), p. 71.
  10. ^ Sun & Yang (2004), p. 37.
  11. ^ Sun & Yang (2004), p. 38.
  12. ^ Sun & Yang (2004), p. 39.
  13. ^ Sun & Yang (2004), p. 40.
  14. ^ Keightley (1999), p. 27.
  15. ^ Campbell (2014), p. 257.
  16. ^ Diao (2015), p. 75.
  17. ^ a b Norden, van (2003), p. 3.
  18. ^ Linduff (2002), p. 265.
  19. ^ Linduff (2002), p. 266.
  20. ^ Hinsch (2013), p. 14.
  21. ^ a b Hinsch (2013), p. 16.
  22. ^ Hinsch (2013), p. 17.
  23. ^ a b c Wu (2009), p. 87.
  24. ^ Wu (2009), p. 88.
  25. ^ Wang (2015).
  26. ^ Yong (2004), p. 164.
  27. ^ Yong (2004), pp. 197-198.
  28. ^ Lee, Stefanowska & Wiles (2007), p. 15.
  29. ^ Lee, Stefanowska & Wiles (2007), p. 18.
  30. ^ Lee, Stefanowska & Wiles (2007), p. 9.
  31. ^ Lee, Stefanowska & Wiles (2007), p. 12.
  32. ^ Lee, Stefanowska & Wiles (2007), p. 16.
  33. ^ McMahon (2013), p. 17.
  34. ^ Zhou (2003), p. 13.
  35. ^ a b Zhou (2003), p. 15.
  36. ^ Zhou (2003), p. 16.
  37. ^ Raphals (2001), p. 166.
  38. ^ Sterckx (2006), p. 37.
  39. ^ Raphal (2001), p. 161.
  40. ^ a b Lewis (2009), p. 179.
  41. ^ Lewis (2009), p. 180.
  42. ^ Bennett Peterson (2000), p. 179.
  43. ^ Benn (2004), p. 218.
  44. ^ Benn (2004), p. 224.
  45. ^ Lewis (2009), p. 181.
  46. ^ Powers (2007), p. 35.
  47. ^ Guang (1084), volume 246
  48. ^ a b Lewis (2009), p. 187.
  49. ^ Ebrey (1986), p. 6.
  50. ^ Benn (2004), p. 64-65.
  51. ^ Benn (2004), p. 66.
  52. ^ Mann (1992), p. 47.
  53. ^ Jia (2011), p. 213.
  54. ^ Jia (2011), p. 205.
  55. ^ Benn (2004), p. 54.
  56. ^ Benn (2004), p. 98-99.
  57. ^ Benn (2004), p. 136.
  58. ^ Benn (2004), p. 159.
  59. ^ Benn (2004), p. 164.
  60. ^ Benn (2004), p. 169.
  61. ^ Benn (2004), p. 137.
  62. ^ Benn (2004), p. 59.
  63. ^ Benn (2004), p. 63.
  64. ^ Benn (2004), p. 3.
  65. ^ Benn (2004), p. 106.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]