Confucianism is an ancient Chinese philosophy that has had a profound influence on Chinese culture and society for over two millennia. At the heart of Confucianism is the idea that social harmony is achieved through a system of hierarchical relationships, in which each individual has a set of duties and responsibilities based on their social position. In this system, gender roles are clearly defined, with men occupying a position of dominance and women expected to occupy a subordinate role. However, the position of women in Confucian philosophy and society is not as simple as this dichotomy suggests. In this article, we will explore the role of women in Confucianism and the ways in which gender roles have been negotiated and contested over time.
In Confucian philosophy, women are seen as subordinate to men and are expected to occupy a position of obedience and submission within the family and wider society. The Confucian classic, The Analects, contains numerous passages that reinforce this view. For example, it states that “A woman’s duty is to obey her father when she is young, her husband when she is married, and her son when she is widowed” (Analects 17:25). Similarly, it states that “The wise find pleasure in water, the virtuous find pleasure in hills. The wise are active, the virtuous are tranquil. The wise are joyful, the virtuous are long-lived” (Analects 6:18), with the implication that women should seek tranquility and longevity rather than active engagement in the world.
These passages suggest that women in Confucianism are expected to be passive and obedient, serving the needs of men and prioritizing their roles as wives and mothers over any personal ambitions or desires they might have. However, this is not the whole story. Confucianism also places a great emphasis on the importance of education and personal development, and this has had important implications for the role of women in Confucian society.
In ancient China, education was reserved for men, and women were largely excluded from the formal education system. However, Confucianism emphasized the importance of self-cultivation and moral development, and this meant that women were encouraged to pursue their own education and personal growth. For example, the Confucian classic, The Book of Rites, states that “If women do not learn, they cannot be virtuous. If they are not virtuous, they cannot assist their husbands. If they cannot assist their husbands, they cannot manage their households well” (Book of Rites 9:20). This passage suggests that women are expected to play an active role in managing the household and supporting their husbands, and that education is a key part of this process.
This emphasis on education has had important implications for the position of women in Confucian society. Although women were excluded from the formal education system, they were able to pursue their own education through private tutors and informal study groups. This gave some women the opportunity to become highly educated and influential figures in their own right. For example, Ban Zhao was a highly respected scholar and writer in ancient China who wrote a number of influential texts on Confucianism and women’s education.
Despite the importance of education in Confucianism, however, the position of women in Chinese society remained highly restrictive. Women were expected to marry young and devote themselves to their husbands and children, and their role in public life was limited. This began to change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Chinese women began to demand greater rights and opportunities.
The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was a turning point in this regard, as it sparked a wave of social and political reforms that sought to modernize China and bring it into line with Western standards. Women played a key role in this movement, demanding greater educational and employment opportunities, as well as the right to vote and participate in public life. This movement challenged traditional Confucian gender roles and paved the way for significant changes in the position of women in Chinese society.
In the early years of the Communist Party in China, there was a strong emphasis on gender equality, with women encouraged to participate fully in political and economic life. Mao Zedong famously declared that “women hold up half the sky,” and his government implemented a range of policies aimed at improving the position of women in society. These included campaigns to eradicate illiteracy among women, equal pay for equal work, and the promotion of women to positions of leadership.
However, despite these efforts, the position of women in Chinese society remains highly gendered and hierarchical. Women continue to face significant discrimination and barriers to advancement, particularly in the workplace. This is partly due to the persistence of traditional gender roles and attitudes, which continue to shape social expectations and practices. For example, women are still expected to take primary responsibility for child-rearing and household management, which can limit their opportunities for professional advancement. In addition, women continue to face harassment and discrimination in the workplace, as well as unequal pay and limited opportunities for promotion.
In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the need to address these issues and promote greater gender equality in China. This has led to a range of initiatives aimed at improving the position of women in society, including increased investment in women’s education, efforts to combat gender-based violence, and campaigns to promote women’s participation in politics and leadership. These initiatives are rooted in a recognition that gender equality is not only a moral imperative, but also a key driver of social and economic progress.
In conclusion, the role of women in Confucian philosophy and society is complex and multifaceted. While Confucianism has historically emphasized the subordination of women to men, it has also placed a strong emphasis on education and personal development, which has given some women the opportunity to become highly educated and influential figures in their own right. In modern China, women continue to face significant challenges and discrimination, but there is growing recognition of the need to promote greater gender equality and address these issues. This recognition is rooted in a recognition of the importance of women’s contributions to social and economic progress, as well as a commitment to the principles of justice and equality.