Confucianism and Women

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  • 0:01 Patriarchal System
  • 1:18 Roles in Marriage
  • 2:00 Analects for Women
  • 3:18 Cult of Chastity
  • 3:47 Important Role
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will discuss the role and position of women in ancient Confucianism. In doing so, it will explore the writings of the Analects for Women while also defining the terms cult of chastity and patriarchal society.

Patriarchal System

Today's lesson on Confucianism and women could be one that's up for debate. Yes, the facts will be facts, but depending on your paradigm or what scholar you choose to believe, you still may find yourself disagreeing with some of its content. However, since I'm guessing most of us are rather unfamiliar with the topic, this might not be too much of a problem.

We should also clarify that the lesson's content is centered around ancient Confucianism. Most sociologists would tend to agree that much has changed and improved in more modernized China. With that little disclaimer, let's get started.

One major issue modern scholars have with ancient Confucianism is the subordinate role it has historically placed women in. For starters, Confucianism began as a very, very patriarchal system. A patriarchal system is one in which males are the authority, holding positions of dominance and prestige. In this system of patriarchy, fathers reigned supreme over both wives and children. To put it in Western terms, men definitely and unquestionably wore the pants throughout Confucianism's history and since Confucianism has defined much of China's history, China's history, as well.

Roles in Marriage

Starting around The Han Dynasty, which ruled China from about 206 BCE to 220 CE., Confucianism began to teach that a virtuous woman was one that submitted herself to the authority of the men in her life. If she was unmarried, her source of authority would be her father or if he was deceased, her brother. Once married, she would not only be under the complete authority of her husband but also her father-in-law.

Although some scholars feel some women were given a bit more freedom and some were even educated, as a general rule, the patriarchal system of Confucianism consigned women to the backseat of Chinese society.

Analects for Women

For example, listen to these translated excerpts from the late eighth century Chinese text known as the Analects for Women. When instructing women, they read:

When walking, don't turn your head. When talking, don't open your mouth wide; when sitting, don't move your knees. When standing, don't rustle your skirts; when happy, don't exult with loud laughter. When angry, don't raise your voice.

Giving credence to the idea that women were at the bottom of the pecking order, they also read:

Respectfully serve your father-in-law. Do not look at him directly when he speaks to you. Do not follow him around, and do not engage him in conversation. If he has an order for you, listen and obey.

Confucianism also taught that women should usually remain separated from the men. Again, the texts read:

If you have to go outside, cover your face; if you peep outside, conceal yourself as much as possible. Do not be on familiar terms with men outside the family.

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