By the Zhou dynasty, Chinese society was decidedly patriarchal, with female and male social roles determined by a strict, feudal hierarchy.
The foundation for enforced division of women and men in later times appeared during the Eastern Zhouperiod, 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.” 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.”
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.
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. 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; ‘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.” 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. 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.
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.
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 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 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 texts. This demonstrates the waning power of the Zhou government, as well as the variability in the levels of application of the rituals.
There are records of women during this period advising male relatives on political strategy, defending themselves against harsh legal sentences, teaching noblemen how to shoot arrows correctly, admonishing their ruler for unacceptable behaviour, and composing poetry. There is also a record of King Wu of Zhou appointing his wife Yi Jiang (邑姜) as one of his nine ministers.