During the Song dynasty, neo-Confucianism became the dominant belief system, and it has been argued that the rise of neo-Confucianism had also led to a decline of the status of women. From the Song dynasty onwards, restrictions on women became more pronounced.
Neo-Confucians of the period such as Zhu Xi and Cheng Yi placed strong emphasis on chastity, with Cheng Yi accused of promoting the cult of widow chastity.
Cheng Yi considered it improper to marry a widow as she had lost her integrity, and as for widows who had become impoverished due to the death of their husbands, Cheng stated: “To starve to death is a small matter, but to lose one’s chastity is a great matter.”
Chaste widows were praised, and while it was normal for widows to remarry in the early Song period, remarriage would later become a social stigma, which led to hardship and loneliness for many widows.
The poetess Li Qingzhao, after her first husband Zhao Mingcheng died, remarried briefly when she was 49, for which she was strongly criticised in her lifetime.
Zhu Xi was also accused of believing in the inferiority of women and that men and women needed to be kept strictly separate.
Neo-Confucians such as Sima Guang saw men and woman as being part of the yin and yang order, with the distinction and separation extending to the inner (women) and outer (men), whereby women should remain indoor and not go out from the age of 10, and women should not discuss the matter of men in the outside world.
While it is commonly argued that the decline of the status of women from the Song dynasty to the Qing was due to the rise of neo-Confucianism, others have proposed that the cause was also more complex, a result of various social, political, legal, economic, and cultural forces, for example changes in inheritance practices and social structure.
State law based on patriarchal principles would standardize family practices across China, and the spread of Confucian ideology was reinforced by the state.
During the Song dynasty, foot binding also became popular (the practice may have originated just before the Song dynasty). The earliest known references to bound feet appeared in this period, and evidence from archaeology also indicates that foot binding was practiced among elite women in the thirteenth century.
The increasing popularity of the practice also led to the decline of the art of dance among women, and less and less was heard about beauties and courtesans who were also great dancers after the Song dynasty.