Confucianism “largely defined the mainstream discourse on gender in China from the Han dynasty onward.” The gender roles prescribed in the Three Obediences and Four Virtues became a cornerstone of the family, and thus, societal stability.

Starting from the Han period, Confucians began to teach that a virtuous woman was supposed to follow the males in her family: the father before her marriage, the husband after she marries, and her sons in widowhood.

In the later dynasties, more emphasis was placed on the virtue of chastity. The Song dynasty Confucian Cheng Yi stated that: “To starve to death is a small matter, but to lose one’s chastity is a great matter.”

Chaste widows were revered and memorialised during the Ming and Qing periods. This “cult of chastity” accordingly condemned many widows to poverty and loneliness by placing a social stigma on remarriage.

For years, many modern scholars have regarded Confucianism as a sexist, patriarchal ideology that was historically damaging to Chinese women.

It has also been argued by some Chinese and Western writers that the rise of neo-Confucianism during the Song dynasty had led to a decline of status of women.

Some critics have also accused the prominent Song neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi for believing in the inferiority of women and that men and women need to be kept strictly separate, while Sima Guang also believed that women should remain indoor and not deal with the matters of men in the outside world.

Finally, scholars have discussed the attitudes toward women in Confucian texts such as Analects. In a much-discussed passage, women together with xiaoren (literally “small people”, meaning people of low status or low moral) are described as being difficult to cultivate or deal with.

Many traditional commentators and modern scholars have debated over the precise meaning of the passage, and whether Confucius referred to all women or just certain groups of women.

Further analysis suggests, however, that women’s place in Confucian society may be more complex.

During the Han dynasty period, the influential Confucian text Lessons for Women (Nüjie), was written by Ban Zhao (45–114 CE) to instruct her daughters how to be proper Confucian wives and mothers, that is, to be silent, hard-working, and compliant. She stresses the complementarity and equal importance of the male and female roles according to yin-yang theory, but she clearly accepts the dominance of the male. However, she does present education and literary power as important for women. In later dynasties, a number of women took advantage of the Confucian acknowledgment of education to become independent in thought.

Indeed, as Joseph A. Adler points out, “Neo-Confucian writings do not necessarily reflect either the prevailing social practices or the scholars’ own attitudes and practices in regard to actual women.”

Matthew Sommers has also indicated that the Qing dynasty government began to realise the utopian nature of enforcing the “cult of chastity” and began to allow practices such as widow remarrying to stand.

Moreover, some Confucian texts like the Chunqiu Fanlu  have passages that suggest a more equal relationship between a husband and his wife.

More recently, some scholars have also begun to discuss the viability of constructing a “Confucian feminism.”

From wiki/edited by staff

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