Fu Xuan was a Confucian, however, the low status of women is commonly described in relation to Confucianism adopted during the Han dynasty.

Fu Xuan’s poems, primarily in the yuefu style, are noted for their powerful and empathetic portrayals of women.

One of the more famous poems by Fu Xuan is “Woman”:

How sad it is to be a woman!!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.
When she grows up, she hides in her room
Afraid to look at a man in the face.
No one cries when she leaves her home—Sudden as clouds when the rain stops.
She bows her head and composes her face,
Her teeth are pressed on her red lips:
She bows and kneels countless times.
She must humble herself even to the servants.
His love is distant as the stars in Heaven,
Yet the sunflower bends towards the sun.
Their hearts are more sundered than water and fire—A hundred evils are heaped upon her.
Her face will follow the years changes:
Her lord will find new pleasures.
They that were once like the substance and shadow
Are now as far from Hu as from Ch’in [two distant places]
Yet Hu and Ch’in shall sooner meet
That they whose parting is like Ts’an and Ch’en [two stars].

The marital division of labor of “men plow, women weave” is expected to widen the gap in power of household decision-making in favor of men, keeping women in a subordinate position.

The scholar Ban Zhao, author of Lessons for Women, describes ‘womanly virtue’ (女德) as requiring no “brilliant talent or remarkable difference. Womanly language need not be clever in disputation or sharp in conversation.”

The book outlines the four virtues a woman must abide by, proper virtue, proper speech, proper countenance, and proper conduct.

  1. Humbleness: Humbleness defined the relative natural positions between the male and female sexes. Accordingly, the female was deemed to be the more diminutive of the two and naturally, the more humble.
  2. Husband and Wife: A husband must govern with dignity and a wife must serve her husband wisely. So that a wife may know how to serve her husband, daughters should be educated.
  3. Respect and Caution: As defined by the yin-yang duality, in yang (men’s hardness is his virtue) whereas in yin (women’s gentleness was an asset), husband and wife should mutually respect each other.
  4. Womanly Qualifications: Simply the qualifications deemed necessary for the ideal woman whether in her virtue, her type of work, or the words she uses (wifely virtue + wifely speech + wifely appearance + wifely work).
  5. Whole-hearted Devotion: This was usually depicted by the woman’s devotion to the husband. For example, if the husband were to die, there would be no remarriage for the widow. This was deemed to be the most virtuous task in later dynasties.
  6. Implicit Obedience: A section that is dedicated to obedience towards the mother and father-in-law.
  7. Harmony Between Younger In-laws.

Ban Zhao also wrote on the four desired “Precepts for Women” which were intended to guide women in society. These precepts were: womanly virtue, womanly speech, womanly manner, and womanly merit.

“There are four edifying behavioural characteristics for women: the first is womanly virtue (fude), the second is womanly speech (fuyan), the third is womanly manner (fuyong), and the fourth is womanly merit (fugong). What is womanly virtue? She does not distinguish herself in talent and intelligence. What is womanly speech? She does not sharpen her language and speech. What is womanly manner? She does not seek to be outwardly beautiful or ornamented. What is womanly merit? She does not outperform others in her skills and cleverness.”

According to this interpretation, the book also indicates women should be well-educated so they can better serve their husbands.

18th century illustration of Ban Zhao reading.

Records also testify to women exercising authority through their families.

The taxation systems during the Western and Eastern Han stipulated that both women and men between the ages of 15 – 56 should pay taxes. As a result, women could own and manage property in their own right.

By staff editor

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