Women in Ancient China

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When studying women in Ancient Chinese society, it is easy to view them through a one-dimensional lens, characterizing them as entirely suppressed and powerless as well as victims of painful physical practices such as footbinding. Traditional Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang divided the world into two complementary elements that became metaphors for the relationships between men and women, where Yin refers to the feminine and has connotations of darkness and passivity, while Yang figuratively refers to the male and stands for all things active and strong. Later on, the Confucian ideals that continued these implications regarding the inferiority of women prevailed; in one of Confucius’s teachings, he compares women to inferior or uncivilized people that need to be controlled: It is not pleasing to have to do with women or people of base condition if you show them too much affection, they become too excited if you keep them at a distance, they are full of resentment. While it is important to view the relationships between men and women with consideration of these overarching ideas of sexual inequality, the actual roles of women in Ancient China were much more complex than the boundaries that the dichotomy of gender placed on them. Beyond the gender dichotomies, there were also important social class differences that dictated appropriate behaviors and actions, particularly sexual ones. From wives of high-ranking widows to concubines, women played a variety of different roles within different social spheres.

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This concept, defined as status performance, refers to the theory that people from different classes may be held to different expectations of sexual morality. Status performance and simultaneous gender expectations can create issues when practices such as footbinding metamorphose into pervasive beauty standards for women, resulting in tensions between classes as all women strive to achieve these beauty ideals. Furthermore, over time, the amount of freedom ” whether it be social or sexual ” that women had deeply evolved with the evolution of the importance of the idea of chastity within society. Scholar Patricia Ebrey, in her analysis of footbinding as a social and sexual practice, recognizes that there is an association between the evolution of female agency and changing societal values of chastity. Shifting attitudes toward chastity ” generally denoted as the practice of remaining sexually virtuous and self-restraining ” reflected themselves in the paralleled changing attitudes toward practices such as footbinding, remarriage, and prostitution. Understanding how these were societal expectations for women is integral to having a better understanding of the overall condition of women in ancient and late imperial China. Throughout the different dynasties and time periods in ancient China, men largely dominated the public sphere. Male status and identity was largely influenced by their professional positions in society, which could range from scholars to government officials. However, the professions available to women and the presence of women in the public sphere evolved over time. In the Tang Dynasty, prostitution was ubiquitous; being a prostitute was a choice that women regardless of socioeconomic status could make.

Within the industry, one’s social status as a prostitute was defined by her ability to write poetry, sing and dance. Some girls became prostitutes after being kidnapped or purchased from poor families while others voluntarily entered, perhaps illustrated best by the different backgrounds of two of the most well known courtesans from the Tang Dynasty: Y?? Hs??an-chi and Hs??eh T’ao. Y?? Hs??an-chi, born to a poor family, apparently had a talent for music and dance and began fraternizing with higher-status people in an effort to become a successful courtesan. Though she was later convicted of murder and executed, for the majority of her career, she had held an open house for all scholars and officials resulting in numerous amorous attachments. In contrast, Hs??eh T’ao was born to a good family and received an education but ultimately registered herself as a prostitute after the death of her father. Some of the men she had relationships with were high-profile and included poet Po Ch??-i and military general Wei Kao. Despite coming from different levels of socioeconomic status, both women became courtesans, demonstrating the prevalence of the profession of prostitution in ancient China. Evidently, the nature of being a courtesan meant that one had numerous lovers and relationships, which implies that during this time female chastity was not a prominent expectation for women of any social status. Notably, these activities were reinforced through government directives ” brothel owners paid taxes to the government in order to be classified as a commercial enterprise while women who did not register as a prostitute were not protected by government officials. By considering how the government not only had a lax approach but actually fortified the institution of prostitution, it is clear that enforcing or promoting female chastity during this time was not a priority for government officials, who had relative influence on shaping societal expectations and conceptions of sexual morality and norms through legislature. It was not until the Song Dynasty that government and social expectations for female chastity began to evolve and reflect themselves in changing legislature of enforcement of adultery and incest laws.

Widows who had mourned their late husbands for an appropriate amount of time were allowed to remarry ” not only was this legal, but according to Ebrey, writers during the Song period would casually mention a woman’s prior husband without apology or embarrassment. While remarriage was legal, on a social level, some women resisted this concept, instead lauding widows who stayed alone, uncomfortable with the idea of being sexual with another man, reportedly believing that walking through two courtyards is a source of shame for a woman. It is important to note that these opinions on remaining chaste and not remarrying were held by women of higher social status, particularly those with the financial means to remain in their late husband’s house. Then, the class tensions between upper and lower classes were emerging when it came to female chastity ” for women of a lower socioeconomic class, expectations of chastity for widowed women often did not concur with what was actually financially realistic. While remarriage was still fairly common during the Song dynasty, in other respects, the government was beginning to prohibit licentiousness behavior. Laws were enacted to punish adulterers, with all individuals involved potentially doing two years of hard labor. Even more stringent guidelines were established for high-ranking officials, who were prohibited from marrying or sleeping with prostitutes. This time marks a transition period where lives for women were changing based on legal and social expectations. Some scholars have hypothesized that the idea of chastity sprouted during the Song dynasty after philosophers Ch’eng I and Chu Hsi began to promote female chastity for women; certainly, a decrease in sexual licentiousness was reflected in Song legal codes. Condemning non-chaste professions such as prostitution would have helped shape expected proper behavior for women. The Ming era, particularly, the late Ming era, women of all social classes witnessed of rapidly changing legal, economic, and social changes. Class distinctions are most evident within Ming legal code, which placed people in one of two categories: outcasts and degenerates, otherwise known as mean, or commoners, otherwise known as liang, considered good and virtuous. Prostitutes and courtesans were classified as mean people and not only socially ostracized but also not responsible for female chastity.

Commoners were further separated into class groups; for example, a farmer and a scholar could both be considered commoners but hold very different positions and levels of respect in society. Mean husbands were not necessarily entitled to their wives’ sexual devotion, demonstrating how a mean wife was not entitled to conform to chastity. Top-ranking men were forbidden from marrying or having sexual relations with a mean-status woman; if this were to happen, the woman would be taken in as a concubine. It is important to note that concubines were not classified as prostitutes, functioning solely to produce more sons to continue the patriline. The Ming dynasty also marks a time where the foot-binding movement begins to pick up speed. The exact origin date of foot-binding is unclear, however, literature and writing from the Ming dynasty indicate that foot-binding especially as part of a perception of beauty was becoming increasingly popular during this time. This was potentially because Chinese elite men regarded foot-binding as an indicator of civility. Commentators during this time reinforced this idea, stating that Confucius invented the custom of wearing clothing to cover the body and to promote the virtue and guide [people] to goodness as well as to distinguish between the high and the lowly. If dressing properly was linked to social and political order, then this could be extended to foot-binding, where the nature of footbinding required that women kept their feet bound and concealed for most of the day. While elite wives did not show themselves in public and elite courtesans stayed within the entertainment courts, lower class women were on the street, requiring them to move and use their feet daily. Prostitutes in particular spent time at tea houses and drinking places in order to find business.

Therefore, even if these women wanted to bind their feet, it was not a feasible practice for women who needed to work: all the bones in the girl’s foot besides the big toe would be broken and then tightly wrapped under her foot, ideally making the foot three inches long. This activity was undoubtedly painful for women and most likely restricted their movement, further limiting their agency and their presence to the domestic sphere. A study conducted by University of Michigan paleontologists revealed that elderly women with bound feet fell more and experienced more fractures than women without bound feet; rural working-class women were not part of this movement. Foot-binding, then, was mostly taken on by women from the elite class, who were wives of high-ranking officials or scholars and had the financial means to support foot-binding as well as sexual chastity. Furthermore, scholar Rachel Keeling claims that within elite families the chief wife is always a woman with dwarfed feet while the inferior wives are usually natural-footed. If foot-binding was an indication of status and people made assumptions about a woman’s chastity from her social status, then foot-binding could be seen as a very visual symbol of chastity. The late Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty saw a rise in the desire for social and political order. The fall of the Ming Dynasty, which was the result of a successful revolt by Manchus people, invoked many discussions on reasons for the collapse besides the idea that the Manchus had a better military. In his book, The Dream Recollections of Tao An, Zhang Dai, a famous Ming Dynasty essayist, claims that the looseness of the Ming Dynasty were the primary cause of the collapse. This attitude toward liberalism persisted and especially manifested itself in the way that Qing officials restructured legal code.

An effort to keep people within their social classes and limit mobility was manifested through the concept of penetration hierarchy, where men who had sexual intercourse with a women of a higher status were severely punished. Matthew Sommer, a scholar on Chinese history, asserts that when a male penetrated a female, he put her in her place ” both literally and figuratively. Therefore, masters were actually encouraged to find partners for their slaves and promote heteronormative ideas of marriage at every social class. Additionally, prostitution was entirely prohibited; anyone who was involved with a brothel was condemned as a criminal. There was a crackdown on adultery ” any type of wife-selling was considered adulterous, which was problematic for the poor, who could have needed to resort to this for financial support. In this way, legislature was often not inclusive for Chinese people of all social classes, again resulting in class tensions as some people may have been unable to follow these laws due to their financial situations. Most importantly, the imperial chastity cult that had been developing during the Song and Ming eras spread to commoners, imposing new definitions and restrictions on female sexual and social behavior for all.

The evolution of rape and prostitution law as well as attitudes toward remarriage for widows followed this rise of female chastity, all complementing each other. Though rapists and men who initiated illicit sexual relations were punished, the responsibility of remaining chaste and pure still largely fell on women. Victims had to have the proper credentials for the attacker to be punished to the fullest extent. Huang Liuhong, a district magistrate during the Qing dynasty, advised other magistrates in this matter: In the context of illicit sex, coercion refers to the sudden pollution of a female, who has previously maintained her chaste purity by means of violent coercion. The purpose of imposing the death penalty [on the attacker] is to reward [the victim’s] resolve to maintain chaste purity and also to shame wives who are evil and licentious. Here, Huang Liuhong refers to penetration as pollution. The negative connotation of this word implies that inappropriate sex (i.e., sex outside of marriage and non-consensual sex) was associated with being impure and corrupt. Being chaste was explicitly supported: women who were known to be virtuous and chaste were seen as credible and worthy.

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Women in Ancient China. (2019, Dec 11). Retrieved February 6, 2023 , from
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