Gender inequality continues to be a global problem despite improvements in women’s rights. In many cases, opportunities for women are still subject to the commonly described ‘glass-ceiling effect’. (1)
Confucianism has a poor reputation when it comes to gender equality, as it is associated with the subordinate role placed on women. Confucian thought, however, should not solely be blamed for gender inequality in early Chinese societies. Even prior to Confucius, women in Chinese society assumed a relatively subordinate position to men. Archaeological evidence shows that inequality between men and women was already present during the Neolithic period (2). Roles for women generally did not extend beyond the home and familial affairs.
Despite accusations of gender bias, Confucian thought may be productive in its often unnoticed applications to gender equality. Confucianism states that all people have the capacities necessary to flourish as full human beings. Clark and Wang point out in their research article titled, “A Confucian Defence of Gender Equity,” that the Chinese term for “person” (ren) is gender neutral. It resembles a person of highest virtue or humaneness. The morally noble human being (junzi) is not necessarily a man. It can be a woman. Early Confucians specified that women and men are equally equipped to become virtuous human beings.
Another aspect of criticism received by Confucian thought is the use of gender specific pronouns. A gender-neutral pronoun (ex: they, a person, etc.), could be used to create a more gender balanced message across all texts, not just Confucius related. Creating gender neutrality through word choice is an ongoing issue in current texts and documents. Help books even exist in order to assist people in avoiding gender-bias writing (3).
What can be done to create gender neutrality?
Similarly to Confucian texts, other imperial documents need a ‘rectification of names’, as Confucius himself would have advised. To rectify names in this case would be to use the proper words to fit the standards of a growing, and highly adapting, modern world. The context of male-female relations has changed throughout time and it would be helpful for present-day Confucian scholars to adapt the Analects to represent these changes. Many contemporary Confucian scholars, for example, already translate junzi not as gentleman by as morally noble person or other such gender neural term. This means that becoming a fully realised human need not be associated with a particular gender.
In what other ways do you think gender neutrality can be reached? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment!