Chinese women

The (In)Compatibility of Confucianism and Feminist Ethics- 儒家思想与女性主义伦理的(无)兼容性

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Confucian feminism

Yin-yang is an ancient Chinese philosophical construct of two polar complements. The yin-yang binary are neither forces nor material entities and are not intended to represent human relations. Rather, they are labels used to explain how phenomena function and change in relation to each other and the universe (Kaptchuck, 2014). As a way of thinking, yin-yang indicates that no entities can exist in isolation from each other: every entity is connected through its relationships with other entities where it transforms and stands in a contrary yet interdependent state.

In Chinese traditions, this is used to explain how time is divided into day and night; place (and function) into heaven and earth; and species into female and male categories. For associate professor Sung Hyun Yun (2012) however, the application of Yin to female and Yang to male was only later added in the second century BCE under the influence of Confucianism, which led to the institutionalisation of hierarchical gender relations in Chinese society. As Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, author of the book ‘Confucianism and Women’ (2006), states, the yang and yin are explicitly correlated within Confucianism’s hierarchical schema “where tian (heaven)/yang/nan (man) are privileged over di (earth)/yin/nu (woman)” (p. 55). The problem with this is that if men are assigned priority and privilege in society because they are associated with the positive yang in the yin-yang dualism, they are granted access to a kind of power denied to women. This not only gives men unearned entitlements, which refers to things that all people should have such as feeling safe in public spaces, but also grants men the ability to dominate groups that belong to the opposing yin category.

The assignment of power and privilege is seen throughout many classical Chinese texts. For instance, in The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu) it states:

“All things end and begin by following yang. The rectitude of the Three Kings rose to its utmost in following yang. In this way it can be seen that they esteemed yang and demeaned yin…Men, however mean, are in all cases yang; women, however hobble, are all yin…Categories of evil all are yin, whereas categories of good all are yang; yang is matter of virtue, yin is a matter of punishment” (Italics added, cited in Raphals, 1998, p. 163).

The categorisation listed here is quite similar to the problematic way gender is theorised about in the West, where women are associated with devalued terms in the hierarchy between mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion. The association of women to bodily features, nature, and irrationality has been used to marginalise and exclude women from the public sphere, restricting their access to positions of power, decision-making, and economic autonomy.

In China these distinctions were also used to keep women in the domestic sphere, limiting their abilities to contribute to society. Because a family’s prosperity and survival was dependent on men, infant boys were given value over girls. The Book of Odes (Shijing) notes that when a son is born, he is cradled on the bed, properly clothed and it is announced that “he shall be the lord of a hereditary house”. In contrast, a daughter is only cradled on the floor, wears no badges of honour, and it is hoped that she “shall only take care of food and drink, and not cause trouble to her parents” (no. 189). As a valued text, such passages reaffirm male power and agency and maintain unequal power relations by prescribing women to remain obedient and subordinate.

The classic Confucian text Nusishu (Four Books of Women) is considered a standard text that was compiled during the mid-Qing dynasty. The teachings in the book were used to educate how men and women should behave in feudal society. Chapter titles that discuss women, such as ‘Humble Yielding’, ‘Bending in Submission’, ‘Serving the Husband’, and ‘Being faithful to the Dead’ highlight that women in a male-centred ideology are encouraged to keep in line by restraining themselves. By restricting thought and action and maintaining the status quo, a woman gains greater status and becomes humble, devoted, and faithful in the eyes of her community. To keep such a system functioning, women who refuse the role of dutiful daughter or subordinate wife are threatened to be cast out of the family home. As Chan (1970) notes:

During the Sung Dynasty, “Chinese intellectuals preached extreme chastity, confining all women to their homes. Remarriage for a widow was tantamount to public disgrace. Hence, the States ordered tight binding for all women to hamper their movements and prevent possibility of unchaste wandering.” (p. 231)

It should be noted that Confucian philosophy was created by ministers and noblemen. While advocating for harmonious relations, righteousness, and altruism, these virtues were meant to guide ministers to conduct fair governance. When it came to women, Confucianism was responsible for reinforcing gender oppression by punishing disobedient women through social ostracism and keeping women in their place by binding their feet (though foot-binding was a practice introduced after the time of Confucius).

Although practices such as foot-binding have discontinued, Confucian norms such as respect for authority, hierarchy, family dependence, and the historical preference for sons have maintained many traditions in place. Due to the cultural stigma of having female children, for example, the former one-child policy in China led to millions of female infants being aborted, abandoned, or killed (Wall, 2013). In her research on Asian immigrant and refugee families, Yun (2012) shows that social problems remain prevalent. Surveys conducted on Asian immigrant families reveal that many male respondents from countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and China still believe that women have no right to a divorce and should be shamed if they leave their families; that the husband is the ruler of the household and has the right to discipline his wife; and that if experiencing marital problems, women should ‘talk softly’ and/or ‘do nothing’ (D’Avanzo et al., 1994; Yoshioka et al., 2009).

Despite the history of oppression behind Confucianism and the patriarchal norms that continue to exist in Confucian societies, some scholars have suggested that a ‘Confucian feminism’ is possible. For example, professor of philosophy Chenyang Li (1994) argues that the humanistic concept of Confucianism, namely the concept of ren as benevolence, altruism, kindness, and compassion can be separated from its historical context and compared to feminist ethicist Carol Gilligan’s ‘care ethics’. In care ethics, care and justice intersect with the development of a language that is focused on relationships and responsibilities. The ethics of care is about considering different types of relationships and roles in order to care in an appropriate and effective way. For Li, Confucianism is comparable with care ethics as it is based on non-contractual (non-legally binding) relationships and love for others according to their social roles and positions. Like care ethics, Confucianism seeks to create harmony in relationships; to preserve the obligation of care if one’s ability to provide care for others is not strained or exhausted; and to maintain networks of care that start from the family and build outward to form reciprocal contracts in the community.

However, this interpretation can be considered problematic. Associate professor of philosophy Daniel Star (2002) claims that Confucian ethics are role-based ethics that are in the concept of li or the rules of propriety. Although one may argue that new roles for women can be made that are not based on hierarchical male-centred relationships, roles can only ever be understood within a certain context that is inherited from the past. Confucianism cannot simply be stripped from its familial and hierarchical norms as this would mean doing away with the fundamental social relationships of father and son, lord and retainer, and husband and wife. A Confucianism without the values of chastity, filial piety, and loyalty is difficult to imagine since ren without filial piety or an organised family structure would be reduced to simple affection for significant others.

Confucianism is an ethics based on role relationships that are focused on men: a man of ren (junzi or exemplary person) has a greater ability to care for others than a petty man (xiaoren). Just as a father cares for his wife and children, a ruler is expected to care for his subjects. Although women are expected to take on caring roles also, women’s caring has never extended outside of family and marital relations: “firstly to their fathers, secondly their husbands, and thirdly their sons” (Kim, 2017, p. 6). The difference with care ethics is that Gilligan wrote about individual needs and not about normative principles of the past that define correct social roles. Whereas Confucianism is an ethics of men where righteous men take on care roles, feminist ethics of care requires that women are considered as moral subjects that are recognised for their perceived ability to care. Women in this respect do not care because they must care according to their social roles, but because they want to care with their rights and needs taken into account.

What this means is that for Confucianism to be compatible with feminist ethics, the philosophy must extend itself to incorporate notions such as equality, fairness, and individuality. Undoing the hierarchies that keep women deprived from the opportunity of becoming moral agents in their own right, where women can exist and be valued outside the family, is crucial to liberate women from particular forms of oppression. A return to the original conception of yin-yang is one where women and men belong to both sides of the binary to make up a dynamic duality that is based on dialectic and recognition. The question is, how far can such reform go without doing away with key components of Confucian philosophy?

Confucianism as a Sexist Philosophy 儒学作为一个性别歧视的哲学

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Painting: Chinese girl (1952) by Vladimir Tretchikoff. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The hijab, a headdress traditionally worn by Muslim women outside the home, became less popular during the 1930s as education and advancements in the Arab world encouraged women to adopt Western fashion and life-style. In his study on the vanishing veil, historian Albert Hourani (1955) notes how gradual changes to the status of women was an essential step to the advancement of Muslim societies, and was not contrary to Islamic principles. But, by the 1980s, predictions that the veiling custom would end were challenged. Religious conservatism became more prevalent after the 1979 Iranian revolution and Muslim women in both Arab countries and the West disputed the idea that the veil was a symbol of oppression. Freedom of choice and tradition were some of the reasons why many women chose to continue the veiling practice.

All the while, during this same period, Korean women got rid of the traditional headdress (nae-oe seugae) that women had to wear whenever they stepped out of the house. Although institutionalised and made compulsory for modesty and propriety, the headdress completely vanished in historical and cultural memory as it is not even found in Korean historical dramas set in the Chosŏn era (Cho, 2017). This particular style of clothing was unique to Korea and could not be found in other Asian countries that were also influenced by Confucianism. However, Korea’s understanding of Confucian values was significant as to why the headdresses were worn. For example, the name of the headdress, nae-oe seugae, where ‘nae’ (inner) and ‘oe’ (outer), are Confucian terms that mean there should be a clear distinction between the inner, domestic sphere of women and the outer, public sphere of men (Deuchler, 1992). ‘Seugae’ is a Korean word meaning veil.

The headdress was worn in accordance with Confucian teachings. The Confucian emphasis on proper relationships and social order meant that men and women were expected to act in their correct roles in society, where women should be proper and obedient to their fathers, husbands, and sons throughout their lives. Because of the hierarchical relationship between men and women, a woman’s major life decisions, such as choosing a partner, was made by the father or family patriarch. As a result, a woman’s value was not based on her skills, knowledge, or creativity, but on the extent that she was seen to take care of her family and follow her husband/father/son’s instructions.

Cho (2017) notes that during the Chosŏn dynasty, justifying social practices through Confucianism occurred as legislators saw Confucianism as ethically superior to the previous philosophical tradition of Buddhism. Proper father-son, ruler-peasant, and husband-wife relationships were of utmost importance in promoting this new value system. Restrictive dress codes were part of the practice of limiting women’s opportunities to engage in the public sphere, leading to an ideal Confucian society of harmony through order. While the argument that Confucianism is inherently sexist is difficult to put forward as these practices of limiting opportunities and rights to women can also be found in non-Confucian societies and many different historical time periods, before Confucianism became the official religion in Korea, women’s social and economic status were not that different from men’s. Women could inherit property and were part of ancestor worship rituals. Women were allowed to pursue their desired crafts and be part of civil service. The adoption of the Confucian hierarchy and separation of men and women changed all this and helped establish male political and institutional power.

The influence of Confucianism in other societies also restricted women’s rights. During the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties, foot-binding was a socio-cultural practice that has links to the Confucian doctrine. This is disputed by some scholars who argue that foot-binding violates Confucius’ teaching of filial piety and ‘not injuring the hair and skin of the body received from one’s parents’ (de Bary & Cohen, 1999). However, many women were encouraged and willing to engage in this practice to be able to participate and be valued in a neo-Confucianist society (Blake, 1994). The crippling of women’s feet is carried out by Mothers who, by a girl’s fifth birthday, bends her daughter’s toes under the sole of the foot before the foot is broken and bound by bandages that stop circulation. The operation lasts at least 10 years and once the foot stabilises in this bound position, a woman’s deformed feet are ‘eroticized’ (Kristeva, 1986). This means that women gain value, respect, and recognition as a bound foot symbolises capacity to suffer and obey. Here, crippled feet allow women to enter the ‘phallic order’ (see Grosz, 1989) as those from the upper classes can gain access to political and social expression.

Patriarchal and sexist customs were otherwise seen in Chinese society. In fact, Mou (2016) points out that without gaining an understanding of Chinese patriarchy, it would be difficult to grasp Chinese culture and spirit. At the core of Chinese patriarchal practices (as well as Confucianism) was the worship of deities and ancestors. By holding the family name, the father gains authority as he represents and carries forward the lineage which his children call the family ancestors. The son-father relationship is of great value as the son sees the father as a potential ancestor, and knows that he will one day be the potential authority figure in the family by taking over his father’s position.

The ‘rite of bonding’, where father and son take part in daily rituals, is important in this respect. French philosopher Julie Kristeva (1986) notes in the book chapter ‘Confucius— an eater of women’, the rite and rituals of father-son bonding occur once the baby is thought to acquire a soul (hun, 魂). This is not believed to come from the mother, but three months after birth, becomes apparent when the baby laughs. Like an initiation rite, for the first time when the hun is noticed, the son is presented to the father in a ritual ceremony. Later in life, once the son becomes an educated and married man who manages the family affairs,the father extends his respect to the son before the cycle starts all over again. Despite the distance and lack of intimacy or care between father and son, obedience and respect are continually due to the father even when the son takes over his role. The Analects reinforces this when it says that only the son who mourns and follows his father’s conduct for three years after the father’s death may be called filial (see passages 1.11 and 4.20, for example). The father’s symbolic authority is continually recognised before it is completely passed onto the son after these three years pass. A well-known Chinese proverb emphasises this last stage of the rite of bonding when it says that whereas animals know their mother and not their father, and peasants say mother and father are the same, it is the noblemen in the city that honour their dead fathers. The civilised man must know his role.

While daughters in the family are not required to take on difficult tasks and are excluded from these ritual practices, their exclusion symbolises complete disregard in a system that is based around revering potential (male) ancestors. Confucius considered women to be the in the same category as slaves and xiaoren  (morally inferior people). As the Analects passage 17.25 notes, “The Master said, Women and xiaoren are difficult to nurture. If you get too close to them, they become uncompliant, and if you stay too distant, they become resentful.” Women are made to be child-like, in need of nurturing, and irrational. The passage provides insight into the oppression of women during Confucius’s time; it also forms and reinforces the patriarchal and sexist system that continues to influence Chinese social custom even to this day. Women are at best thought of as ‘humans for the inside’, destined to housework and reproduction. Unlike reading and writing, it is these bodily and maternal functions that give women status and function to create harmony and peace in society. Yang Chen, a Confucian from the Han Dynasty, is quoted to have said:

If women are given work that requires contact with the outside, they will sow disorder and confusion throughout the Empire. Shame and injury will come to the Imperial court, and the Sun and Moon will wither away. The Book of Documents warns us against the hen who announces the dawn in place of the rooster; the Book of Odes denounces a clever woman who overthrows a State…Women must not be allowed to participate in the affairs of the government. (cited in Kristeva, 1986, p. 76).

Similar to many other patriarchal cultures, women are seen as potential spoilers of man’s orderly world. Confucian values like filial piety, obedience, roles, and rites are all means of control that prevent women from challenging or breaking away from this restrictive system. Confucianism necessarily keeps a woman in her place. An outcome of Confucian thought that should also be mentioned is the worsening of women-women relations. Because women who conform and participate in the system have greater power and more access to privilege, there is an inherent tension between mothers, wives, and daughters. Women who bear sons are valued more than those who only bear daughters and have more power and voice through their sons. The daughter-in-law fears above all else the authority and discipline of her mother-in-law as both women are in constant battle for the affection of the husband and education of the children (Kristeva, 1986). Anthropologist Ilsa Glazer (1992) further points out that there is an ongoing conflict between mothers and adopted daughters. Because it was in the mother’s interest to get the maximum work out of her adopted daughter, beatings were common. In fact, “slaves were safe targets for women who vented on them the aggression they dared not express in other relationships” (p. 168). As a result of Confucian and earlier Chinese patriarchal value systems, women became potential oppressors to other women. Punishment and slander became a means of survival in a world where the father and son occupied central positions of power and choice.

Confucianism fails to escape the social norms of its time. It internalised and propagated these social values and became known for its strict separation of women and men in public and private spheres. While some scholars seek to provide a feminist perspective of Confucian thought –  for instance, the book Confucianism and Women argues that Confucianism can provide an ethic of gender parity if it is taken out of its historical context –  Confucianism cannot easily be taken out of its historical context. No system of thought is value free and exists outside of time and space. Though Confucian passages and texts can be reinterpreted to suit current times and needs, changing and adding new meaning to a text to serve the current period, there is a danger that such a practice can be adopted by those with vested interests or extremist ideologies do to justify their own end goals. Confucian thought can be taken as it is – that is, in the form it has come down to the present time – and its historical views and perspectives can be challenged and discussed. Indeed, Neo-Confucianism (around AD 1000) emerged through such a process, and in response to the more female-friendly spiritual philosophies of Daoism and Buddhism. By the 20th Century, New Confucianism emerged through its engagement with Western philosophy. These, however, are distinguished from the Confucian thought – based on the Analects – that is associated with Confucius’ own historical time.