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?
This entry was posted in Articles on Confucianism, Chinese culture, comparative study, confucian beliefs, Confucian in the modern world and tagged Chinese women, classic texts, Confucian feminism, ethics, ethics of care, gender, Harmony, hierarchy, inequality, oppression, women's rights, yin-yang.