Women in Imperial China: A Re-Examination

By Natalie Bennett (1994)

“When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talking-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen. Even if she had to rage all over China, a swordswoman got even with anybody who hurt her family.” This is part of Maxine Hong Kingston’s account of her upbringing in a first-generation Chinese-American family. She writes in The Woman Warrior how she found the norms of American womanhood incredibly constricting compared to the mythology of her Chinese ancestry.

In contrast the classic picture of Chinese women in Western writing, up to and including at least some examples in the current days, is of a bit-player in the history of the empire, “downtrodden, yet stoic, lacking in legal rights, hobbled by the bindings of her feet, and at the service, body and soul, of her husband and his family”. It is a picture of traditional China which is still widely promulgated. Take for example The Sydney Morning Herald in 1992: “Traditionally you could knock on a door in rural China and if a woman answered she would say `no-one is at home’.” It was reading Kingston’s story which first attracted me to the topic of the position of women in imperial China. Its tales of powerful warrior women, which I later learnt were based on traditional legends, simply did not correspond with the second image, of the helpless, frightened, uneducated young bride, slave to her mother-in-law and to the fierce desire for a son. Certainly Kingston was writing in America, but she was writing about a highly traditional family background from “old China”. It was a desire to reconcile these two pictures – the pathetic and the warlike – which drew me to this topic.

Mann surveying Chinese writing about the behaviour of widows recounts a classic tale of a chaste, self-sacrificing mother, then that of a licentious, bawdy profligate widow. “Will the real Chinese widow please stand up!” she exclaims in frustration. It is a difficult task, but the search for the “real Chinese woman” is the basis of this work. Its central assumption is that the models now in use to search for her are inadequate.


Before indicating the direction this work will take it is worth surveying in some detail the nature of the existing work on the position of women in imperial China, its sources and the motivations and attitudes of those who conducted it. Up until very recently almost all of the writing about women in China has been so strongly influenced by either the attitudes or motivations of its writers as to be, not quite valueless, but certainly severely flawed.

Interest in the West in the position of women in China, in terms of published works, peaked first from around 1890 to about 1920. Works published then were often translations or adaptations of indigenous works by Europeans who lived in the country and who operated from a Eurocentric perspective. These scholars who first exposed China to Western gaze were far from immune from the phallocentrism of their own culture.

As Weidner notes in regard to art historians, they “seldom paid much attention to the work of East Asian women” although the Eastern works on the topic recognized women’s efforts, albeit in a somewhat demeaning way. Thus the prejudice of the East was added to the prejudice of the West and women as actors in their own right – as painters, poets, political powers and people – virtually disappeared. The trend was exacerbated by fictional works set in China of the time which stressed a strongly Orientalist view of Chinese women as weak, passive victims. Much of the work on the position of Chinese women has concentrated on the Chiing dynasty, which late 19th century writers could observe first-hand. But it should not be forgotten that this was a time of foreign domination and decline, during which the ruling dynasty (following the pattern of the Ming) consciously adopted extreme Neo-Confucianism to secure its rule.

This doctrine had first become well-established in the late Sung, with the founding father being Chu Hsi, who stressed the inferiority of women and the need for strict segregation of the sexes. There was an extreme morality and puritanism which (as has been seen in many other cultures) is normally highly detrimental to the position of women. It spread widely through the population during the Ming and reach its zenith in the Chiing. The writers who portray the 19th century as normal and typical of the millenia of Chinese imperial history ignore the many differences between Confucianism and neo-Confucianism. They also ignore the very many other religious, social and cultural influences which affected Chinese social mores and actions throughout more than three thousand years. In addition these writers tend to present a monolithic picture of society while in fact from the later sixteenth century (before foreign ideas can have had much influence) critiques of the strict norms being set out for family life begins to emerge. Criticism of footbinding is found as early as the Sung.

Many early writers were missionaries, who wanted to provide the most negative possible view to encourage both financial and political support for their activities. A Chinese women of the time wrote that Western missionary women believed, simplistically, that women of the east were “close prisoned slaves of their husbands, idle and ignorant and soulless, with no thoughts above their petty household cares and the strange heathen gods they worship”. It was an image scholars were happy to promulgate. The sorts of problems which occurred are beautifully summed up in a book published in 1891 under the title Typical Women of China. It was in fact a translation of didactic stories written to describe “perfect Confucian women” but it was presented to Western readers as stories of actual lives. This fault of scholarship was well recognised by a few at the time, but they had little success in making the academic or general audience see it. As Lieu wrote in 1917 “we do not see things as they are … (but) as they are represented in an idealized form as found in ancient books”.

The careless or purposeful exaggeration of the miseries of the position of women is beautifully demonstrated in Werner’s The Myths and Legends of China, first published in 1922, the section on “the sociology of the Chinese” states that “infanticide was frequent, especially in the case of female children” but only two lines later admits that the practice was “practically absent in a large number” of provinces. The internal contradiction is obvious. Similarly van Gulik, although providing much valuable information, is not immune from misogyny. He comments “the downfall of the Ming dynasty illustrates the ancient Chinese saying that `a beautiful woman can overthrow an Empire’. A quarrel over a concubine caused a rift between the two great Ming generals” who might have held off the Manchus. The point hardly needs to be made that surely this is the fault of the generals rather than the woman concerned! As in the case of Typical Women of China, very much of the work on Chinese women has been based either on the classical Confucian and neo-Confucian literature, which deals almost exclusively in idealised stereotypes of daughters, wives and mothers, rather than women as individuals. It is prescriptive rather than descriptive, written almost exclusively by scholarly males, often in official positions or from that background. Their writings about issues such as widow chastity and faithfulness are usually vehement, which might in itself be seen as evidence that this behaviour was not the norm, or at least that the prescriptions being offered were frequently ignored. We must be careful not to take these statements of the ideal as evidence of actual behaviour.

Up until very recently, these pictures were generally accepted, and women were simply not considered in Western scholarship about China unless the topic was “the family”. A classic example is the Dictionary of Ming Biography, published in 1976, which follows what many other disciplines would suggest is an outmoded method of study, simply detailing as much as is known about the lives of about 1000 Ming dynasty people with virtually no background or social information. Or perhaps I should have said the lives of men, for among the individual entries less than 10 refer directly to women, although women whose actions could only be described as significant appear under their husband’s, brother’s or father’s entries.

Chinese women are often grouped together with other “Orientals” (Islamic nations, India and Japan being the common generalisation). Not only in the popular Western mind, but also it seems all too often in the scholarly mind, the worst aspects of all these cultures ran together, to produce the perfect picture of the oppressed Eastern female. This was a picture that often had more than a little to do with the sexual fantasies of the male scholars. There is very much the problem of judgment and comparison. Cooper comments disapprovingly that “in times of famine girls are sold for very small amounts of money or exchanged for the more precious rice”. Yet this ignores the fact that in such famines many thousands, or even millions could starve, and this might be a way of ensuring the survival of both the girl and the rest of the family. As even Levy notes, it is not unreasonable to compare footbinding to the drastic corsets of European society of a similar period.

Moving to native Chinese scholarship it has been even more complicated by contemporary political questions. Feminism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was intimately linked with wider nationalistic goals and this situation continued under the communists. They introduced a new marriage law in 1950, the preamble of which stated “the supremacy of man over woman … is abolished”. The increasing freedom of women, and their chances to be pilots, train drivers or administrators was seen by both the regime and outsiders as one of the triumphs of communism .

Thus there was and is a natural desire to stress and perhaps amplify the misery of women’s position in the preceding period. This was amplified by the political situation during much of recent Chinese history, in which scholarship has been subsumed to the perceived needs and ideology of the state.

There is an additional complication in China, that of access. Between the late 1930s and very recently it was largely closed to Western scholars, so access to the generation which experienced the end of imperial China was virtually closed off. Often there was a reliance on studies in Taiwan or Hong Kong, but these were a self-selected and very small percentage of the Chinese race, and selecting them as representatives of the whole had its problems. Even prior to that period, the access of most writers to Chinese women was very limited, or in the case of males often non-existent.

In short then, I am suggesting that because of all of these factors, any writing about the position of women in China published before about 1980 needs to be approached cautiously. What is available tends to be highly generalised, based on assumptions that didactic texts reflected reality and often more influenced by the writer’s attitudes or political requirements than the evidence.

We come then to modern studies on Chinese social life. It is an area which has increasingly attracted the interest of feminists, yet their work has often adopted a curiously similar approach to earlier work even while criticising it. Women are still portrayed as the hopeless victims of the system. This is notable in Daly’s stress on footbinding and in recent work looking at the changes in women’s position wrought by the Communist revolution. Very recent work, almost exclusively published in the last 15 years, has adopted a more evenhanded approach, often using feminist analysis but in a more culturally sensitive and situation-specific way. Among the works I would include in this category are a collection of essays on female Japanese and Chinese painters , work on the position of palace women and on the interaction of Chinese women and their mother’s families.

Holmgren, who fits squarely in this category, shows that even studies of the neo-Confucian idealised biographies can provide information on the likely level of divergence from the ideal picture they contain. But many of these writers find themselves frequently pointing out that their work is only scratching the surface of understanding the position of women in imperial China. They almost all make references to the many questions which remain to be answered. These then are the problems which I perceive in a large amount of the existing scholarship about the position of Chinese women. What is needed, I would suggest, is a newly critical examination of the classical sources which have been used for studies on the position of women in imperial China, and a broadening of the sources used. The Confucian and neo-Confucian classics and the didactic literature have, as I have suggested above, been already very heavily mined for the information they can provide on the position of women in imperial China. That work would, I suggest, benefit from a serious re-examination of its conclusions about the actual life-experiences of real women. But rather than go over that ground I will instead be looking to alternative sources which seem to have been scarcely touched when the overall position of women is being considered.

With a few exceptions no one has mined the rich seam of non-Confucian literature for information on the lives of women in imperial China. Firstly deserving examination I suggest are the religious/mythological stories of largely popular culture, stories which made up much of the structures of popular Taoism and Buddhism. I will also look briefly at these two religions and their impact on the position of women.

Secondly I will look at fiction and poetry. Relatively little has survived from very early periods, but from the Tang, and particularly the Sung (960-1279) onwards there are many short stories, novels and plays, often with long provenance, which were written down them in the vernacular language (unlike all earlier work which was in the classical language to which only very limited parts of society had access).

Early works were based on oral story-tellers’ tales but gradually the short story and novel developed as independent genres, although the topics, usually the life, loves and disasters of urban dwellers, remained similar. They are thus an ideal way of getting some picture of the lives of women, for it seems reasonable to assume such stories would have had considerable similarities with the lives of their audience. They would also have provided models of behaviour, often very different to Confucian ones, for its members. In later periods there was resistance to these works, which were often seem as improper or immoral, but this doesn’t seem to have seriously affected their popularity. In both the Confucian and non-Confucian sources we are of course, with the exception of Pan Chao and a few women poets, usually hearing male views about female life, morals and character, and moreever the view of a small group of elite males. Since these androcentric sources are all that is available we must mine from them what we can, trying not only to hear what the writer meant for his audience, but also any hints or indications of factors the writer might have wanted to play down.

Finally I will survey briefly a selection of the lives of actual Chinese women on which we have information. This is not meant to be a representative sample. Instead what I am doing is demonstrating that there is ample evidence many women stepped outside the roles and expectations which most scholarship has portrayed as absolute limitations, and acted in various ways as independent, creative, functional and pro-active free agents. In studying these three areas there are of course still many problems. One of the most notable is interpreting just what rules and actions really meant to the actors at the time, separated from us by both time and culture. For example widow celibacy is customarily viewed as victimisation, but as Mann notes, “in a society where purdah was not observed, and spatial segregation of the sexes was not common … a claim on widow chastity sanctioned by family, community and state constituted a real form of protection against sexual abuse”.

Polygamy was no doubt a disaster many women but it could also create a powerful sisterhood. Shen Fu, a Chiing scholar who wrote an autobiography in which his loving relationship with his wife plays a prominent part, also writes of his wife’s desire to find him a concubine. She finds a woman she likes and wants very much to bring to the household as a friend. Shen Fu writes “as happy as old friends at a reunion, they soon set off hand in hand to climb the hill in search of all the scenic spots it offered”.

The problem of interpretation is not one that can be easily solved, nor is it without philosophical dilemmas. A Chinese imperial woman might have said and believed that the motivation for an action was one thing, while from a modern perspective we might describe this as false consciousness. There is no answer to this conundrum, except I would suggest that it is important to explore both the ancient and modern viewpoints, without necessarily attempting to iron out the contradictions.

Through these three sources, the non-Confucian religious works and myths, the popular literature and the actual lives, I am not suggesting that I am able to definitively identify the “real” Chinese imperial woman. But I believe these offer hints and suggestions as to where she might be found within the overall framework of imperial Chinese society. I am suggesting that what is needed is a different model from the oppressed powerless creature which has been the starting point for most other work on the subject.

One of the obvious problems of this essay is that it covers a huge span of Chinese history, the rise and fall of foreign and indigenous dynasty and of classes, and the ascendancy and decline of various social ideas. But this is not as great a problem as it might be if I had set myself a more ambitious project. I am not attempting to outline the position of women in the 3000 plus years of Chinese history, but rather to point out the flaws and problems in our existing picture, for which I believe my general approach is appropriate. For the sake of simplicity by and large I will be concentrating on traditional Chinese society and ignoring both the Mongol and Manchu ruling groups, whose women found themselves under different rules and strains to those experienced by their Chinese sisters.

Chapter 1: Religion and Myth

Dividing out the various strands of Chinese religious thought, primarily Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, is bound to be somewhat artificial, for they were always potent influences on each other. But I would suggest it is possible to look primarily at the Taoist and Buddhist texts and religious structure and consider what effects these might have had on the position of women in imperial China. Myth was part of the Taoist spiritualism which frequently came into conflict with Confucianism. After the Sung its richness and creativity were largely destroyed by the “heavy fist of Confucius” (or rather the neo-Confucians). But it no doubt retained popular appeal and many of the texts which have reached us date from this period, although the tales are many centuries older.

Taoism is particularly associated with a rich mythology in which Hsi Wang Mu, the Western Queen, is a prominent feature. In some sources she is “a fearsome creature with a leopard’s tail and tiger’s fangs ruling over plague and pestilence” but other times she is an “elegant and charming” character. She has an opposite but equal compatriot Mu Kung, the God of the Immortals formed out of the Eastern Air. Cooperating, the two principles are both the basis and substance of all that exist.

As Cahill has outlined, she was particularly popular with women and the special guardian of those who stepped outside the traditional Confucian role such as singing girls, nuns, adepts and priestesses. Significantly, she is never mentioned as a “granter of children” or a supporter of the traditional Confucian norms of obedience and self-sacrifice. The Taoist Western Queen not infrequently plays a warlike role in myth, as do many other goddesses and mythical human females. Thus in Creation of the Gods, a novel-style collection of myths formatted in the Ming but based on far earlier oral traditions, Zhang Kui returns depressed to his fortress after a defeat, but his wife has the answer. “She listened to his story and then proposed, `General! Why don’t you assassinate King Wu and his high ministers tonight. Victory would then be ours and we would not need to waste time on the battlefield!” In the same tale many female immortals and spirits duel with the male on seemingly entirely equal terms.

One popular creation myth (although not the most popular) involved Nu Kua Shih, sister and successor of the mythical first emperor. She is credited with creating human beings as the world emerged from chaos. Later in the complex mythological history which grew up through Chinese history the Goddess Nu Wa saved earth after a demon damaged Buzhou Mountain and “the northwest section of heaven collapsed and the earth sunk down in the southeast. Chinese mythology had it own myth of virgin birth, in the person of a 40 year old, virgin, “saintly lady”, Tai Yuan who lived on a sacred mountain, nourished only by air. Pan Ku entered her as a ray of light and 12 years later she gave birth to Yu Huang, the Jade Emperor, in later years a very popular god. Perhaps not surprisingly in view of the Confucian stress on family and children this myth never developed into a central one in Chinese religion, unlike in the Christian West, where it had many detrimental effects for the position of women.

Taoism has been characterised as a “feminine” theology, but I would agree with Ames’ thesis that it would be better seen as “sexually-balanced”. Thus in the Tao Te Ching a true sage says “I alone am different from others and value being fed by the mother.” There is a strong emphasis on balance, although difference in translation produce interesting variations. Thus Book I, Verse 28 is translated by Ames as “One who knows masculinity and yet preserves femininity”, while another translation produces “Know the male, but keep to the role of the female”. For our purpose the finer distinctions are not important. What is clear is that there is considerable sympathy for the feminine in Taoism and it offers women at least potentially a great deal in both theological and psychological terms. Chinese saw the the universe as pervaded by the mysterious life force chi, which was made up of the “eternal mutual interaction of dual cosmic forces”, yang (identified with male) and yin (female). These beliefs were particularly associated with Taoism. Sexual intercourse according to many Chinese texts, from the I-ching to, gives life to all things, but particularly to the participants. van Gulik provides many examples of this belief, well summarised in a letter by the great poet Hsu Ling, who wrote to a friend who had retired to the mountains “You have with you a Nung-yu to assist you in becoming an Immortal … Why should you trouble with the Pill of Immortality, while you can drink from the Jade Fountain”.

Many Taoist texts speak of the importance of intercourse for long life or even the ultimate goal of immortality, for example the Tung-hsuan-tzu, probably dating from the Sui: “Of all things that make man prosper none can be compared to sexual intercourse. It is modeled after Heaven … Those who understand its significance can nurture their nature and prolong their years; those who miss its true significance will harm themselves and die before their time.” In later years when the puritanism of Neo-Confucianism succeeded in suppressing and almost destroying many of the earlier Taoist sects the idea survived in a less sophisticated form.

Accompanying this is a stress on the need for the satisfaction of both partners, long before such an idea became widespread in the West. There is an expectation that women will enjoy intercourse. So for example The Before Midnight Scholar states “among one hundred women, there may be one who takes no pleasure in it”. Most texts stress the importance for the woman of foreplay , while the Tung-hsuan-tzu says plainly “when the man feel he is about to emit semen he should always wait until the woman has reached orgasm”.

From around the sixth century onward many Chinese women found solace in Buddhism. Kuan-yin, a bodhisattva, came to be particularly special to women and acquired a number of female forms. An example of the depth of feeling is shown in Kwei-li, the wife of an important official at the end of the Qing, who writes: “I feel her love for me. She shapes my way and I know it is to her I owe it that my life flows on as a gentle stream, and I know that she cares for me and guards me now that thou [her husband] art away and I have no one on whom to lean.” She had a comparable form Tou Mu in Taoist mythology, said to have been the mother of the nine mythical human sovereigns of antiquity. As well as her celestial mysteries, she “had a kind heart for the sufferings of humanity”.

What then are we to make of these female deities? A full exploration is outside the scope of this essay, but some useful comments may be made by drawing on the work of Gross. She suggests that the presence of a goddess “does indicate a tremendous respect for the feminine side of humanity and experience- whatever that may mean”. More personally for women, a role which seems to have been occupied by Kuan-yin, “the Goddess imparts to women a certain sense of dignity, self-worth, personal assertiveness and simple visibility”. As Cahill has said Hsi Wang Mu and her attendants the jade girls provided a model of female “beauty, sexuality and skill”. These are models far from, and even opposite to, traditional Confucian ones.

As already mentioned, Buddhism tended to be particularly associated with women, gaining a particular boost during the reign of the Empress Wu. This seems to have been both for reasons of policy and the empress’ personal beliefs. The was linkage not surprising, for it offered no theological support for male superiority, and a female Buddhist faced no doctrinal impediments to stop her being equally worthy as a male.

Buddhism, sometimes in interaction with Taoism, also offered a limited number of women the powerful and influential position of nun or adept. After a time the two came to be confused or mixed, so that works on Buddhist nuns include women from the pre-Buddhist period who were either Taoist or shamanistic women.

Nuns and adepts are regarded with awe and fear, so for example the biography of the great general Huan Wen (312-373AD) speaks of a Buddhist nun taking a bath “she first split open her belly with a knife and thereafter cut off her feet. … Huan asked her to tell his fortune. The nun said: `If you would become Emperor, you would find yourself in the same condition as I’ (ie better give up your plans for usurping the throne)”. The mutilation might seem strange to us but was probably intended simply an indication of the strength of the nun’s magical power in that she could do this without suffering lasting harm.

Buddhist nuns, although often regarded with suspicion by men, were able to bring news of the outside world into even the most cloistered women’s quarters, where they also often acted as counsellors and de facto doctors. Monasteries also offered a refuge for women who objected to arranged marriages or who wanted to escape unhappy marriages. They were a refuge for homeless women in a society which offered virtually no other respectable alternatives to a women who found herself without family or disowned. There was the doctrinal factor that a female Buddhist order had technically anyway to be under the final control of a male order, but this was probably not so strong a limitation on their growth as the general opposition to choosing a celibate life.

Chapter 2: Literature

The division between myth and literature is again somewhat artificial for myths were often also popular stories, and the two intermixed. This will be noted in the text where necessary. The major texts considered in this section are popular titles from the Song and later, but I will begin with a very brief consideration of classical poetry from throughout Chinese history.

Sociological and political topics of greatest use to this work (and particularly love and passion) are generally excluded from the classical literature, but there were exceptions, particularly in the Tang era and after the Mongol conquest. This seems to have been particularly the case in poetry directed towards a female readership. Often we find love and passion was between husband and wife. Poet Han Yu (768-824) uses the simile “as intimate as man and wife”. But even better evidence is in the poetry of Kuan Tao-sheng, who was almost as famous as her husband, Chao Meng-fu, described as the most prominent scholar-artist of his age (late 1200s to early 1300s). She writes of a quarrel with her husband: “Between you and me, There is far too much emotion, And that causes our red-hot quarrels.”

Women in the classical poetry are not infrequently portrayed as influencing the decisions of kings and ministers. Lu T’ung (d 835) writes in an elaborate allegorical poem about the dismissal of a minster that “Heaven, just like man, can lose its sight by lusting after beauty”. This is interpreted as the Emperor being misled by a favorite concubine. Tang poet Li Shang-yin (812?-858) refers to the story of Yang Kuei-fei, the concubine of Emperor Ming-huang (713-55). He was forced to execute her by his own troops, who felt through her, the Yang family had too great an influence. Moving then to the popular work on which this section of the essay is concentrating, I will consider first Outlaws of the Marsh. This is an immensely popular, mammoth work very much in the popular storytelling tradition. What is most surprising in this text to the Western reader brought up with the traditional Confucian ideal of Chinese womanhood are the female warriors.

Three of these warriors were in the terminology of the book “chieftains”, part of the 108 central characters in the book. Certainly these warriors are not the most important characters, but neither are they minor actors. They are married to warriors, but then a large number of the characters in the book are married to women who share their outlaw life, if not the actual fighting. And the three each command their own contingent of female fighters.

Their warrior status is neither remarked upon nor seemingly regarded as odd. They appear in their turn to do battle and vanquish enemies, as in the passage quoted in the appendix. I have quoted this passage at length for it illustrates the totally matter-of-fact way in which the novel deals with the female warriors. This passage is no different to hundreds of other accounts of combat in the novel – the female fighter is treated no differently to the male. They operate under cover when necessary and two of the female chieftains share the fate of most of their male compatriots, being killed in battle. No special comment is made about this. Also notable is the fact that the supernatural force behind the entire massive work is the Taoist Mystic Queen of Ninth Heaven, whose warlike role in other settings has already been mentioned. She provides the chieftains’ leader Song Jiang with both military and magical advice and power to win battles.

Similar female fighters are found in Flowers in the Mirror, a work which is particularly sympathetic towards women, within a Confucian framework. There is Red Lotus, who avenges her mother by killing tigers and Purple Cherry who hunts wild beasts to support her family. There’s also a Taoist nun who rescues the central characters by engaging in a prodigious drinking bout.

A favorite myth, variously attributed to several different eras, is that of Hua Mu-lan, who took a conscript’s place in the army for her father, who was ill and old. She fought bravely and well for 12 years, while maintaining the secret of her sex, and her chastity. When the fighting was over she returned to her family home, and the traditional female role. Fulfilling a role in a moral tale about a braggart brought down to size by a woman who kills a tiger with her bare hands and breaks rocks at a touch. eventually the braggart concludes “it’s a good thing I didn’t come to blows with her … that would have been the end of me”. The bravery and tactical savvy is not restricted to physical battles.In The Outlaws of the Marsh the wife of the commander of an encircled garrison provides the plan which allows her husband, who previously just stood around and metaphorically wrung his hands, to change sides and win the emperor’s favour.

There are also many examples in the literature of women displaying political skills. Thus a mere maidservant manages to posthumously resurrect the political fortunes of her one-time master in “The Faithful Handmaid”. Qin Shi Huang outwits the emperor by making him build a fine tomb and even wear mourning for her husband who dies working on the Great Wall.

Learned women also appear frequently in these works. In Flowers in the Mirror one of the central characters is Little Hill, the comments for whom might equally be applied to a beloved son: “At four or five years of age, she was already an accomplished reader, and retained the meaning of whatever she read after reading it only once … became, before she was very old, well-versed in the classics and thoroughly at home in literary matters… she had an adventurous spirit and loved to play with spears and lances, and did so although her parents did not encourage it”.

The desire for a wife with at least reasonable learning seems according to this literature to be the norm among equally educated men. Thus even the hero of the erotic novel The Before Midnight Scholar wants a wife “not only beautiful, but intelligent and well educated as well”. In one popular tale even a beggar chief’s daughter is well educated. The narrator tells us the chief “prized his daughter above jewels. He had her taught to read while yet a child and at fifteen or sixteen she could write poems in various metres or dash off impromptu verses”.

Flowers in the Mirror comments on the wastage of women’s abilities in a section during which the empress proclaims exams mirroring male scholars’ to select the most learned young women in China. The empresses decree reads in part: “Although men may be as brilliant as jade, women are no less so. In my search for people to help me with the affairs of the nation, a ministry is given to fine men of learning and ability. But so far, the source of talented women has not been explored.” The women who pass the exams, together with their husbands and brothers, eventually overthrow the empress and restore the rightful emperor.

As Ching Chung has demonstrated such exams and official positions for women did exist, at least in the period from and including the Sung to the Ming. Yet until this work to the most of my reading these had received no mention in English-language publications, although the material obviously existed in imperial Chinese works.

There is other evidence that female literacy may have been far more widespread than commonly supposed, notably in the Lives of the Nuns, a collection of biographies edited in 516AD. The nuns of course were not typical, but at least 80 per cent of them were highly literate. Secular history from a similar period indicates at least 40 of 260 individuals were literate, although the number was probably higher since biographers often did not bother to include this fact. Another good source in this regard is the Six Records Of A Floating Life, a primarily autobiographical work of a poor scholar born late in the eighteenth century already mentioned. His wife is able to discuss poetry of various eras and Shen Fu boasts of her increasing ability to engage in debate and discussion. Similarly of their daughter, Shen Fu boasts that at age 14 “she could read and write well and was also very capable, so fortunately we could rely on her help in pawning hairpins and clothes”. All in all we are finding evidence that the desire for female learning which is clear in the fictional text most likely had considerable correspondence with contemporary reality.

Most of these semi-popular and popular works display sympathy for the position of women and reject or pour scorn on the neo-Confucian orthodoxy of their time. This is very evident in Flowers in the Mirror, described by one translator as “a social commentary and a human satire … also an historical romance fairy tale, an allegory”. In a format much like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, its main characters travel through many imaginary lands, one being the Country of Women, where “the men wear the skirts and take care of the home, while the women wear hats and trousers and manage affairs outside”. The male travellers are shocked and surprise to be treated like women and one is kidnapped by the “king” (a woman), footbound, made-up and subjected to various other indignities. There’s no doubt at all the narrator’s sympathies lie with the women who suffer such treatment regularly.

Flowers on the Mirror also contains a scathing satire on what we might now describe as the sexual double standard. A bandit’s wife has her husband beaten when he tries to take a concubine, screaming at him: “why has the idea of taking concubines been on your mind constantly? Would you like it if I took a gigolo, and cast you aside? In times of poverty you men sometimes know what is right and what is wrong. But when you get rich, you not only forget your old friends and relatives, but even the wife who struggled with you in your hard days!”

There seems to be an expectation that women will be able to engage in illicit affairs or adultery. This even dates back to the ancient Shih Ching or Book of Poetry dating from around 100 to 570BC, which includes examples of women running away from their lovers. In the ancient odes women not only run away, they are sometimes portrayed as the sexual aggressors.

But its even stronger in the later literature on which we are concentrating, with the overall belief underlying these tales being that of the narrator of Chin Ping Mei, “when a woman in love means to have her way no wall is too high for her – she will reach her goal in spite of it”. Among the many examples which could be chosen there’s the famous and oft-told tale of Cui Yingying, supposed to have been born in 784. At age 16 she is supposed to have taken the initiative and seduced Master Zhang. In the many versions of her story she has been sometimes treated sympathetically and sometimes not, but there’s very little surprise at the action. From the realms of mythology there’s Princess Anpo, daughter of a dragon, who actively arranges her marriage to the son of her nursemaid (hardly a traditional match).

In the later popular literature on which this essay has concentrated there are plenty of similar examples. Another sexually aggressive fictional woman is Xuixui, who forcibly seduces the jade worker Cui. As is common this is a moral tale and she comes to a sticky end, but even as a ghost she proves stronger and smarter than her husband. In the famous Chin Ping Mei while the men, mainly Hsi Men, are normally the sexual aggressors, the women seldom take much persuading. And Gold Lotus is an active aggressor in seducing a “gardener’s boy” breaking not only sexual mores but also class barriers.

Another interesting example is a play, The Romance of the Western Bower. It has been interpreted by modern Chinese writers as a savage attack on the “feudal” system of arranged marriage. This is perhaps extreme, but there’s no doubt the sympathy of the playwright rests with the two young lovers Zhang Gong and Oriole and she is very much an active player in encouraging his love and scheming for its success. This is very much against what are portrayed as the neo-Confucian norms.

In many of the popular tales there is no doubt that women are able to access and frequent the public world of the street, temple and other places where they can make contact with and often flirt with strangers. Thus in Chiing tale of “Perseverance rewarded” we hear about the spring festival “when it was customary for both men and women to be seen abroad” at which is seen “a (respectable) young lady resting herself under a tree with a throng of young fellows crowding around her”.

There are also examples of women remarrying or being less than chaste widows. In myth there is also the rather quaint tale of Chuang Sheng, who came upon a newly-widowed wife fanning on husband’s grave. On asking why she replied “I am doing this because my husband begged me to wait until the earth on his tomb was dry before I remarried.” Later tales pick up this story and tell others, such as the Chiing tale of the “faithless widow” who “rather than remain faithful to his memory … selling off all the property, pocketed the proceeds and married another man, leaving her two children in almost a state of destitution with their aunt”.

Husbands in these popular tales are not infrequently afraid of their wives, with the women ruling not only the household but also their spouse. Thus Liu in `The tattered felt hat’ schemes to get his wife to agree to his daughter’s marriage. The narrator tells us “Liu, who was afraid of his wife, had long wanted Song Jin for his son-in-law but feared Mrs Liu might not agree”.

Also obvious in the literature is strong praise not only for daughters who obey their parents but also for sons who obey parents, or simply their widowed mother. Thus in the popular story “The honest clerk”, the narrator says “since Zhang Sheng was a respectable young man, who had always deferred to his mother, he took her advice”. Even the stupid and aggressive Wang Chen in “The foxes’ revenge” stops a red-hot pursuit following a request from his mother.

Chapter 3: “Real Lives”

By Natalie Bennett

Those prominent women whose lives we can trace in some detail fit fairly comfortably into three groups. Many of the women of whom we know were poetesses, authors or artists, a factor assisted both by the survival of their work (usually for many centuries, indicating it was highly valued) and the fact they almost invariably came from upper levels of society.

The other main group of women whose deeds have come down through history are those who were active in politics. They are often regarded with disapproval by contemporary (male) writers who are horrified by their influence on governance and administration, but stripping away misogynist views they were very effective for their families and sometimes the empire. The final group of women whose lives are detailed in print are more diverse, being women of the late 19th and early 20th century who came to the attention of Westerners. They come from more diverse social backgrounds and are sometimes not politically or artistically notables. This makes the works on their lives very valuable, although the fact these are filtered through Western eyes and are living in what was probably the worst period for women in Chinese history needs to also be considered.

Naturally we know more detail of the achievements of women from the last millenia, but that does not mean others excluded. Van Gulik suggests, persuasively, that the development of printing which greatly increased the accessibility of literary works and paintings, helped spread learning to women in later periods (in the Sung and after). As already discussed there is practical evidence of widespread female literacy among the top stratas of society. Possibly printing meant more women had the chance to make their literary or artistic mark, although of course the countervailing force was the increasingly conservative ideology of the times.

Many of the women of artistic fame were concubines or courtesans, and it is important to make the point that these were not viewed with contempt or disgust as in the West. In fact their company, learning and skills were often all that was drawn upon. As van Gulik points out, in a polygamous society sexual services were readily available to many men, particularly the richer among them, so they were not necessarily asked of courtesans. He even suggests “men frequented the company of courtezans often as an escape from carnal love, a welcome relief from the often oppressive atmosphere of their own women’s quarters and the compulsory sexual relations”. A decent literary education was essential for any courtesan with ambition and they expected to be treated with respect and courtesy by clients. At least theoretically they could pick and choose the patrons they received.

In later times the view of courtesans was less sanguine, as neo-Confucianism took hold. Thus Shen Fu, in many ways an unconventional thinker for his time, states that Hsiao-hsiao (see above) “nothing but a sing-song girl” was remembered when “countless chaste and virtuous women … since ancient days have been buried without being remembered”. Furthermore, it should not be suggested a courtesan’s life was always a happy one. Shen Fu provides an account of the hardships of the life of a poorer class of courtesan (although one still along way above the common prostitute). He describes a “life of constantly welcoming new guests and seeing off old one. When unhappy they still had to laugh loudly, and when they could not stand the taste of wine they still had to drink a great deal; when sick they still had to entertain guests and when their throats hurt they still had to sing”.

Among these early artistic women of whom we know there was Lady Pan, concubine of the Han emperor Ch’eng (32-7BC). Poets a millenia later were still referring to an image she created of the abandoned women as a fan of white silk discarded in autumn. Yu Hsuan-chi (ca844-871) was from a poor family and self educated. Eventually did so well from her literary work she was not officially registered as a concubine.

Poetess Huang O (1498-1569) was already well-known for her learning before her marriage according to accounts of the time and was not betrothed until age 21, then to a well-known scholar. So her acquisition of learning and a high reputation in the area was independent of her husband. Her life could not be described as a happy one, but she certainly was an important actor in her own right. After her husband was banished from the court she tended his estate and sent him money while he cavorted with concubines. After her husband’s death she continued to run the estate and educated his two sons by concubines.

James Cahill presents the story of the courtesan Liu Yin (1618-1664) who rose to be a respected painter and poet, capturing a distinguished scholar through her own initiative. It was not just a question of sexual appeal and feminine wiles, for her protector was Ch’ien Ch’ien-i “the leading literary critic of his generation”. She worked with him, composing poetry and editing an anthology.

Then there is Ch’en Shu, who fitted within most of the traditional Confucian virtues yet carved a considerable career as a painter in the generally repressive Ching dynasty. She had no family tradition in the area, so her success must be attributed to her own efforts, and she started what was virtually a dynasty of painters. And her influence went further, with the court master Chin T’in-piao two centuries later completing an album “imitating Ch’en Shu”.

This is not to say that all women were able to pursue the artistic skills they may have acquired. Ch’ing painter Sun Pao-shan, already well-known for her flower paintings and small-script calligraphy was married to a merchant who virtually stopped her painting. She is alleged to have died of grief at 40, and a similar fate awaited the nineteenth century artist Jen Ch’un-ch’i.

Women’s paintings were also judged on a different standard and seen to be fundamentally different from men’s. They were “softer” and “more delicate”, yet there is strong evidence to suggest this thesis is untenable and the work of at least prominent women painters was as a group indistinguishable from that of their male compatriots. It is impossible to conclude our comments on literary and artistic women without making reference to Pan Chao “the foremost woman scholar of China”. Like most of the other women mentioned above, she came from a strongly scholastic family background , including a prominently scholarly female great aunt, Pan Chieh-yu, a concubine of the emperor . Her daughter-in-law continued the tradition, assembling her works.

Pan Chao is best known for her Lessons for Women , but it should not be forgotten that she wrote many other items, ranging from verses for the emperor “every time there was a presentation of tribute or of unusual gifts” to the contributing (at the command of the emperor ) to the great historical work Han Shu, together with her father and brother. There’s some controversy over her precise individual contribution, but one translator concludes that in terms of bulk she wrote “nearly a quarter of the entire book”.

Pan Chao also supervised male scholars in their editing of the emperor’s library and was appointed instructress to the empress. She was also involved in politics, it being recorded that “when the empress Teng became regent (106AD) she conferred with Pan Chao concerning affairs of state”.

Turning then to “political women”, we must first note that the elite male writings from earliest times are strongly opposed to women being involved in decision making. Yet even the Chinese texts, usually in disapproving terms, acknowledge the imperial harem was “an intensely political environment, not only in terms of its internal functioning but also in terms of its influence on wider events”.

The most outstanding political woman was of course Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty. The writing about her provides a perfect example of the thesis of this essay, that the misogyny of the imperial Chinese writers, added to those of modern scholars, have come to point an extremely black picture of a powerful woman. Thus van Gulik uncritically repeats the comments of Chinese writers (who were prejudiced against Wu not just because she was a woman but also because they belong to the party which assumed power after her death which was hostile to her). Sexual innuendo and political slander is repeated as firm history in a way which is certainly not unknown against males but which throughout history has been a particularly used against women. She has entered the mythology as the empress who ordered all the flowers to bloom in the middle of winter for her frivolous pleasure, although it is interesting to note that in at least one version of this tale “since the empress was a sovereign ordained by Heaven, the plants dared not disobey her”. In Western scholarship she has been compared in ruthlessness to Catherine of Russia, who has received similar treatment at the hands of politically-hostile male historians.

Surprisingly there has been no recent work on the Empress Wu, surely a great topic for a modern scholarly biography, but a few hints that the traditional picture is something less than accurate can be found in various quarters. Ching Chung has shown that the Chinese bureaucracy “made no distinction between addressing issues directly to male emperors or to female regents, suggesting that the bureaucracy recognised the sovereign rights of female rulers”. Similarly, while she did not go quite so far as Wu, the Empress Dowager Liu of the Northern Sung wielded great power as regent, taking on such prerogatives of the emperor as the “ritual ceremonial ploughing and ancestral worship in the Temple of Imperial Ancestors”. And more famously there was the Empress Dowager Tzu hsi (1835-1908), whose treatment by historiography probably largely mirrored that of the Empress Wu’s.

Since the early Han period the right of the empress-dowager to chose the new emperor when the previous had left no sons had been clear. This gave an empress the obvious chance to chose a young boy many years from his majority and opt for many years of personal rule.

There is also increasing evidence that while she undoubtedly made some poor decisions in her reign, the Empress Wu was hardly the ogre of popular description. Thus as Dawson comments, while she did dispose of rivals unpleasantly this was hardly unusual, and as a woman in an unprecedented situation, she had to be “even more ruthless than a man”. She also played an important part in the long term shift which saw the intellectuals take over from the aristocracy as the main class of government.

Empress Ma, wife of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty Chu Yuanchang is an example of a woman who very much controlled her own destiny and contributed to her husband’s position. Originally she was probably a slave-girl, and her feet were unbound. Self-taught, she acted as secretary in charge of his documents and manager of the household as he emerged as a rebel leader against the declining Yuan dynasty.

Ma made important military moves on her own initiative during her husband’s rise to the throne and after he became emperor she is recorded as often advising him, wisely, on matters of state. The deathbed message history records from Ma to the emperor sums this up: “May you always seek out virtuous and able men, listen to their advice and not act hastily.”

A woman who seems to have played a similar role is Wu-yen, empress of Emperor Hsun of the Northern Chi Dynasty. She attained the position of empress after reprimanding the emperor about his poor government, not what traditional scholars would have predicted as a reason for the elevation.

The warrior women of myth and history also find a recorded real-life compatriot in the Ming. She was T’ang Sai-er, who was one of the leaders of the Shantung insurrection of 1420. With a Buddhist background, she was believed (not unusually for China) to have supernatural powers. She led rebels who were successful against imperial troops although inevitably they were eventually overwhelmed. But T’ang Sai-er was never captured, unlike her fellow leaders, greatly enhancing beliefs in her magical powers.

Also deserving of mention is the story of Sun Wu and the women warriors he trained, “which started as a joke and later became an effective fighting force”. The warriors allegedly operated in the 5th century BC and while the details may be fabrications certainly seem likely to indicate some women warriors existed prior to its recording in the first century BC.

Another fascinating woman, who was not only a warrior and politician but also a highly effective businesswoman, is known to us only as Cheng I’s wife. Starting life as a prostitute, after her marriage her Cheng she was instrumental in his establishing leadership over the south China pirates, a confederation which by 1804 commanded 400 junks and 70,000 men. In 1807 Cheng died but his wife maintained control, eventually marrying a young protege of hers who remained firmly under her control while fostering the federation’s wealth and power. Eventually the government was forced to negotiate and Cheng’s wife was able to keep much of her wealth while her new husband was appointed to the bureaucracy, where he rose rapidly, while she seems to have still been more than holding her own. Other less prominent and usually now unknown women no doubt played an important role in lifting the standing and wealth of their families. There’s bountiful evidence for this in imperial Chinese historiography and records, in which pleas to the throne to ignore or reject the influence of palace women and the advancement of their relatives is a common theme.

A recent study has also found considerable professional or semi-professional occupations available to women in Ming Beijing. Cass lists some of these as “physicians specialising in sphygmology (diagnosis based on pulse taking), wetnurses, midwives, pharmacologists and drug pedlars, coroners”s assistants, undertakers, yin-yang specialists, shamanesses and female adepts”. As she outlines, many of these served the female quarters of the palace, or other rich homes, places to which a male physicians could not go. The proximity to the palace, and the close relationships often built with their clients, also gave them the opportunity to gain considerable wealth, and wield political influence.

Moving now to the third group of women identified above, I will discuss three women who lived at the end of the imperial era whose lives have been recorded in detail in English. Kwei-li was the wife of a high Chinese official and two collections of her letters, to her husband and mother-in-law, were translated into English early this century. Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai was from the other end of Chinese society, the daughter of a workman, who encountered much hardship in her life. Another women about whom we have learnt is the grandmother of Jung Chang, who recently published a family history.

In the life of Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai are accounts of the usual pain and suffering we have come to expect: two years of agony after binding of the feet and comments on the desirability of these feet, giving an indication of the pressure on mothers to cause this pain. Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai also speaks of the popular suspicion of women, even by women, which the stereotypes of Chinese women would lead us to expect: “A woman could not visit on the first or the 15th of any month. She could not, when visiting, lean against the frame of the door. She must not stand or sit on the doorstep or even touch it in crossing. To do any of these things might give her power over the family she was visiting and so ruin them. Women were not considered clean. No woman would be allowed in the presence of a person suffering from smallpox, for the same reason. There was danger that she was not clean at the time, or that she had been lately with her husband.”

Yet it should be noted that the basis of this superstitious behaviour is fear – fear of the power of the woman. There is also evidence in this work among the poor of a secret women’s world. Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai speaks of going to “an old woman who dealt in such matters” who gave a prescription which caused an abortion for a widow who became embarrassingly pregnant. With such importance placed on sons, and chastity, male society would certainly not have approved of such an occurrence.

Kwei-li, although her husband was Western-influenced, spent much of her time with a conservative mother-in-law, so her life can be considered fairly typical of traditional Chinese woman of the imperial era. Hers was of course an arranged marriage, yet the letters for her husband betray a deep love which could hardly be doubted or dismissed as convention. We do not know her age, but it is clear that Kwei-li is quite young, perhaps in her early 20s, and has not yet borne a child, when she takes over as head of a large household, symbolically (and practically) holding the keys to the rice-bin. “If the servants or their children are ill, they come to me … I settle all difficulties, unless they be too rare or heavy for one of my mind and experience”. This is an example of a factor sometimes commented on but rarely stressed, that “principal wives were persons of consequence, with great authority within the household”. This extended even to punishments such as whipping for other members of the household.

The life of Jung Chang’s grandmother also provides an example, unusual as her tale might have been, of how women might have to take responsibility for themselves and others under extremely difficult circumstances, and at a young age. Made the concubine to a warlord general, her grandmother bore him a child, one of only two descendants for the general. The baby belonged to the general but as he lay dying Chang’s grandmother managed to flee in a dramatic escape with the child, and convince the family it had died. Later she married a Manchu doctor, despite the huge opposition of his family and maintained her position despite considerable opposition.

There is considerable evidence in Kwei-li’s words that girl children were not always regarded as second-best or treated poorly. Of her own childhood she writes of spending time with her father, and she also records a much-loved daughter of a poor family whose mother refused to sell her in time of famine. Similarly while the tyrannous mother-in-law is a popular figure, Kwei-li records how she welcomes a son’s young bride with consideration and concern.


Non-Confucian texts from the Chinese imperial era, both secular and religious, provide very different models of womanhood to those commonly-portrayed by Western scholarship. We have seen above that in Taoist and Buddhist religious texts there are powerful goddesses, immortals and female seers who provide a strong model. These characters can be formidable warriors, strong-willed champions of their fellow women or simply pro-active and strong females living lives according to their own desires and aims.

Looking at the post-Song popular and semi-popular secular literature (which we must not forget was written once neo-Confucianism was already well established) shows a wide range of characters far from Confucian norms. Most striking are the warrior women, who as Kingston noted provided a powerful model, not so much for emulation as for indication that women could take matters into their own hands.

But perhaps even more interesting are the more “normal” women who appear in these texts. They are often well educated, loved and cherished by their parents, and able to have very considerable influence in their own destiny. They are able to follow even their sexual desires and not infrequently dominate male members of their household. Moving then to our survey of “real lives”, it shows many women active in the literature and painting, some coming from family backgrounds strong in such areas but others made their own way in the artistic world. There is also ample evidence above that women, at least those from the very top social groups, were able, like their brothers, fathers and sons, to play prominent roles in politics. Finally the few more personal accounts we have from recent times show lives that are not much different from our own. The externals may be different but Kwei-li loves her husband, is treated kindly by his family, loves her child, and at a relatively young age effectively rules a large and complex household not incomparable to a large business.

So where do these pictures, so different from the traditional model of oppressed submission, take us in terms of the overall model of the “real” Chinese woman?

Firstly, before answering this question, there are a couple of important remarks to be made about Confucianism. As already discussed above, in Western scholarship about China much has been made of the place of women at the bottom of the Confucian hierarchy and the stress on the bearing of sons which has seen it linked with very different societies with similar family structures, particularly Muslim and Hindu. Confucius in addition stressed the place of virtue as a political force which tended to have a negative effect on the position of women . Both these factors no doubt did have a negative effect on the position of women in imperial China.

But less-remarked is the fact the Confucian system offered women one highly important advantage not available to females living in most other cultures. There was what Weidner described as “the built-in tension between the principles of female submission and those of filial piety”.

Kwei-li writes there is no one more autocratic than a mother in her own home. “Her sons obey her even when their hair is touched with silver.” She writes of an man appointed to an important diplomatic post in London who declined because “his mother was old and did not wish her only son to journey o’er the seas”. Perhaps a more extreme example is that of the Emperor Qianlong, who spent a huge sum on a stupa to house his mother’s hair. More formally, the legal system stated that if the division of a family property was inevitable after a father’s death, the mother’s permission had to be obtained if the deceased had not indicated clear wishes in the matter which could be proven (probably the bulk of cases).

Finally, when considering real lives, there’s a very important point about the Confucian system which often seems to be forgotten when family power structures are discussed. Men were also locked into strictly hierarchical relations, both within and outside the family. Older always took precedence (and usually power) over younger, with status divided into generational layers. Thus a man might have to wait until his father died, or at least entered his dotage, before gaining any real influence or power. As Yang states “not until the fourth decade in one’s life would one begin to gain serious consideration from senior members in the age hierarchy”.

Finally, Confucianism prescribed a strict segregation of the sexes. As we have seen above this was not so absolute as the puritans would have wished, but there is no doubt it was the basic norm wherever this could be afforded. Kwei-li wrote “a man’s official life and that which lies within his women’s courtyard are as separate as two pathways which never meet”. We know now that there was even, at least in some parts of China, a unique women’s language, oral and written, which was unknown to men. The Book of Rites states “”Men do not talk about internal [domestic] affairs and women do not talk about external affairs …men walk on the right and women on the left”. What we have here is a picture of separate, parallel lives.

More recent scholarship is hesitantly coming towards a similar conclusion. Ching Chung says that the male and female spheres “operated independently, with little intrusion upon each other (so) men and women had position within their own spheres”. Because of this fact, many powerful positions were offered to women, and with them powerful role models for the generations who followed. We have seen how Kwei-li in her early 20s ruled a household comparable in complexity to a medium-sized company, how the strongest women in the imperial household governed something far larger, and how Buddhist nuns and Taoist adepts were able to hold their own in religious battles.

Because women’s lives were separate, they needed their own “rulers”, female rulers. And it is not hard how to imagine power acquired, or even simply observed, in this arena might be transferred onto a wider stage, the widest possible in the case of the Empress Wu.

Thus it seems only some elements in Confucianism have been stressed in the traditional studies. Yes it can be an oppressive doctrine, but this oppression is not applied solely to women. Secondly, the very central tenet, the key on which it is based, filial piety, offers when considerable potential power and influence in their later years. Thirdly, and perhaps most essentially, it offered a major sphere of life, the household or harem, from which men were almost totally excluded, giving women the chance to learn to grasp and exercise power, or imagine themselves in that role. We are starting to approach a very different picture of imperial Chinese womanhood to the traditional one. But, a critic might say, what about footbinding, the topic so often mentions when Chinese women’s “oppression” is raised? An admiration for women who took simple, measured and graceful steps went back to the earliest roots of Chinese history. But there is bountiful evidence to at least the end of the Tang that this extended no further than an admiration of natural beauty.

There is now little argument the practice began in the Southern Tang rule of Li Yu (reign 961-76) among palace dancers, who originally must have only slightly restricted their feet, since they were able to perform their craft. The practice spread slowly, and it was only during the Yuan dynasty that it reached the centre and south of the country, although it was estimated by the 1830s between five to eight out of every 10 females had bound feet, depending on the region. But it should not be forgotten in considering the overall position of Chinese women, we are talking about the practice being reasonably widespread (but probably restricted to only a small elite) for perhaps 500 years. That’s much less than a sixth of the long period of Chinese imperial history.

There is not space here to explore the puzzling “why” question which surely deserves serious modern consideration. There is what is to Western eyes a puzzling, but seemingly very powerful erotic attraction. van Gulik suggests it could be best described as fetishism and best approached from a psychological angle.

But centrally there is very much a practical consideration of which the Chinese themselves were well aware. As a provincial proverb went: “Bound feet, bound feet, past the gate can’t retreat.” Women were well aware of this restrictive aim and in some cases campaigned against the practice. It tied in well with the strict neo-Confucian ethics, but perhaps its necessity was an indication that these ethics alone did not prove successful into directing women’s lives into the paths of which the ethicists would have approved.

Footbinding is important, and it was no doubt for most women agonising and constricting, but it is something which must not be overplayed in the overall picture of Chinese women’s lives. We should not forget or downplay it, but neither should the bound foot be seen as a metaphor for Chinese women’s lives throughout the imperial era. It has been stated above that myth, religious stories and fiction can be both a model for their readers, as well as a reflection of them. The sort of women which appear in the imperial Chinese texts thus suggest both that women had access to, and were able to emulate, models of warriors, of scholars, of independent active lives.

Confucianism, although it did not accept such lives, left open windows of opportunity for their development. Thus, this writer is convinced that the traditional model of the downtrodden, oppressed and weak woman is profoundly misleading. It may have been accurate in many cases, but as a starting point for theories about the lives of Chinese women it is fundamentally flawed.

Instead the starting point, the thesis from which we might look for deviations or variations, should be absolutely different. I would suggest it should be of two parallel, largely independent societies, male and female. Within that female environment there are scholars and tyrants, weak and strong, warrior and victim, largely impacting on and interacting with only their own sex.


I’m afraid footnotes for this piece have unfortunately dropped out of the text along various electronic changes.

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