Women in Ancient China

By:Chen Nan Date:2018-03-07

Throughout the development of the ancient Chinese civilization, women’s position in society constantly changes in terms of their roles and functions in accordance to the social conventions of society in those different eras. While some prominent feminine figures did standout in terms of their contribution and achievements, women as a whole is still the oppressed majority in ancient Chinese civilization.  This essay sets out to discuss the various changes in the roles and functions of women in society, and their contributions and achievements with examples drawing from various prominent feminine figures in different dynasties with focus on the female politicians, political instruments, and the educated.


The majoritarian view of women’s positions in ancient Chinese society would confer from Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women views being of subject to father, husband, and son in their three stages of life. Since Shang Dynasty, the dawn of Chinese civilization, females were regarded as inferior beings as seen in the example of Fu Hao giving birth to a girl regarded as a bad omen. The Chinese system puts women down; they did not have access to public affairs, and are largely excluded in every aspect of life. These views on women’s status in society and the qualities they should process arises from social constrains branded on them by societal conventions. One example of the qualities they should process could be seen the naming of imperial concubines in the Tang Dynasty with rankings of the royal concubine (貴妃),the gentle (淑妃),the virtuous(德妃),and the gracious(賢妃), these would be the features that society looks out for in a women in relation to their personality and actions as symbolified by the highest ranking women in the empire and women’s need to be fully aware of their roles and the qualities they should process. Their oppressed nature would also be seen in the divorce system of ancient China (休妻) that is simply translated as getting rid of thy wife legally. This system greatly benefits men in general as it forbids the women to initiate the divorce no matter how dire the marriage life is. The system is also largely discriminating on the women, as men can legally divorce a woman if she breach any of the seven laws that are finality, reproduction, chastity, healthy, not envious, not gossip, and not steal.[1] that women are expected to follow, however men can easily twist the facts to portray the woman as breaching one of the seven laws if he feels that she is of no use to him anymore. Hence in ancient Chinese civilization, most women have no opinions, no achievements, simply living a life serving their father, husband, son, some in constant fear that their husband might just divorce them one day out of boredom.


Even with women of high status such as princesses, daughters of high-ranking officials, they face oppression from their families seeing them as political instruments in hope of gaining power for the country or for the family. There are numerous examples of princesses, concubines such as Princess Wencheng, Wang Zhaojun being sent to the borders of Chinese boundary to Tibet and to the Xiongnu in order to strengthen ties between political states. Young girls sent into palace by their ambitious families in hope of one day gaining royal status with the birth of a prince.


As much as majority of the women are the oppressed in society with no voice on their own, there are always some who breaks out and shines in society, even becoming the ruler of the society, they are the female politicians and the most famous of these will be Empress Lu, Empress Wu, and Empress Dowager Cixi. These female politicians broke out of their supposed place in society, and became powerful women in history, their names symbolizes feminine power even till today. Interestingly, all three of them were accounted as ruthless, manipulative and callous women by historians from ancient times till even today. Empress Lu, as described by scholar Raul S. Ropp writes ‘Empress Lu was a ruthless woman who has long been condemned by Confucian historians as usurping power from the Liu founding family, killing the rightful heirs to the throne, and placing many of her own relatives in powerful positions, but she was also a competent ruler who provided stable leadership at a time when the Han dynasty came under significant military threat from a nomadic people, the Xiongnu, on its northwestern frontier.”[2] Scholar Morris Rossabi described Empress Wu, as “Because Empress Wu represented the antithesis of the most cherished values of the Confucian elite, her reputation in the traditional Chinese accounts is unenviable. These works depict her as ruthless, vindictive, and cruel and accuse her of pitiless and vengeful crimes ranging from purging and exiling her opponents to almost unimaginable brutality, including the suffocation of her infant daughter. Such characterizations should be somewhat discounted, for they reflect Confucian scholar-elite antipathy towards women in public life and toward what they perceived to be political machinations that violated Confucian morality.”[3] And as for Empress Dowager Cixi, during an interview with Scholar Jung Chang, she said, “There was no doubt she was capable of immense ruthlessness, bus she was also a modernizer. That is not incompatible.”[4] Although all these sources verify that these three politicians were indeed ruthless, but there seem to be an undercurrent indicating that these powerful women were framed by historians, and Confucius scholars as ruthless to undermine their success in politics of which many males could not rival. Here, we see that women not only is the oppressed majority, but when they did try to make a difference and stood up for themselves, still society frames them as ruthless and cold-blooded, being forever remembered in history as someone with negative aspects in gaining of their political success.


Besides having the oppressed majority having absolutely no say, and the powerful politicians who controls the entire civilization, we have the educated women as well throughout the entire history of ancient China. With famous historians such as Ban Zhao, poets such as Li Qingzhao, and Zhuo Wenjun, and we have the female court officials such as Shangguan Wan’er, and Princess Der Ling all of which provides us an insight into life in ancient China from women from different ranks of society. Although they are largely celebrated educated women, their lives still revolves around societal constrains, and their actions heavily scrutinized by society, with most of them living in pain and agony towards the end of their lives.


To conclude, although we do see some feminine figures breaking out of the oppressed majority of women in ancient China civilization, in reality all of them used to be part of the oppressed and many still remained as inferior figures in society. For the most famous feminine figures in history, they were portrayed as notorious as possible showing society’s despise and fear of these women simply because they were different. As much as Chinese civilization had progressed, women is still considered inferior even till today since the dawn of society, with families preferring male babies to female ones and powerful female always described as femme fatale making use of their sexuality in gain of something they should not have vied in the first place, society definitely has not progressed much in the perception of women.

[1] Dai De, Da Dai Li Ji: Ben Ming Scroll eighty

[2] Paul S. Ropp, China in World History, Oxford University Press, Page 25

[3] Morris Rossabi, A History of China, Wiley Blackwell, Page 140

[4] Justine McDonnell, ‘Interviews Jun Chang, accessed on 13 April 2014

Ganus’Value:I would look for the legal basis for your point of view, even if I disagree with it.
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