Deconstructing the ahistorical conception of “Womenhood” and “Confucianism”

Recent studies on premodern Chinese philosophical ideas, especially Confucianism, had increasingly adopted post-structuralist and constructivist theoretical approaches. Scholars, especially feminist historians and philosophers, are seeking to clarify and redefine preconceived conceptions through discourse analysis, and the reinterpretation of the past and the present phenomena by tracing their historical formation processes.
This tendency in the academic field of East Asian and gender history is well exemplified in three scholarly works—Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan1 , Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation2 , and The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism.3) The three readings are tied together nicely by their shared goals to problematise the concept of a universal “womanhood”4 used by Western as well as East Asian scholars.5 

One reoccurring theme is the authors’ collective appeal for future scholars to fix their analytic gaze upon “female subjectivity”.6  This appeal is reflected in Barlow’s The Question of Women, which introduced the use of future anterior tense into the academic writing of women in China. It was also directly mentioned in Women and Confucian Culture and Confucianism and Women. The introduction of Women and Confucian Cultures provides a rather comprehensive definition of “subjectivity” for the purpose of this discussion, stating that it encompasses the subject’s “interior motives, identity formation, and perceptions of the world”.7 With this adjusted focus, feminist historians will be able to recognise women as agents and the formation of gender in East Asia as a social process. This then allows them to account for changes in gender identity and relation, the evolution of social and ideological factors that influenced their formation, as well as the potential reimagination of an original East Asian female identity.

Consequently, as a very, if not the most, influential philosophical and ideological tradition in the Sino sphere, Confucianism became a target of deconstruction for some scholars to make sense of its role in gender formation and oppression. Ko and Rosenlee both sought to challenge the traditional monolithic conception of Confucianism in their writing. One important point they both raised is that there is no conceptual equivalent in East Asian cultures for “Confucianism”. For example, the Chinese term Ru, although very close to, is not entirely congruent with Confucianism.8 Another example that poses a significant challenge to this monolithic interpretation is the changing nature of the Confucian social order and its implication on women’s social status across time and countries, of which Ko and Rosenlee both offered thorough evaluation in their books.

It is worth noting that a discussion over the nature and development of gender and women in East Asia does not only have a significant implication on feminism; women and gender are two good lenses for historians to look through to understand the influence and evolution of Confucianism values in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese history. Confucianism casts a different level of impacts on gender relations under different historical contexts, and women’s lives and status is an extremely good indicator of the function and operation of these Confucian traditions in various times, societies, and across different regions.

  1. Ko, Dorothy, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan(2003 []
  2. Rosenlee, Li-Hsiang Lisa, Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation (New York, 2012 []
  3. Barlow, Tani, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism (2004 []
  4. Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, p.151 []
  5. Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p1; Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, pp.3-6, 45-46; Barlow, The Question of Women, p.6 []
  6. Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, p.152; Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p.7 []
  7. Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p.2 []
  8. Ibid., pp.7-8 []