Throughout history, the role of women in China has been riddled by a ‘patriarchal paradigm’ that took hold both in familial and societal life. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan Piggott (2003) write of the ‘patriarchal family paradigm’, in which, “the ideal family thus prescribed [was] marked by gender hierarchy, patrilineal descent, and virilocal residence.”1 They go on to support this view by focusing on the legislative nature of this paradigm through avenues such as the Tang penal and administrative codes. Here, we see the differing roles in society of women and men, as the privilege of a husband’s status was not equally upheld for their wives.2 This is evidenced when assessing the Myörei Ritsu, which stated that murder, among other things such as failing to mourn a husband, was seen as a seditious offence. However, these offences were not as harshly punished for female victims. Ultimately, the role of women in society was one of a second-class citizenry that was in place to provide for husband’s and fundamentally, society. Thus, the ‘patriarchal paradigm’ is evident.
Despite this, however, as society evolved and developed, traditional family values that were upheld for centuries, began to find themselves on the end of criticism from some intellectuals. From these intellectuals, a critical movement grew which promoted reforms regarding the role of women, making the ultimate argument that “China needed healthy, educated mothers to produce citizens sound in mind and body.”3
Upon further inspection, however, this reform for women was a goal-driven movement that focused on assisting the overall development of Chinese male citizenry, not the true liberation of women and their role in society. Susan Glosser corroborates this when she writes that, “men’s interest in educational and physical reforms for women grew out of this desire to maximise their own contribution to the nation.”4 Thus, the argument arises that the role of women did not truly evolve with these reforms, rather the ‘patriarchal paradigm’, as coined by Ko et al. (2003) evolved. Critically, the main role that these reforms played in altering the role of women was solely effective on the surface and no deeper. Thus, the ‘patriarchal paradigm’ evolved with the times, rather than the overall role of women in society. Ultimately, women were still categorised as the second-class citizenry, critically in place to aid the male population. As highlighted by Glosser once again, the approach to reform was one where young elite men shifted an age-old focus from good mothers to ideal wives.5 Thus, as this piece argues, it was still a woman’s kinship role over anything else that dictated their place in society.
This is exemplified when focusing on the explicit directive for women to improve themselves, otherwise known as the wenming, or ‘civilisation’ of women. This is evidenced most when focusing on the work done by Liang Qichao, who grouped the reforms for women into three categories of, productivity, education, and the cultivation of a strong and healthy body. He argued that by women educating their children before the age of 10, as was done in the Western world, China could ultimately compete with their western counterparts. As a result of Liang Qichao’s work, the first Chinese Girls’ school opened in 1898. Regardless of the clear benefit that this had regarding the liberation of women, at least in educational circles, the overall aim behind this move was driven by the ever-existing categorisation of women by their kinship role.
Thus, as argued throughout this piece, despite some reforms for women in late nineteenth-century China, the overall reason behind the reform was still driven by the ‘patriarchal paradigm’. The ultimate move to liberate women in certain capacities was not compelled by a movement to provide women with rights, rather it was galvanised by a drive to improve the role of man, and to a greater extent, China.
- Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, Joan Piggott. Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan. (California, 2003). pg.27
- Susan Glosser. Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953. (California, 2003). pg. 5
- Ibid. pg.5
- Ibid. pg.6