No Country for Old (Wo)Men: The Evolution of the ‘Patriarchal Paradigm’

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.

  1. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, Joan Piggott. Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan. (California, 2003). pg.27 []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Susan Glosser. Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953. (California, 2003). pg. 5 []
  4. Ibid. pg.5 []
  5. Ibid. pg.6 []

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 []

Managing Confucian Virtue: Women’s Roles in the Transmission of Confucianism.

Women are seemingly afforded a meagre role within the intellectualism and Confucian ideals of Song China. Their position in the lineage-family structure meant that their function was commanded by the dominance of their male counterparts. However, when examined in closer detail, women’s role in coordinating the household meant that she had a significant influence in the dissemination of Confucian ideals through direct access to the familial environment through which Kongzi’s ‘virtue’ was developed.

The organisation of the Song dynasty (960-1279) was primarily structured by ‘jiazu’, or lineage-family which favoured patrilineal relations.[1] Families were organised and divided by the allocation of a father’s property to his sons and family dynamics were governed by the relations between men. By the necessity of performing rites to a common male progenitor, female autonomy was restricted entirely by the dominance of males within these local structures. Consequently, women initially seem to have a limited role in the Confucian dynamics of family.

‘Discord arises in families mostly when women provoke…with words’.[2]

This implies that women were seen as an obstruction in the ordered arrangement of society and that they purposefully aimed to disrupt the predetermined Confucian family setting, especially if they engaged with the intellectual privilege of ‘words’. It suggests that, based on societal organisation, women would not achieve the ‘individual perfection’ which Kongzi promoted that lead to an ordering of the world based on Confucian morals.[3] This further suggests that women were disengaged with Confucian ideals and on a local level were seen as selfish and untrustworthy. Their key value was in the continuation of the family line with the birth of a son. This afforded them no place in either the household hierarchy or the evolution of Confucian thought.

However, despite the role of the female being dismissed by the moral conduct and expectations of society, women’s role did become increasingly prevalent as they became vital for the transmission of Confucian ideology within the family dynamic. Particularly in the countryside, the importance of family and kinship was expressed through ancestral rituals and conjugal relations. Philosophical thought acted to transform this into a Confucian ideology which could be transmitted locally. Lineage-family divisions presented an opportunity for women to gain more autonomy within a smaller circle of power. When a husband passed away, mothers claimed increased authority over their descendants. It thus simplified relations within the family and decreased the risk of female conflict with in-laws which had previously acted as a curb on women’s power. Moreover, the idea of ‘Zhueni’, or the ‘women’s charge’ became characterised by the ability of women to directly transmit Confucian values and influence the behaviour and structure of their family.[4] They were responsible for the allotment of domestic power and allocation of living space, physically governing Kongzi’s desire for virtue to be transmitted by those closest by blood relation. Consequently, women adopted a significant role in the transmission of Confucian values as they became managers of the family sphere, the place where virtue was propagated.

To live in the neighbourhood of Good is fine…’.[5]

With increased presence and action within the family, women were the creators and upholders of the Confucian ‘Good’ and responsible for the family’s collective realisation of wisdom. This is exemplified in the production of female didactic texts in the Song. ‘Mr Yuan’s Precepts’ and ‘Zeng Family Instructions’ established the parameters of female autonomy within the family sphere and exerted a Confucian influence over the function of women in this period.[6] Their social significance may have been decreased by the level of gender control and separation in these texts, but it is increased by the very fact that women were integral to the dissemination of the Confucian message.

[1] Dorothy Ko, Kim JaHyun Haboush, Joan Piggott, Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea and Japan, (California, 2003), p.125.

[2] Ibid, p.127.

[3] Philip Ivanhoe, Bryan Van Norden (Eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, (2005), p.3.

[4] Dorothy Ko, Kim JaHyun Haboush, Joan Piggott, Women and Confucian Cultures, p.128.

[5] Philip Ivanhoe, Bryan Van Norden (Eds.), Readings, p.10.

[6] Dorothy Ko, Kim JaHyun Haboush, Joan Piggott, Women and Confucian Cultures, p.128.