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Religion Library: Confucianism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Women were at the bottom of the Confucian hierarchy. Exemplary behavior and uncomplaining obedience was expected of them. By custom, aristocratic men and women lived separately. Men had multiple wives and concubines, but women were not allowed to see men other than their close relatives, husbands, or masters, or the palace eunuchs. Homosexuality was discouraged, but not specifically condemned as "sinful." Abortion was also discouraged, except in cases where the mother's health was endangered.

For Confucians, spiritual development begins at home, and the home traditionally has been seen by Confucians as the paradigmatic arena of social relations. Social relations, of course, are rarely exchanges between equals, in the Confucian view, but instead tend to be interactions between superiors and inferiors. The so-called "Five Relationships" described by Confucians as the complete range of human interaction include four that entail hierarchy (ruler/subject, parent/child, husband/wife, elder sibling/younger sibling) and only one that need not entail hierarchy (friend/friend). The ideal Confucian state, with its "natural" hierarchy of ruler and subject, mirrored the home, with its "natural" hierarchy of husband and wife, and older and younger children.

Early European translation of Confucian texts: Public DomainMoreover, in the ideal Confucian home -- a microcosm of the state -- women were expected to demonstrate obedience before all other virtues, and at every stage of life. As children, girls were required to obey their fathers; as wives, women were required to obey their husbands; and as widows, women were required to obey their grown-up sons. At no point in her life was a woman, according to the traditional Confucian view, expected to function as an autonomous being free of male control. It was because of social values such as this that 20th century social reformers in China and elsewhere condemned Confucianism so vigorously.

Woman with bound feet, China (19th century): Public DomainAlthough Confucianism arose in a patriarchal culture and always has embraced patriarchal values, to some extent, this portrait of women in Confucian society does not necessarily reflect the historical reality of women in China, much less Vietnam, Korea, or Japan, from the very beginning of the Confucian tradition up to the present day. Rather, it describes women's lives as experienced during the last several hundred years of traditional Confucian cultural history in East Asia. Prior to that, women enjoyed a relatively greater degree of freedom in Confucian societies, and some women actually played prominent roles as Confucian thinkers, although this was unusual, partly because of the subservient position of women presented in various idealizations of society proposed by Confucian thinkers.


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