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Religion Library: Confucianism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Kongzi himself had little to say about women, apart from his observation that few men were as fond of virtue as they were of female beauty (Lunyu 9:18). It was the fateful synthesis of Confucianism with Taoist cosmology during the Han dynasty by Dong Zhongshu (179-104 B.C.E.) led to the gender dichotomy of men as yang (active, powerful, accentuated) and women as yin (passive, weak, diminished). Dong reduces what are, at best, suggestive cosmological associations to gender essentialism: "The husband is yang and the wife is yin." Later on during the Han dynasty, the imperially-sponsored text known as the Baihu tong (Comprehensive Discussion in the White Tiger Hall) amplifies Dong's dichotomy and its social implications: "Yang takes the lead; yin acts in concert. The male acts; the female follows." Yet, in the very same era, a Confucian woman, Ban Zhao (45-114 C.E.) wrote her Nüjie (Lessons for Women), in which she advocates education for women as well as for men and furthermore does so using Confucian arguments. Even so, it must be acknowledged that Ban's text mostly served to reinforce the growing Confucian conviction that women best fulfilled their spiritual potential by becoming dutiful wives and mothers.

Zhou Dunyi's Taijitu (Diagram of the Great Ultimate): Public DomainBy the time of the wholesale Confucianization of Chinese (and later, all of East Asian) society beginning in the Song dynasty, it had become commonplace for Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi to make pronouncements such as the following:

To do wrong is unbecoming to a wife, and to do good is also unbecoming to a wife. A woman is only to be obedient to what is proper.

Other Song "Neo-Confucians," such as Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E.), promoted female virtue by praising women who did not remarry following the deaths of their husbands. Transforming widows into Confucian martyrs, Cheng went so far as to say that it would be better for a widow to die of starvation (because she had no husband to support her) than to "lose her virtue" by abandoning her dead husband to marry and obey another man. Such sentiments eventually led, during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, to the Confucian cult of female chastity, in response to which the Chinese government offered tax exemptions and memorial monuments to the families of women who were widowed prior to the age of thirty and remained unmarried until the age of fifty.


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