RELIGION LIBRARY

Confucianism

Ethics and Community

Gender and Sexuality

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.

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: "Yangtakes the lead; yinacts in concert. Themale 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:

Back to Ethics and Community