Women in ancient China did not enjoy the status, either social or political, afforded to men. Women were subordinate to first their fathers, then their husbands, and finally, in the case of being left a widow, their sons in a system known as the “three followings” or sancong. Often physically ill-treated, socially segregated, and forced to compete for their husband's affections with concubines, a woman’s place was an unenviable one. Still, despite the harsh realities of living in a male-dominated society and being forever under the weight of philosophical and religious norms which were created by men to work for men, some women did break through these barriers. The practical realities of daily life meant many women could and did circumvent conventions, and some rose to live extraordinary lives producing great literature, scholarship, and even ruling the Chinese empire itself.
Theories on Women
At least in theoretical terms, women’s contribution, indeed necessity, to society was recognised in the principle of yin and yang. Even here, though, the male (yang) with its associated qualities is the predominant and has associations subtly considered the superior to the female (ying): hard versus soft, forceful v. submissive, level v. curved, light v. dark, rich v. poor, and so on.
In China everyone knew it was better to be born a male, and even female characters in traditional literature sometimes stated that they had been a man in a previous life but had reappeared as a woman in this one as a punishment for past deeds. Another common introduction to a female character in such stories was the line “unfortunately she was born a woman”. A male child would grow up to contribute financially to the family, perform rituals such as those in ancestor worship, and perpetuate the family name. In contrast, a woman could not earn money and one day would leave the family and join her husband’s. Consequently, many baby girls were abandoned shortly after birth. Those girls who did survive were given such names as Chastity, Pearl, Thrift, or the names of flowers and birds in the hope that the girl would live up to that name and receive attractive offers of marriage.
Bitter it is to have a woman’s shape!
It would be hard to name a thing more base.
If it’s a son born to the hearth and home
He comes to earth as if he’s heaven sent,
Heroic heart and will, like the Four Seas,
To face ten thousand leagues of wind and dust!
To breed a girl is something no one wants,
She’s not a treasure to her family.
(3rd century CE poem by Fu Hsuan, in Dawson, 272)
Women were expected to excel in four areas: fidelity, cautious speech, industriousness, and graceful manners. A woman’s virtue was a particularly valued attribute in Chinese society. Women deemed especially virtuous such as chaste widows were sometimes given the honour of a shrine, monument, or commemorative tablet after death or had their names published in honorific obituaries. This practice was especially popular following the work of the Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi in the 12th century CE.
Marriages in ancient China were usually arranged by both sets of parents. Not love but economic and social considerations were upmost in everybody’s minds. There were even professional matchmakers to find suitable pairings who also considered astrology in guiding their selections. Neither did some parents wait until their children were of age as many marriages had been arranged when the couple were still young children or even babies. The typical marrying age was the early twenties for men and late teens for women, although child brides were not unknown despite the practice being forbidden by law. If a marriage had been arranged but the groom died close to the ceremony, the wedding might go ahead anyway and the bride joined her new family as a widow.
The bride went to live with the groom in his house or that of his parents, keeping her family surname. Her transferal of abode became a great procession when she was carried on a red bridal chair and her feet never touched the ground between the homes in order to ward off evil spirits. On arrival she met her husband, often it was the couple’s first meeting. A marriage feast was held and the ancestral tablets were “informed” of the new arrival. The historian R. Dawson continues the story:
The marriage was not registered with the civil authority, nor did the bride’s family take any part in the ceremony or jollification, although the couple did go a few days later to pay a formal visit to the bride’s home. The rites of marriage symbolised the fact that the bride’s body, fertility, domestic service, and loyalty had been handed over by one family to another. They also provided an opportunity for the groom’s family to display its affluence and glory in its prestige in the community. The splendour of these occasions was a severe burden on a family’s resources…An additional expense was the gifts to the bride’s family, the betrothal presents, which were a thinly disguised price for the person of the daughter-in-law and a clear indication of her total subservience to her new family. (143)
That a wife was not much more than a physical piece of her husband’s property is further illustrated in the ancient practice of foot-binding. Girls from aged three upwards had their feet crushed in bindings for years in the belief that the resulting small feet would appeal to her future husband.
In Chinese law, a man could divorce his wife but she had no such right except if the husband particularly mistreated his wife’s family. The accepted grounds for divorce were failure to bear a son, evidence of being unfaithful, lack of filial piety to the husband’s parents, theft, suffering a virulent or infectious disease, jealousy, and talking too much. Some of these seem quite superficial to modern eyes, but it should be remembered that in Chinese society divorce was a serious action with negative social repercussions for both parties. Further, a wife could not be divorced if she had no family to return to or if she had gone through the three-year mourning period for her husband’s dead parents. Consequently, in practice, divorce was not as common as these grounds might suggest.
Another social convention was that widows should not remarry. Many did anyway amongst the lower classes, but the idea that the Fates and astrological charts had ordained that a particular couple should live together in matrimony was a difficult hurdle to get over in the case of a second marriage. An even greater barrier was a financial one as a widow did not inherit the property of her dead husband and so she had nothing to offer a new husband in that department.
Family & Working Life
Marriage and children were the expected normal course for all adults, and only those men who could not afford a wife did not marry. During the Han Dynasty, for example, unmarried women brought a special tax on their family and women with babies were given a three-year exemption from tax and their husband a one-year exemption. Regarding the sex of children, sons were much more desired than daughters. As the old proverb went: “A boy is born facing in; a girl is born facing out”, meaning that eventually a girl would ultimately leave the family and pay homage to the ancestors of another family. Having a son, then, greatly helped the wife to become accepted in her adopted family.
For upper-class women, their lives were perhaps more strictly controlled than at any other social level. Expected to remain within the inner chambers of the family home, they had only a very limited freedom of movement. Within the home, women did have significant responsibilities which included management of the household finances and the education of her children, but this did not mean they were the head of the family home.
Women of lower status, such as farmer’s wives, were expected to work in the fields - especially in regions where rice was cultivated. As many farmers did not own their own land but worked it as tenants, their wives were, on occasion, subject to abuse from landowners. Many women were forced into prostitution in times of drought or crop failure. Women worked in the home weaving silk and caring for the silkworms that produced it. Some were called upon, like men, to perform the labour service which acted as a form of taxation in many periods of ancient China, but this was only in exceptional circumstances. By the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) women had more freedom and were running inns and acting as midwives amongst other professions.
Concubines & Prostitutes
Although Chinese men usually had only one wife, they did openly make use of courtesans and invite concubines to live permanently in the family home. Prostitution was an open part of town and city life, with officials and merchants frequenting houses where prostitutes plied their trade for the purposes of corporate entertainment. Concubines, meanwhile, apart from the pleasures their charms might bring, often provided a family with the all-important male heir when the wife only produced daughters. They did not have the legal status of the wife as they were classed as servants and nor were the children of a concubine given equal status and inheritance rights as the children of the wife. The number of concubines in the household was only limited by the husband’s means. The wife must never show any jealousy to her husband’s concubines - it was, as we have seen, grounds for divorce, but also it was thought there was a particularly nasty corner of hell awaiting jealous wives.
Concubines usually came from the lower classes and entered the households of the wealthier families in society. A girl from a richer family would only have been given as a concubine to an even richer family or the royal palace. It was not uncommon, though, for a younger sister to accompany a bride and live in the marital home of her sibling as a concubine. This Eastern Han funeral stele for a concubine presents an interesting record of their duties:
When she entered the household,
She was diligent in care and ordered our familial Way,
Treating all our ancestors as lofty.
She sought good fortune without straying,
her conduct omitting or adding nothing.
Keeping herself frugal, she spun thread,
And planted profitable crops in the orchards and gardens.
She respected the legal wife and instructed the children,
Rejecting arrogance, never boasting of her kindnesses.
The three boys and two girls
Kept quiet within the women’s apartments.
She made the girls submissive to rituals,
While giving the boys power.
Her chastity exceeded that of ancient times,
and her guidance was not oppressive.
All our kin were harmonious and close,
Like leaves attached to the tree.
Famous Chinese Women
Despite being restricted by the men and the male-created social conventions of the time, there were cases of Chinese women (both real and fictional) who defied convention to become celebrated poets, artists, calligraphers, historians, and even rulers. Below are some details of two such women, one the paradigm of virtue, the other more ambiguous and controversial.
Ban Zhao (41 - c. 115 CE) was one of the most famous female writers and scholars in early China. She wrote commentaries on Confucian classics, and her most famous work remains her Nuje or “Instructions for Women” which expanded on the four virtues expected of women (speech, virtue, behaviour, and work) first outlined in the classic Liji ritual text. Although Zhao stressed that women should remain subservient to their husbands she did express a belief in the benefits of women educating themselves (to better help their husband’s work). The Nuje text was hugely influential, studied by countless generations of women and even recited to those unable to read.
Wu Zetian (aka Wu Zhao) lived from 623 or 625 to 705 CE. The concubine of Tang dynasty emperors Taizong (626-649 CE) and Gaozong (r. 649-683 CE), she was officially made empress by the latter in 655 CE. On the death of Gaozong, she reigned as regent for her son Zhongzong (684 CE) and his successor and elder brother Ruizong (r. 684-690 CE). In 690 CE Wu Zetian went one step further and took the throne by declaring herself emperor, set up her court at Luoyang and declared the beginning of a new dynasty, the Zhou. Her reign, at least in Chinese tradition (which gives yet another insight into attitudes to women), was one of despotic terror punctuated by family assassinations and beset by political intrigues. Nevertheless, her ruthless approach did lead to the expansion of the state bureaucracy, and she was a great patron of Buddhist art, seen notably at the Longmen caves. At the end of her reign, she was forced to reaccept the Tang dynasty line and select Zhongzong as her heir apparent.