Women in ancient China

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Women in ancient China

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dec 17, 2006, 11:48 am

Traditional China is considered to be patriarchal, and the Fogies have no disagreement with that; it certainly was. Yet in practice it somehow worked out to be more complicated than that. There are examples, well-known ones in the Han and Tang dynasties but others can be found, of women ruling the nation, not from behind the throne but formally designated rulers, a thing unthinkable in other societies we call patriarchal. Nor is this a peculiarity of the royal court. Women in some cases headed families, controlled businesses and so on at all levels of society, also not your stereotypical patriarchy. So here's a thread to discuss that topic.

dec 17, 2006, 1:45 pm

Just how unique is the Chinese situation? Is Empress Lu all that different from Hatshepsut? It does seem unthinkable in a society that completely separates the world or men from the world of women and children; women can only exercise control in their (sometimes quite expansive) domestic sphere. But that's more than just patriarchy.

Accounts of powerful women seem to concentrate on intrigue. Does that tell us something about history or just about patriarchal historians?

dec 17, 2006, 3:16 pm

Don't forget the Dowager Empress who was the last effective ruler in the Ching dynasty. The problem with Chinese history is that the image of a uniform society clouds over the facts. Women generally ran the details of the household and often had access to education, the requirement for influence.
Theodora is another example of the political power of women in cultures besides China. The patriarchal values of our present culture do limit the academic and public attention to the power and influence exercised by women. I hope some other members can be stimulated to think and write on this subject.

dec 17, 2006, 11:47 pm

If you're interested in Women in Ancient China (I took a whole class on this in college) I really recommend The Red Brush which is an anthology of female writing in Imperial China.

5zhihuzheye Första inlägget
Redigerat: dec 19, 2006, 9:54 pm

I'll jump into this thread. My question is, why must we merely look for counterexamples at the heads of empire? "Patriarchal" society, yes, but on whose terms? To follow the trail wildbill and Fogies were hinting at, perhaps we could consider other spheres of womanly influence. This wouldn't completely overturn the assumption that ancient China was patriarchal, but it would be a start in complicating what we assume about women's lack of agency.

Here are a couple books I found useful for thinking around those issues: Dorothy Ko's Teachers of the Inner Chambers, which discusses how the maturation of the late Ming/early Qing print economy necessarily included elite women as readers and writers, including courtesan culture, a topic which overlaps with parts of Gail Hershatter's Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai. Not exactly "Ancient", but... As indicated from my selections, I'm not a student of Ancient China; I am more focused on modern China (from late imperial), but I also have an enduring interest in issues of gender historiography.

In my library, I also have under confucian eyes, which I guess is a companion to women and confucian culture, but I have not yet read either. Does anyone have any opinions or insight on *how* women wrote themselves into ancient Chinese history?

Redigerat: dec 21, 2006, 8:42 am

>5 zhihuzheye: menghsindy

Thanks for a thoughtful reply. You're the only one who caught the Fogies' (deliberate) sleight-of-hand. As a rhetorical device we directed readers' attention to the top to distract it from the mid-ranks which is where we think important changes occurred in Chinese history. This is far outside our expertise, so we're only reporting impressions from stuff read for other purposes, but we think that the spheres of womanly influence you mention were very much narrower in ancient China, and that their expansion has been one of the big changes that have happened since then.

The point we hoped to make by indirection was that although a woman could become the boss of an organization, it would not happen often and when it did happen, it was because she had been married to the former boss. The opportunity to develop a career based on talent in the middle ranks of an organization was gravely limited, and in the few instances we know of, such an opportunity only developed through a fortuitous marriage. Do you know the story of Zhuo Wen-jun in the former Han dynasty? A vigorous, intelligent, confident young widow, she had to remain in the inner chambers of her family's house until her marriage to Sima Xiangru, which she herself initiated through scandalous self-assertion amounting to elopement. He seems to have been at least mildly inclined to fecklessness, so the eminent success of her marriage is probably about 90% to her credit--but no marriage, no success. That changed later, we think.