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The Role of Women in Ancient East Asia

Women were systematically oppressed and yet accepting of their subservient societal role due to the widespread ideological influence of Confucian philosophy throughout East Asia in the periods ranging from (but not excluding) the 4th through 12th centuries CE.  The woman’s role was ideally to be subordinate to her husband and other male figures in the family while carrying out her womanly duties in the household.  China, Korea, and Japan generally did not allow women to hold political power with the exception of a few empresses and queens, but only a handful of which (most notably Empress Wu of the Tang Dynasty) were regents that held significant authority over their respected domains (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 82).  Many women willingly accepted and supported societal repression as it was the norm between both ends of the social class spectrum.  Thus, the reality generally reflected the ideology because women accepted their subservient roles as their duty in supporting the Confucian ideal of a harmonious society.
One woman who explicitly supported the Confucian ideal for the role of women in society was Ban Zhao.  Ban Zhao (ca.45-120) believed that girls should be educated, but differently from boys in that girls should only learn the traits that a woman would need in order to satisfy her husband (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 48).  Ban Zhao expressed that “just as yin and yang differ, men and women have different characteristics”, and that humility was the most important characteristic a girl should learn growing up (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 48).  According to Ban Zhao, “Humility means yielding and acting respectful, putting others first and oneself last, never mentioning one’s own good deeds or denying one’s own faults, enduring insults and bearing with mistreatment, all with due trepidation”(Admonitions For Women pg 75).  Ban Zhao admonished that ideal womanhood was defined by someone who obeyed their master as a slave, and that the person who was the master was the husband, while the person who was the slave was the wife.  Although Ban Zhao supported the status quo for women, she also represented the ideal exception of womanhood by frequently giving Empress Deng advice on government policies(Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 48).
Empress Deng was a minor monarchial figure compared to the legendary Empress Wu, a woman who disregarded all the notions of womanhood that Ban Zhao defined.  Empress Wu was the only woman to ever become a Chinese emperor (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 82).  Wu was the absolute antithesis of a humble woman because she (contemporary Confucian historians would say maliciously) manipulated men around her through deceit, and eventually garnered enough power to undermine her husband and sons in order to rule the Tang Dynasty herself.  Instead of aspiring to the meek creature that Ban Zhao spoke of, Empress Wu had the ego of any ruler that was at the point of being a megalomaniac, according to the bureaucratic scholars that despised her.  Empress Wu went as far as declaring her own dynasty (the Zhou Dynasty) and then even proclaimed in the year 690 CE that she was the Maitreya Buddha reincarnated who would “bring about an age free of illness, worry, and disaster” (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 83).  Another woman who had become regent (but through more legitimate means) was the Korean Queen Sondok of the Silla kingdom who reigned from 632 to 647 CE (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 109).  Queen Sondok and her cousin Queen Chindok came to power because of the importance of the matrilineal line in the Kim royal family that ruled Silla (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 109).  Although the matrilineal line of descent was respected in Korea under the Silla, it was soon changed to patrilineal and the limited role of women remained relatively unaltered in the Confucian influenced Korea of successive generations.
Japan during the Heian and Fujiwara eras saw the flourishing of women in aristocratic culture, although females were still subordinate to their male counterparts in almost every spectrum in life.  Women were skilled in the arts and literature to the point where they could advance in the courts by gaining patrons and prestige, yet when their patron died aristocratic women would often fall by the wayside, becoming poor even if they had produced great works of literature in the past (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 155).  Sei Shonagon was a lady of the court during the Heian period who clearly represented the idea of the sophisticated aristocratic woman and even spoke of things contrary to the idea of total female obediance “It’s also very dispiriting when a man stops coming to visit his wife at her home. It’s a great shame if he’s gone off with a lady of good family who serves at court, and the wife sits moping at home, feeling ashamed and humiliated” (The Pillow Book pg 24). Thus, the Japanese were less influenced by Confucian elements of total male dominance, yet the female role was not entirely independent, and women were subject to Buddhist influences that had adverse consequences such as total isolation for a lady of the court.
The role of women in East Asia was heavily influenced by Confucianism which generally hampered the abilities of women with only a few historical exceptions in the aristocratic and royal elite.  This remained generally unchanged throughout Chinese and Korean history with progress either diminishing or only slightly enhancing female roles in few cases.  Ban Zhao recorded the ancient Chinese process of ritualizing the woman’s subordinate role even at birth, saying “These …customs convey the unchanging path for women and the ritual traditions”, foreshadowing the eternal status quo of male dominance for centuries to come(Admonitions For Women pg 75).  Hence, ancient East Asian governments and philosophies were at the forefront of any other civilization for their most complete, systematic process of female subordination. This particular patriarchal culture was not much different than many other ancient cultures in it’s perception of female weakness, except for the fact that it arguably dehumanized the role of women more than any other culture.  Passivity and obedience have been the mainstays of ideal womanhood in cultures throughout the world, yet the Confucian ideal of which is a prime severe example.  East Asia saw exceptions to these cultural norms through a few historically powerful women, and women who sought to influence society through their husbands, but ordinary women who had no power through their husbands in society had to be totally subservient to their husband-masters. As Ban Zhao expressed, “If a woman loses these traits, she will have no name to preserve and will not be able to avoid shame” (Admonitions For Women pg 75).
1. Ban Zhao. Admonitions For Women. Ebrey. Women’s Virtues and Vices,  75-76, 1 Dec. 2010.
2. Patricia Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James Palais. Pre-modern East Asia: to 1800: a Cultural, Social, and Political History. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.
3. Sei Shonagon. The Pillow Book. McKinney. The Pillow Book, 23-26, 1 Dec. 2010.

8 replies on “The Role of Women in Ancient East Asia”

Short but precise write up. The article give a good account of women’ s status of the Asian countries

Thank you for your article Sean Lynch, I agree, repression has held the hands of History to make women’s efforts invisible, here are some women over history that defy that, not including the ones you mentioned:
Dewi Srikandi,Nyai Gede Pinatih, Empress Jjgu, Razai al Din, Keladi Chennamma,Martha Christina Tiahuhu, Rani Lakshmibai,De grootes dames, Cut Nyak Dhien,Xiang jingyu, Gargi Vachaknalie,Nan Zhao,Rohana Kudaus,,Ludu Daw Amar,Maden Daw Amar, The onna-bugeisha & the golden orchid association,De grootes dames,

No need to be embarrassed, this is actually one of my least interesting essays in my opinion, but it offers some insight into a part of history that too often tends to be ignored.

Oops! That comment was for ‘Letting Go: Leaving the Memories Behind With Music and Drugs’.

My tech is very glitchy today. Haven’t read this one yet. Sorry about that…

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