Women in World History
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The Eyes Of The Empress: Tang Dynasty China


Women and Confucianism

For 2,500 years Confucian teachings have influenced the thought and behavior of peoples in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. A major emphasis of Asian women scholars has been the examination of Confucian ideology on their history and current status. Scholar Xiao Ma has said: "Women always have been fighting for a way out of the Confucian shadows."

Although the early Chinese had no real commitment to subordination of women, over time Confucian teachings were expanded upon. It was during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) that Confucianism was adopted as the government's state doctrine, with his thoughts becoming part of official education. In later dynasties, Neoconfucian interpretations further reinforced male authority and patrilineal customs. According to the Confucian structure of society, women at every level were to occupy a position lower than men. Most Confucians accepted the subservience of women to men as natural and proper. At the same time they accorded women's honor and power as mother and mother-in-law within their family.

Through the years a whole body of literature was written, educating women on self-discipline, etiquette, relationships with in-laws, household management, humility, and chastity. Biographies written about admirable women emphasized their unselfish loyal and self-sacrificing willingness to do anything to help their husband and his family. Although ideology is one thing and the reality of the lives of women often another, the long shadow of basic beliefs about the nature and role of women had far-reaching effects. This activity offers traditional sayings based on interpretations of Confucian beliefs to help raise awareness of the implications of such sayings on women's historic participation and status in their societies.

The quotes below come from Confucian inspired writings, morality texts, and from sayings based on later interpretations of the Confucian model of the family.

1) Write the "Confucian Inspired Sayings" on the board or use an overhead. Alternatively, they can be given as individual or group assignments.

Confucian Inspired Sayings

" A woman's duty is not to control or take charge."

"Woman's greatest duty is to produce a son."

"A woman ruler is like a hen crowing."

"A husband can marry twice, but his wife must never remarry."

"We should not be too familiar with the lower orders or with women."

"The woman with no talent is the one who has merit."

" It will be womens neither to do wrong nor to do good. Only about the spirits and the food will they have to think."

"Disorder is not sent down by Heaven, it is produced by women."

"Those who cannot be taught, cannot be instructed. These are women and eunuchs."

" Man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness."

"There are three unfilial acts: the greatest of these is the failure to produce sons."

"Women are to be led and to follow others."

"A woman ruler is like a hen crowing."

2) Let students select one as a basis for discussion.
3) Rephrase their choice in the form of a question using the form, "if...then what are the effects?"

Example: "If woman's greatest duty is to produce a son...then what are the effects?"
4) As the class calls out their responses, write them down.

Possible Student Responses:
"She would hate it if a girl were born."
"She would have no status if she only had girls."
"She would keep getting pregnant until she had a boy."
"A girl baby would be treated badly."

5) Have the class select one of their responses. Again, rephrase their selection using "if...then."

Example: "If the girl baby were treated badly then...."
      A response might be, "She would grow up feeling worthless."
6) Continue expanding the effects of this basic belief as long as the class is offering answers. In groups, on their own, they might select other quotes and do the same process.
7) Have the class draw some conclusions from this exercise about the far reaching effects of these beliefs.

"Do you think that beliefs about difference between males or females can influence how people act, and how they feel about themselves?"

"How do you think men were were expected to behave? How might such beliefs about men effect them?"

"Can you think of any beliefs, or sayings, about how girls should act in the U.S. today?" "About how boys should act?" What effects might these beliefs have?"

8) Expand the activity to explore questions such as:

"If only boys could use computers, then..."

"If boys and girls both learned about how to fix cars, then..."

"If we only learned about what happend to men in history, then...."

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Women in World History Curriculum