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Story of women in ancient China needs to be told faithfully

By Cheng Shujun | 2015-07-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Materialistic abundance and a relatively relaxed social atmosphere gave the Tang Dynasty an unprecedented opportunity of cultural development, reaching its height in poetry, painting, music and dance. As an important cultural element, woman’s costume in various forms well illustrates the open-mindedness during that period. The picture depicts palace performers enjoy leisure afternoon time.

A Scene from the Song Dynasty Illustrations of The Scripture of Female Filial Piety, depicting women learning about filial piety—a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. The book, written by the woman teacher Mrs Zheng in the Tang Dynasty, is considered a masterpiece of female education in ancient times.


The introduction of gender as a social construct and the application of interdisciplinary research methodology in sociology and anthropology have largely expanded the scope and appeal of women's history.

To further strengthen the dialogue with mainstream history, studies on women's history should not only focus on gender in terms of historical analysis but also take an interdisciplinary approach that draws on multiple perspectives, such as emotion and practice, while exploring the historical value of literary, film and television records. This pioneering approach will guide the future direction of the discipline.

Redefine women's role
The "oppression-liberation-contribution" continuum and research paradigm have set the tone for studies on the history of Chinese women. It has long played a vital role in the discipline's development.


However, going forward, if we continue to repeat or reinforce that stream of thought, we might be blamed for academic inertia and stay trapped in the mire of stereotyping. In this case, before systematically examining the real living conditions of women in history, researchers regard it as a foregone conclusion that women in ancient China were "slaves of the family and subordinate to men" with low social and familial status, deprived of all basic political, economic, legal and educational rights, imprisoned at home, bonded by the feudal view of virtue, and victims of a patriarchal social system.

In an attempt to correct the aforementioned perception, academics have begun to search for female subjectivity in recent years, resulting in discussions on a series of topics such as the survival of women in history, the evolution of the traditional gender system and its practical problems.

In Chinese history, it was not uncommon for empress dowagers to take up the reins of power. It was actually a standard contingency plan when emperors could not perform their duties due to young age or health conditions.

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) even deposed the emperor. Apparently, female rulers, to a great extent, elevated the position of women in family and politics.

Before the early Republic of China, many families that were heavily influenced by Confucian ethics, especially in the middle and upper class, upheld the rights of mothers. The status of women as wives was not so passive and inferior. In fact, throughout history, there are quite a few men who were recorded as being dominated by their wives, including emperors, high-ranking officials and ordinary people.

The feudal ideal of virginity that stressed "being faithful to the husband," even in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties, when ethics were unprecedentedly emphasized, was never fully realized. It was common for widows in the middle and lower classes to remarry.

Moreover, since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), it was, in a degree, customary to pawn or rent wives in the middle and lower classes, in particular in Zhejiang, Fujian, Gansu, Liaoning provinces and some regions even started sharing wives. Therefore, a comprehensive and objective review on women's economic role and status, education, freedom of enjoying public space is urgently needed.

As we can see, the roles women played in Chinese history were far more diverse and complex than conventional wisdom would have one believe. Undoubtedly, insufficient attention and the lack of a clear research approach are persistent shortcomings in research on the basic living conditions of women, especially women in ancient times. Before modern times, the family was the main arena for women to participate in society, so to objectively and fairly define women's status and function in ancient China, we must have a well-rounded understanding of their role in daily life.

Only by doing so can we grasp the gist of the evolution of women's status in history as well as the interaction among gender relations, gender systems and political, economic, and cultural fields.

I want to point out that the role of mother and wife probably elevated the position of women within the family. Patriarchal gender systems and norms might not have been absolute in day-to-day life.

We could say that the patriarchal gender system tried to establish norms and ideals by stating what should be. However, the realities of social life were quite different. Studies on the history of Chinese women need to address the causes of such a difference as well as the application of gender systems and its impact.

Value family perspective
Family is a living space characterized by emotional communication and interaction. Emotion is key to building relations between husband and wife, parents and children, and among in-laws, directly affecting women's status in the family. In social life, emotion serves as a tool for interpersonal social communication and is also one of the important factors dominating people's thoughts and actions. It can be said that emotion is not only an individual's psychological characteristics and natural needs but also a social construct that is deeply rooted in the social, political, economic and cultural conditions, and, in turn, has implications for the social systems and structures.

As an irrational force, emotion is particularly significant for women's lives and gender construction. The careful examination of emotion and daily life sheds light on the discrepancies of the sociocultural system and social reality.

Individuals in a society never simply comply with their rights and obligations as defined by the social system. Rather, they demonstrate a great deal of initiative. Therefore, modern anthropologists have put forward the concepts of the institutional family and the uterine family as frameworks for analysis. Studies have shown women can adopt proactive and strategic emotional power to break the constraints of the patriarchal kinship system, making themselves the core of family life.

The introduction of emotional and practical perspectives in women's history has the potential to break new ground. Some examples are women's resources and strategies as well as the role of emotion in social gender construction and women's behaviors in ancient times under the gender system. Other topics that can be viewed through this lens include the impact on patriarchy and gender, women's survival, and men's attitudes toward and perceptions of women.

Expand historical materials
Due to lack of historical records on women and people's daily lives, extra efforts must be made to supplement the fragmented and rare existing historical documents. In addition to official accounts, local history, field research, newspapers, periodicals and archive materials, we should also strengthen the study of literary and visual materials.


Though novels, plays, paintings and films exaggerate and fictionalize the characters, plots and content, authenticity is still a primary principle. The authenticity here mainly refers to the lifelike reflection or reproduction of the social life during a particular time period, ranging from basic necessities of life, wedding rituals, social relations, customs and social psychology as well as the logic that motivates people's actions.

Indeed, literary works and visual materials are also a record of history, only in a different format. Some scholars argue that literature is irreplaceable in terms of unveiling the truth of social life and faithfully depicting history. Chinese scholar Liang Qichao (1873-1929) wrote in the Method of Studying Chinese History, historians should borrow from literary works and value their historical significance, striving to "find the truth from the fiction."

At present, studies on the history of Chinese women have reached a number of milestones, but the discipline has a long way to go before it earns the recognition and acceptance of academic circles and realizes the goal of restoring women's place in history. Researchers need to put their foot down, collect and collate materials, apply multiple perspectives and interdisciplinary methodologies to produce a sense of historical context, thus deepening research in the field.

Cheng Shujun is from the Institute of History at Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.