Women Status Throughout Chinese History

Share with you guys, my last last year essay in chinese culture course. Feel free to comment ! Enjoy 🙂

How the status of chinese women evolve throughout history ?


I think its interesting to write about this topic because women are an important mainstay in a society. As I am a female student, the question about women status, interessed me a lot. Moreover, we had many issues in western culture concerning this subject too. In France, durng the 14th century, people used to ask if a women is an evil creature and if she have a soul as well. And today, the question of feminism is asked. So I wonder what is the chinese point on view, according to Chinese very long and rich history. Thus, our reflexion will be divided in two parts :

1- Women’ Status in the past-China
a- Ying Yang Concept
b- Foot Binding
c- Female Chastity vs Man Polygyny
2- Women’ Status in the present new China
a-Legend of Mulan
b-Few facts about chinese feminism
b-My personnal point of view about chinese women’ status

First, we can’t speak about chinese women without mentionning Yin-Yang concept. In China, the concept of gender appears visually in the male/female aspects of the yin/yang. This symbol comes from Taoism. The dark swirl within the symbol’ s circle is the passive, yielding, is the feminine « yin ». Whereas the light swirl the active, aggressive, is the male « yang ».


Gender difference is considered as a part of the natural order of the universe. It can be opposed to the social institutions artificially created by men.The polarity of men and women is fundamental and its not just limited to the physical differences. But spiritual too. Men and women complement each other. But according to traditional chinese culture, they have not the same equal status. Thus, men lead and women follow. And do not think that following is easy as it seems. Men lead women accross a beautiful travel. And the manner he used to do so, only depends on him. But to follow him, women have to feel confident on herself and trust him enough.

After understanding the bases of Yin-Yang concept, we will speak about Women status in traditionnal China. In traditional China, men have absolute authority over women in the patriarchal society. Three actors took a special place in women’s life. And each women, to save her honor and social dignity, have to obey to them :
*Her father during childhood                  *Her husband during marriage                    *Her son during widowhood


During whole the marriage period of time, women have also follow a fillial conduct rules. She have to faithfully serve her in-laws, in particular her mother-in-law. If the mother and daughterin- law did not get along, filial piety demanded that a man get rid of his wife in order to please his mother. He could always get another wife, but he would only have one mother.

Another main point : to preserve family’s honor, women have to give a birth to a son. If she does so, she will be cherished by her both families. Indeed, when a son will grow up and become a man, he will succed to his father, take the heritage, become the main heir, please the ancestors line and take care of the whole family. Whereas the daughter, she will grow up and leave family when she will get married. Moreover, her family will have the duty to give a dowry to husband’s family. So having a daughter, costs a lot. In ancient times, certain poor famillies used to burry their daughters to not have to pay any dowry…

After more understanding women’ status in traditional China, we will explore the causes, affects and consequences of foot binding practicing. Foot binding is specific to Chinese ancient times. Its a process aiming stopping the growth of the feet. The small and bowed feet will be the same as a lotus flower. In ancient times, between the age of four to six, the mother started to bind the feet. The feet was soaked in warm water or animal blood and herbs. Then, toe nails cut as short. After sometime,the four smallest toes will be broken. Bandages wrapped around the smallest toes and pulled tightly to the heel. It results to a small feet of three to four inches long.

Later, negative effects of feet binding were a lot : infection, limited mobility, likely to fall, less able to squat, less able to rise from a sitting position. Then, we can ask, whereas It had a very negative aspects, why this practicing of foot-binding ? In my opinion, the emporor who instaured this practicing, wanted women to stay sit down and to limit their mobility. In this way, women were maybe similar to beautiful decorations who just sit down and serve men, anyways. It symbolically shows women’s devotion towards men. Women had to please the perverted taste of men. Indeed, women have been seen as an object to men. Thus, foot binding keeps women weak, out of power and dominated by the husband.

Binding foot was a necessity because a men would not marry a women if she did not have a bound feet. According to that practicing, foot binding starts to be a high criteria of beauty in ancient times. And it still have conséquences nowadays : chinese people think that having a small feet is prettier than having big ones. That’s probably why in China its very hard to find a suitable shoes if you wear a more than 38 size. Binding foot becomes as important as having a white skin, a black smoothy hair and pretty red dress. It become a criteria who determines if a women is fashion and marriable or not.

After seeing the foot binding practice, we follow to speak about another men-women inequality. Its the historical fact that female had to be Virgin in order to get married. So they had to follow chastity rules. Being virgin before marriage was seen as the main criteria to say if a women is « pure » or not. Women had not just to be chaste before marriage, but also during it. They had not the right to please other man than their husband. Thus, premarital and postmarital as well chastity, was demanded for all women. Female adultery was punishable by death and divorce was rare.

Widows were expected to remain single. In fact, they had to face the following dilemma between starving to death vs. losing chastity. Whereas society required from women to follow chastity, men were allowed to follow polygyny. They did that through the fact of taking concubines or second wives. And that was a legitimate thing according to wedding’s rules before.

After understanding the situation of women in the past-China, we will move towards modern status of women and explore for example, the famous chinese Legend of Mulan. Mulan is the normative heroine in Chinese culture. She transgresses the gender role by joining the ranks of men and fighting in the service of her country. Many movies was adapted after the original chinese movie. As Disney version for example. The Legend of Mulan shows the real power inside each women. We can be passive or dominated but if we did so, it will be hard to live as being fully ourselves as a complete and independant human being.

I think in the recent years, New-China and the « chinese dream » allowed women to be more free and have more self-confidence.The liberation of women as they are “upholding half the sky » Nowadays, women reach social, political, ecomic, personnal and cultural rights. We can see throughout chinese history, many chinese figures who shows the power of women. As Kang You Wei and Liang Qi Chao who inspires many feminist movements and expressed the following statement : if China want to stay strong, the country need both strong men and women to hold it. Also, we can’t forget to mention Qiu Jin, a patriotic feminist who died as a martyr in 1907. After that, many other movement were organized in China, as the feminist-anarchist hold by the famous He Zhen.

More recenlty, I think chinese women situation tend to improve thank to this good news : Marriage Law eliminated arranged marriages and widows were allowed to remarry. Moreover, the Inheritance Law recognized the equal right of women to inherit family property. As I saw during this year spending in China, chinese women are the symbol of strong, brave, powerful and beautiful women. Indeed, as I saw in Beijing, they try to go beyond the old concepts of men’s domination to manage their worklife, love-family life too, with an impressive dignity.

Going until doing everything while their man or husband/boyfriend do nothing to help because he can’t even feels women vulnerability enough to protect them. And its the main challenge about this topic : how can we, as a women, find balance between having a good social/personnal life and at the same time a fulfilling job ? How can we find a place in our society ? How can we become the person we want to be while society asks us to handle too many things at the same time as if we are similar to superwomen ?

马月希, Radjaa


Une idée en tête ?

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:

Logo WordPress.com

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte WordPress.com. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Google+

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Google+. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )


Connexion à %s