Role of Women in Ancient China
The women in ancient Chinese culture lived according to the rules set by Confucius in his analects. According to Confucius, women were not equal to men and were not worthy enough to gain literacy and education. For almost two thousand years, the life of the Chinese woman was unbearable. During the years of growing up, a Chinese woman was expected to listen to her father and other male members in the family. Although this mostly happened in the poorer classes, daughters were often sold, and would most likely end up in brothels.
Women in ancient Chinese culture were often humiliated. If a baby girl was born, there were some strange customs that were practiced. On the third day after her birth, a daughter would be placed under a cot and given a piece of broken pottery to play with, and her birth was announced by giving an offering to her ancestors. Placing the baby child under the cot denoted that she is weak and she should humble herself before men. The broken pottery meant she must be laborious, while giving an offering to the ancestors denoted that one of her primary duties is to worship her elders.
After marriage, an ancient Chinese woman would have to be subservient to her husband and was not allowed to raise her voice. It is said that men were allowed to have more than one wife. However, if the husband of a young Chinese woman died, she was not allowed to remarry. The penalty for breaking this rule was usually the death penalty. The main purpose of women in ancient China was to bear sons. However, this does not mean that women had no respect, as their role as daughters, wives, and mothers were important, and it was expected that a woman should be properly honored by her children.
Women's education was thought to be unimportant by the ancient Chinese people. While few women from noble or rich families got the chance to become literate, those from poorer classes had absolutely no chance. The only training they ever got was to cook, clean, and work to nourish their children. Women could learn to sew, or weave, and their products were sold to gain extra income for the family. It was also common for the wives of farmers to help the men out in the field.
Many of the girls were forced to enter the sex trade. On rare occasions, a few lucky girls could become courtesans due to their talents. Such courtesans would learn to become singers, poets, dancers, and companions for men of higher social standing. Such men would sometimes take these women as their concubines or as a wife.
It is commonly thought that this practice began in the 9th century during the reign of the Tang dynasty, and it continued all across the country till it was eventually banned in 1911. This practice began due to the fact that small feet were considered to be a sign of great beauty, and women with bound legs were more likely to get a husband of higher standing. Such women were rarely expected to work, and were primarily a status symbol for their husbands.
Famous Women in the Ancient Chinese Culture
Although the situation for women in China seemed bleak, a few women rose above the standards of society and made huge names for themselves. Here we will look at a few of these famous women who lived in ancient China.
Empress Wu - Remember, the women in ancient Chinese culture had no right to express their thoughts and feelings. Empress Wu challenged the rules of Confucius when she became the Empress to rule China. During her reign, she elevated the position of women. The court scholars were asked to write biographies of famous women of China and rest of the world. She established matriarchal rule in the country. According to her, an ideal ruler is one who rules his empire like a mother who dotes on her children.
Chinese Buddhism attained its glory under the reign of Empress Wu. She replaced Daoism with Buddhism. Many gifted scholars from around the world were invited to China. Many Buddhists temples and cave sculptures were built during her period of rule. She died at the age of eighty, due to natural causes.
Xi Shi - This legendary beauty of ancient China was the daughter of a tea merchant. She became popular because she was responsible for the fall of the kingdom of Wu. According to the story, Prince Fuchai of State of Wu humiliated the King of Yue, Goujian. The king was forced to serve the prince for couple of years, before he was released from bondage. On returning, he asked his court to summon the most beautiful woman in his kingdom. The king approved the beauty of Xi Shi. She was taught royal etiquette and sent to entice the prince of Wu. The prince was enchanted by her beauty and spent most of his time with her, neglecting his responsibilities. In the meantime, the King of Yue attacked the State of Wu and annexed it to his kingdom. Xi Shi soon disappeared from public life to lead a secluded life. She is one of the women of the ancient Chinese culture, who is remembered even today.
Since education was forbidden to women, they invented various ways to overcome these limitations. Nushu was a secret language that was developed by the women of the Hunan province over a period of many years. The specialty of this written language was that it was very different from the language used by men, and was understood only by the group of women who used it. The knowledge of the language was never shared with men, and was passed through various generations by grandmothers, mothers, aunts etc. It was a great comfort to women who could secretly share their feelings with kindred spirits.
While there is no doubt that women were treated badly in ancient China, one cannot ignore the fact that they have made immense contributions to Chinese society, and have helped in shaping China into the powerful nation that it is today.