Women in Ancient and Imperial China
The study of women’s history in the context of imperial China has been pursued since at least the late 1990s. The societal status of both women and men in ancient China was closely related to the Chinese kinship system.
Women in ancient and imperial China were restricted from participating in various realms of social life, through social stipulations that they remain indoors, whilst outside business should be conducted by men. The strict division of the sexes, apparent in the policy that “men plow, women weave” (男耕女织), partitioned male and female histories as early as the Zhou dynasty, with the Rites of Zhou even stipulating that women be educated specifically in “women’s rites” (陰禮; yīnlǐ). Though limited by policies that prevented them from owning property, taking examinations, or holding office, their restriction to a distinctive women’s world prompted the development of female-specific occupations, exclusive literary circles, whilst also investing certain women with certain types of political influence unaccessible to men. Women had greater freedom during the Tang dynasty, however, the status of women declined from the Song dynasty onward with the rise of neo-Confucianism.
Received Chinese historiography about ancient China was edited heavily by Confucian scholars in the 4th century BCE, who aimed to show that the dynastic system of government extended as far back into the past as possible.These texts, like the Zuo zhuan and Classic of Poetry, focus on male nobles and scholars, with infrequent references to women. One exception is Biographies of Exemplary Women, compiled in the 1st century BCE as a collection of cautionary tales for men, highlighting the advantages of virtuous women, as well as the dangers posed by loose ones. The majority of women included were members of the nobility and were generally depicted as passive, with their male guardians (husbands or fathers) controlling their actions. The marital division of labor of “men plow, women weave” is expected to widen the gap in power of household decision-making in favor of men, keeping women in a subordinate position. In contrast, archaeological remains from pre-Confucian periods show that women played active roles at all levels of society.
Female figurines representing either goddesses or fertility symbols have been found at several sites of the Hongshan culture in Liaoning province, as well as the Xinglongwa culture in eastern Inner Mongolia. These figures are posed with their hands resting on their large bellies and, as the Niuheliang figure was found inside a temple, this supports the idea that they were worshipped. The division between female and male was also likely less rigid in the Neolithic than in later periods, as demonstrated by a vessel from the Majiayao culture site of Liupingtai (六平台) in Qinghai. The figure on the pot has both male and female genitalia, leading archaeologists to argue that the genders combined were considered to be powerful, perhaps as a precursor to later yin and yangphilosophy.
Women buried at sites belonging to the Majiayao culture are often accompanied by spindle whorls, suggesting that weaving was an important occupation. When a male and female were buried together, they lay next to each other in the same positions, suggesting no difference in social status. By the Qijia culture, the woman is found buried outside of the main coffin along with the grave goods, as at Liuwan in Ledu, Qinghai. This suggests that the women were being treated as possessions of the men buried in the main grave. The left leg of one female in a double burial was even caught beneath the coffin lid, which archaeologists suggest indicates that she was buried alive.
While Shang dynasty women are thought to have been considered lower in status to men, archaeological excavations of burials have shown that women could not only reach high status, but that they also exercised political power. The tomb of Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding, contained precious jade objects and ritual bronze vessels, demonstrating her wealth. In addition, texts from the Shang dynastyhave been excavated that record Fu Hao leading troops into battle to the north of Shang territories, conquering states, leading services to worship ancestors, and assisting in political affairs at court. After her death, Fu Hao was honoured by later rulers as Ancestor Xin and given sacrifices to ensure she remained benevolent.
The topics of the oracle bones suggest that the Shang preferred male children, as the question posed to one bone was whether Fu Hao’s pregnancy would be ‘good’. The bone records that the pregnancy was, “not good; [the child] was a girl.”In addition, male rulers were allowed to marry several wives in order to improve their chances of having male children. Fu Hao was, thus, referred to as consort, whereas Fu Jing (婦井) was also first wife. This difference in status is shown by Fu Jing’s being buried in the king’s precinct in a tomb with a ramp. In contrast, Fu Hao was buried outside the official cemetery.
By the Zhou dynasty, Chinese society was decidedly patriarchal, with female and male social roles determined by a strict, feudal hierarchy. The foundation for enforced division of women and men in later times appeared during the Eastern Zhou period, when mohists and legalists began to espouse the advantanges to each sex performing stereotypical work roles; in theory, such a division guaranteed morality and social order. Well-ordered gender relations gradually came to be expressed in the phrase, “men plow, women weave,” (男耕女织). This division expanded to create social separation between men and women. The Book of Changes states that, “among family members, women’s proper place is inside and man’s proper place is outside.” The written sources indicate that women were increasingly confined to enforce this gender separation, with women of lower social status expected to return home when not engaged in unavoidable work outside. Noblewomen enjoyed the luxury of not having to work outside and their family’s ability to sequester them from the male gaze became an indication of their status.
Transmitted texts give a general impression of how literate, mainly male, Zhou people perceived women. They indicate that male children were preferred, with female children seen as less valuable to the family collective than males. Up to age 9, a female child might receive the same education as a male, however, at age 10, girls were expected to study the Three Obediences and Four Virtues; ‘obediences’ refers to the expectation that she would first obey her father, then her husband, then her sons after her husband’s death. The Book of Rites dictates that a woman should be married by 20 or, “if there is a problem, be married by 23.” After marriage, women were expected to live with their husband’s family and demonstrate filial piety towards his parents as if they were her own. The custom of the groom’s family financially compensating the bride’s family for losing her can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty as set out in the Six Rites.
There are records of women during this period advising male relatives on political strategy, defending themselves against harsh legal sentences, teaching noblemen how to shoot arrows correctly, admonishing their ruler for unacceptable behaviour, and composing poetry. There is also a record of King Wu of Zhou appointing his wife Yi Jiang (邑姜) as one of his nine ministers.
Spring and Autumn period
In spite of social rules that the sexes should be segregated, women were in charge of events held in their home (the domestic sphere), even if social rules meant that they should not appear to be. Even for meetings that were restricted to males, the woman of the house is often recorded as keeping a watchful eye on events. In one case, a minister of Jin requested that his wife assess his colleagues during a drinking party from behind a screen; his wife then gave the minister advice on the personalities of his guests. Similarly, a minister of Cao allowed his wife to observe a meeting between himself and Chong’er of Jin. She judged that Chong’er would become an exceptional leader, however, the ruler of Cao Duke Gong treated Chong’er with disrespect. After his reinstatement, Chong’er invaded Cao. The evidence, therefore, suggests that women were closely involved with important political and social events, serving as advisers, planners, and providers of food.
Recorded professions for women of lower social classes in this period include weavers, cooks, and musical performers. However, the majority of textual and archaeological evidence concerns upper-class women, which makes it difficult to reconstruct the lives of everyday people.
Confucian teachings supported patrilineality and patrilocality, however, the teachings were not followed to the letter in daily life. Within the lands belonging to the former state of Qin, it was common practice for poor families to avoid the obligation of granting a son a share in the family property on attaining adulthood by sending him to live with his wife’s family. Such a practice was looked down upon by the upper classes and men living with their wives’ families were targeted in the 214 BCE purge of undesirables. They were rounded up and dispatched to help in the Qin expansion south, then made to settle in areas around Fuzhou and Guilin. Hinsch has argued that the practice of matrilocal residence was likely very common among the lower classes throughout imperial Chinese history, as poor men could use it to improve their prospects, while the woman’s family property would not have to be divided among various relatives.
Records testify to women exercising authority through their families. The excavation of a married couple’s tomb in Yizheng, Jiangsu, unearthed the husband’s, Zhu Ling (朱凌), will. He recalls that, after the death of his father, his mother returned to her natal family and raised him there. Although Confucian teachings dictated that a son should be raised by the father’s family, the fact that this did not happen suggests that the emphasis on patrilineality was less strong in the Han. In addition, Zhu’s mother’s family seem to have attracted multiple new sons-in-law to their home through the mother’s marriages. Matrilocal marriages were relatively common in the Han period, though in some states more than others. For instance, in the state of Qin, a son would be given a share of the family property on coming of age, but this was not always an option for impoverished families, who often opted to send their son to live with his wife’s family. These men were referred to as ‘pawned sons-in-law’ (贅婿; zhuìxù) and were barred by Qin law from holding government office. For common people, however, there was no strong prejudice against the practice, as Zhu’s mother easily attracted two new husbands. In spite of Confucian dogma that praised widows who did not remarry, remarrying multiple times was common, as is recorded in other Han texts. In the case of Zhu’s will, its actual dispensation was dictated by his mother, not Zhu himself. The mother describes in the will that she bought two fields of mulberry and two of paddy that she entrusted to her daughters, Xianjun (仙君) and Ruojun (弱君), who were poor (presumably married into other families). This indicates a continued connection between a woman and her natal family during the Han, as well as the option for women to buy and work land. However, Xianjun and Ruojun could not hold onto the land permanently, as it was to be given to a younger brother on his release from penal labour.
The scholar Ban Zhao, author of Lessons for Women, describes ‘womanly virtue’ (女德; nüde) as requiring no, “brilliant talent or remarkable difference. Womanly language need not be clever in disputation or sharp in conversation.”
The taxation systems during the Western and Eastern Han stipulated that both women and men between the ages of 15 – 56 should pay taxes. As a result, women could own and manage property in their own right. Documents record that peasant women were assigned 20 mu of land, whilst taxes were set according to the baseline of a husband and wife unit. Married couples were taxed one bolt of silk and 30 dou of millet, while the taxes for unmarried women and men were adjusted so that four people paid the equivalent of one married couple. In 604, Emperor Yang of Sui altered the system so that only males could hold property and pay taxes on it.
Tang society followed the traditions of Northern China, which interacted closely with the nomadic peoples of Central Asia and the Eurasian Steppe. In these societies, women and men were more equal than had been permitted during the Han dynasty, with women recorded as handling legal disputes, involved in politics, and participating in warfare. Princess Pingyang, a daughter of the first emperor of the Tang, was instrumental in founding the Tang dynasty, raising and commanding an army of 70,000 soldiers to assist her father’s campaign. In addition, women continued to occupy powerful positions in the social consciousness, appearing in tales as powerful spirits responsible for a household’s fate, as well as shamans, despite the fact that a secular class of physicians existed during the Tang.
Originally, the empire lost its beloved daughter for a marriage that would make peace with the Uyghur Khaganate and cause them to assist in stabilising and defending the empire’s borders. Recently, the actions of the khaganate have been thoroughly unreasonable and its horses have come south. Do you, Aunt, not fear the anger of Emperor Gaozu and Emperor Taizong’s spirits! When the empire’s borders are disturbed, do you not think of the love of the Grand Empress Dowager! You are the mother of the khaganate and should be powerful enough to issue orders. If the khaganate does not follow your orders, this will end the relationship between our two states and they will no longer be able to hide behind you!
The Tang saw an increasing perception of women as a commodity. Although previously only the upper classes had concubines (妾; qiè) in addition to one wife (妻; qī), Tang legal codes set out the formal differences between wives and concubines, as well as the children born by each. A man was legally only allowed one wife, but could, “purchase as many concubines as he could afford.” The legal status of a concubine was very far from that of a maid (婢; bì), with maids needing to be ‘freed’ (放; fàng) to change their position. However, a concubine was expected to serve the wife in the same way as a maid, her sons were required to treat the wife as their legal mother, and, on her husband’s death, she had no claims to the property he left. Though wives were not supposed to be sold, the perception of women as marketable goods made it simple for husbands to sell their wives to brothel madams, such as those found in eastern Chang’an. The courtesans of Chang’an were employed to sing, converse with, and entertain customers, similar to the Japanese geisha. The girls had often been beggars or indentured to poor families. On entering the brothel, the girls took the madam’s surname. A way out was to either marry a client or become a concubine. Venereal diseases were recognised during the Tang and physicians document one similar to gonorrhea that was spread through sex.
Examples of occupations pursued by women include trade (selling foodstuffs), weaving, tending silk worms, singing, dancing, acrobatics, street performance, storytelling, and secretary to officials. Joining a religious institution was also a career choice taken by many women. Chang’an alone reportedly had 27 Buddhist nunneries and six Taoist temples with priestesses in the early 8th century. The nuns participated in religious processions, such as the arrival of a Buddhist relic to Chang’an, when nuns and monks walked behind the vehicle conveying the Buddha’s finger bone.
The Tang taxation system calculated the amount owed by every adult male to the state; women were not taxed. However, part of a male’s tax included 20 feet of silk or 25 feet of linen woven by the women of his household. In short, the government presumed that a women would be represented in official bureaucracy by a male guardian. Charles Benn notes that some Tang women adopted a cloak that covered their bodies from head to foot, with only a small gap for their eyes, from the Tuyuhun. The intention was to avoid men’s gazes when out and about. The fashion began to fade in the 8th century, which Emperor Gaozong of Tang found distressing, as women’s faces were exposed when venturing outside. Gaozong issued two edicts attempting to revive the style, but the headwear was soon replaced by a wide-brimmed hat with a gauze veil hanging from the brim to the shoulders.
During the Song dynasty, neo-Confucianism became the dominant belief system, and it has been argued that the rise of neo-Confucianism had also led to a decline of the status of women. From the Song dynasty onwards, restrictions on women became more pronounced. Neo-Confucians of the period such as Zhu Xi and Cheng Yi placed strong emphasis on chastity, with Cheng Yi accused of promoting the cult of widow chastity. Cheng Yi considered it improper to marry a widow as she had lost her integrity, and as for widows who had become impoverished due to the death of their husbands, Cheng stated: “To starve to death is a small matter, but to lose one’s chastity is a great matter.” Chaste widows were praised, and while it was normal for widows to remarry in the early Song period, remarriage would later become a social stigma, which led to hardship and loneliness for many widows. The poetess Li Qingzhao, after her first husband Zhao Mingcheng died, remarried briefly when she was 49, for which she was strongly criticised in her lifetime. Zhu Xi was also accused of believing in the inferiority of women and that men and women needed to be kept strictly separate. Neo-Confucians such as Sima Guang saw men and woman as being part of the yin and yang order, with the distinction and separation extending to the inner (women) and outer (men), whereby women should remain indoor and not go out from the age of 10, and women should not discuss the matter of men in the outside world.
While it is commonly argued that the decline of the status of women from the Song dynasty to the Qing was due to the rise of neo-Confucianism, others have also suggested that the cause may more complex, a result of various social, political, legal, economic, and cultural forces, for example changes in inheritance practices and social structure. State law based on patriarchal principles would standardize family practices across China, and the spread of Confucian ideology was reinforced by the state.
During the Song dynasty, foot binding also became popular among the elite (the practice may have originated just before the Song dynasty), later spreading to other social classes. The earliest known references to bound feet appeared in this period, and evidence from archaeology also indicates that foot binding was practiced among elite women in the thirteenth century. The practice may have originated among elite dancers immediately before the Song dynasty during the Southern Tang (937–976), and ironically the increasing popularity of the practice also led to the decline of the art of dance among women, and less and less was heard about beauties and courtesans who were also great dancers after the Song dynasty.
The role of woman in Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty is open to various debates. Mongol women, who divided herding works with men, had more power than women in contemporary China. However, Mongol society is essentially patriarchal, and women is generally considered only to serve her husband and family. Genghis Khan was said by Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb to have declared: “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” 
After the invasion of Northern and Southern Song, the empire’s population was divided into hierarchical classes where Han population were generally treated poorly. Wang Yuanliang, a poet who served in Song and Yuan courts, wrote poetry that points out the anxieties of daily life during the dynastic transition. In poems such as the Song of Huzhou, he portrays former Song imperial ladies who were vulnerable to violence and abuses during this period. 
Historians Chou Hui-ling and William Dolby, while studying 14th century biographies of actors, have noted that in Yuan dynasty, more women than ever before frequently appeared on stage. In fact, most Yuan dynasty actors were women, as opposed to male actors played their roles. It is theorized that, when Mongols conquered China, Han women of all classes faced with displacement and the necessity of earning an income, had became entertainers.
Biographies of citizens of merit recognised women for what the writers judged to be moral achievements, such as committing suicide to avoid rape, never marrying in the name of filial piety, being widowed before the age of 30 and remaining a widow for more than 20 years. Even in these biographies, however, the women’s names are rarely given. While the Ming authority approved of widow chastity, it was in the Qing period that it was officially promoted, with the practice described by a historian as a “bureaucratic tool of moral reform”. To promote female chastity in every community, the government asked local leaders to nominate exemplary women and submit their biographies. If the woman was proven to fit the description of a “chaste widow”, her family would receive a personal commendation written by the emperor or a chastity arch would be erected in her community memorialising her. From 1644-1736, approximately 6,870 women in the Jiangnan region received such honours. Numerous chastity and filial arches (節孝坊) were constructed in communities all over China. In contrast to the Ming period, however, the Qing actively discouraged the practise of young widows committing suicide on their husband’s death (尋死; xúnsǐ). Critics of the practice argued that such deaths were usually inspired more by despair than loyalty to the deceased husband, caused by the threat of remarriage, abusive in-laws, etc. Qing law also gave fathers absolute authority over their daughters, including the ability to kill them for behaviour they considered shameful, however, a man was forbidden from selling either his wives, concubines, or unmarried daughters.
The Qing government praised demonstrations of virtue and, to prove their commitment to morality, discouraged officials and scholars from visiting courtesans. The developed academic and literary circles cultivated during the Ming by courtesans, like Dong Xiaowan and Liu Rushi, thus declined and, as the Qing stopped regulating prostitutes, large numbers of privately owned brothels appeared. Some of the more expensive brothels had women of the courtesan tradition, who could sing, dance, and entertain their clients.
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