The Influence of Confucianism and Taoism on the Role of Women in Ancient China

Women are like silk. Extremely valuable and lustrous, silk represented as comfort and opulence from the 4th millennium BCE in the Han Dynasty (3rd century BCE). Sericulture played a significant role in Ancient China by becoming a staple of the country’s trade and economy where it was used for clothing, fishing-lines, bowstrings, paper, furnishings, etc. Despite its notable worth and high quality, it is to say that women are not like silk, but they are instructed to become what the expectations are in Ancient China.

In a male-dominated society, it was technically impractical for a female to achieve an ambition for they are merely served as a property of their husband or father. From the beginnings of China in the Xia (21th-17th century BCE) and Shang (17th-11th century BCE) Dynasty, the gradual emphasis on male became so intense that Chinese Society lost its matrilineal character. Thus in the duration of the Han Dynasty to the Song Dynasty (10th-13th century CE), the emerged philosophies — Confucianism and Taoism — determined the attitudes and roles of a woman in Ancient China. Once born a female, she is instantly subjugated under men. Denied status, rights, and freedom, women are forced to follow the primary role to manage a household and motherhood.

Established in the 6th century by Kong Fuzi, Confucianism formed the idea that political and social harmony arose from human relationships, particularly on the prominence of marriage. According to Ban Zhao Pan Chao, a woman confucius scholar, females must execute the principles of Confucianism in order to be a proper women. Because the Confucian doctrine disregarded the equality of woman to man and spoke little of their role, Zhao’s work Lessons for a Woman preached the guideline to manage themselves (females) appropriately and advised the qualifications on their behaviors in the home of the husband or his family (DBQ #1).

As stated in Traditions and Encounters by Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler, world historians, filial piety (xiao) obliged children to respect parents and the elderly (DBQ #5). While it is a son’s responsibility to heed, to devote to his family, and to learn from his father, daughters are only to serve and be loyal. The birth of a girl would be seen as disappointment and as they grow to capitulate to the xiao, they must maintain their virtue, industriousness, cautious speech, and manner to prevent an unstable relationship (DBQ #1).

Hidden in men’s shadows, women are inferior. Accountable to take care of in-laws and her family, she was deprived of the education a male would receive because she was deemed unworthy. Just like how silk is made, it must begin with silkworm caterpillars to fulfill its central duty — to create the cocoon. In this essence, a born female is already given burdens to worship in the home.

Founded around the same time as Confucianism (6th century BCE), Daoism formed by Laozi served as a counterbalance to the activism and extroversion of the Confucian belief. Whereas Confucianists practiced vital family values, behavior, and the way of life, Daoists seeked immortality. In other words to ‘go with the flow’ by following nature and living in harmony with dao (‘the way’) meant to recede the interaction from society (DBQ #5). The entanglement of women’s reputation is plaintive in Daoism, since the philosophy is caught between its ideal cosmological premise of the power of yin and the realities of an assertive patriarchy in Confucianism. Claimed by Zhang Hua, a poet during the Jin Dynasty, women in the imperial court must abide to specific ordinance in order to achieve the foretold attitude.

In Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court ladies, men are the ruler and women are ruled (DBQ #2). These certain excerpts illustrate the dao which females are supposed to embrace the idea of yin that symbolizes weak, passive, soft and yielding compared to the hard, clarity, and active yang. Court ladies wishing to be the matriarch must know the characteristic they possess; if a woman attempts to acquire a male trait (yang) then the rule accounted to be the head female is broken (DBQ #2). Males recognize their traits — superior, natural-born leaders.

Females do not have that because they are sensitive and irrational in terms of Daoism belief. If a woman backtracks in an effort to have man character, it would mess up the structure of family and she needs to correct her manner to find back the holiness of her model of piety or female matriarchy (DBQ #2). Though men still maintain the upper rank, through Zhang Hua’s criticism that involved an instructress and imperial women, Daoism offered a social alternative for women to attain wisdom and high levels of religious standing. The essence of Zhang Hua’s document is to inform the instructress to guide and teach etiquette on how to properly rule, how to fit within the mold, making the court ladies how to represent themselves. Likewise, silkworms must be fed (in this case court ladies being taken cared by the instructress) in order to begin their cocoon.

In some instances, women could have been seen as an equal status with men, but only temporarily. The Lotus Sütra:“the Daughter of the Dragon King,” a Buddhist scripture, revealed an eight-year-old girl’s accomplishment to reach enlightenment by transforming into a male (DBQ #3).

Notwithstanding that the girl successfully contradicted the statement on the limitations of female and still retained her gender as the text still referred to her as ‘she,’ the transformation indicated that only a male body is essential for obtaining Buddhahood. It is argued that Buddha sees all living beings as equals, therefore the Lotus Sutra promotes gender justice; yet, the method for her to obtain enlightenment is different to male. Rather than denying Buddhist women the privilege of knowledge, they are instead given with a provision. There is even a degradation to remind everyone of the five impediments of a lady: she cannot become the a Śakra, a Brahma, a devil, nor a sage king and especially Buddha (DBQ #3). The Lotus Sutra does not pacify gender-based inequality; instead, it braces the conception of female inferiority. The Tale of Mulan, the Maiden Chief, a chinese poem, highlighted cliched feminine qualities, which continued to portray the lower roles and attitudes of women (DBQ # 4).

While majority of the poem reinforced the notion of feminism with Mulan’s determination and success for warrior glory, she was only deemed a hero because she was disguised as a man. Taking her father’s place because of his injury and there was no son, Mulan had to possess the yang quality traits (DBQ #4). In the end Mulan earned honor and prestige, but desired to return home to take care of her father as an obedient daughter (DBQ #4). This reinforces that women can become something to play part of a hero, but afterwards must go back to where they stand. Gender roles are resilient to break out of and even if women can be fortunate in masculine terms, what really matters overall is adhering to their feminine positions. Conductive to keep her in order, The Tale of Mulan, the Maiden Chief is to caution that deviating from these set of gender roles is futile, displaying how embed these stereotypes are in Ancient China.

On all accounts, women did not enjoy the status they were given. Obligated to serve and be loyal under the ideals of Confucianism — specifically filial piety and the role of a mother — there was limited women power and freedom. In some terms Daoism exercised leeways for women to participate in religious positions and earn wisdom, but the cosmology of the ying and yang still portrayed the ‘sensitive, fragile, and submissive’ character of woman. Conceptualizing the differences between male and female in ying-yang is to depict that men lead and women follow. Even in the Song Dynasty, male dominance is present: the pressure for widows not to remarry and foot bindings to prevent them from growing. By the same token, women are like silk.

As elegant and beautiful it is, silk is not simple to make. In order for females to reach the fulfillment of the values in society, they must abide to the status quo. The instructress would weave the threads, in other words teach protocol, in place of guiding females the way to behave. By respecting and submitting to the strict expectations meant high quality of silk.