“Women in Late Imperial China”

“Women in Late Imperial China”

At one time, the status of women in the nonwestern world was perceived to be backward compared to the more egalitarian and superior place of women in Western civilization.  However, non-Eurocentric historians later discredited these misconceptions on women’s place in Chinese society and new insights concerning the role of women were later presented from historians, such as Dorothy Ko.  Throughout the late imperial Chinese history, the role of women in both the non-Han Chinese steppe cultures and the Han Chinese sedentary cultures have differed due to unique social, cultural, and political factors.

First, the major social factors that have led to difference in status for women in the steppe and sedentary cultures were the perception and rights of women in their respective societies.  In the Khitan Liao dynasty, the elite women were treated as full partners to their male counterparts in marriage (Mote, Imperial China, 50) and were allowed divorce, and remarry, despite being considered unequal to men (Mote, 75-76).  Although they were not considered equal to Khitan men, women in Khitan society were able to have full partnership, because as a nomadic society, the men were constantly away to either wage battles or hunt while the women stayed in camp to take care of errands and raise their children.  Therefore, steppe women were able to be full partners in marriage because they took most of the burden in raising their young, and overseeing their households while their husbands were away from their encampments.  In addition, the right to remarry and divorce was allowed since it is likely that their husbands may either die or never return from their battles or hunting trips.  It was also possible that these rights may be given in response to “elopement marriages,” as a means to appease the “kidnapped bride” with the hopes that she will divorce and remarry.  Like the Khitans, who did not consider women to be equals, the Mongols allowed women to associate with men, and allowed them to be independent and assertive (Mote, 413).  The Mongols’ acceptance and promotion of strong willed and independent women is a reflection of the rugged steppe culture and lifestyle where women often suffered the same hardships as men, and often fought alongside men in battles.

Unlike the women from the steppe cultures, the Han Chinese society during the Song and Ming dynasties had different perception of women.  During the Southern Song dynasty, women were expected by their family to get married to contribute towards their family’s financial success (Mote, 350).  As married women, they were expected to receive a solid education and both head and manage their new household.  Because of the growth in the money economy under the Southern Song dynasty, families began to use marriage as a means to expand their wealth and prestige, which transformed a Chinese marriage into almost a business transaction where their daughters were used as bargaining tools.    In addition, women were given a good education because Confucian scholars at the time, such as Sima Guang (Ebrey, Women and Family in Chinese History, pp. 29-30), argued that well-educated women make better wives and better manage the household, and it was believed that a well-educated mother would ensure success for their sons, if they become literati.  Although women were expected to remain subordinate to their husbands, they were still able to grow as women because of their position as the head of the household or private sphere, and they were able to exchange ideas and socialize through women social clubs (Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, 226-230).  Moreover, the women’s subordinate status was due to Confucian teachings, especially the Thrice Following that called for women to obey their fathers, husbands, and even sons.  The social conduct outlined by the Thrice Following helped reinforce the women’s subordinate status by stripping them of a legal and formal social identity, and justifying the male domination of the opposite sex (Ko, 117-119).  These social norms during both the Song and Ming dynasties had conditioned women to obey men and made them subordinate to their fathers, husbands and sons.  Nonetheless, these restrictions and their subordinate status only stripped women of a public life and did not invade their private life.

Second, the cultural factors that resulted in different status of women in steppe and sedentary cultures were marriage practices and their views over sex.  The Khitans has marriage practices known as sororate, where the younger sister would takeover in place of the deceased married sister and levirate, where widows can remarry the younger brother of their dead husband (Mote, 75).  The Khitans used these marriage practices, and to some extent, the Mongols, in an effort to preserve the ties between their clans, which were seen as bound alliances and kinship networks.  Moreover, the practice of sororate and levirate were possibly used because it was difficult for steppe cultures to find a new husband or wife due to their nomadic lifestyle and relatively lower population density than those with a sedentary lifestyle.  However, as the Khitans became a sedentary culture, the practice of sororate was abolished because it was no longer needed to maintain clan ties and it was possible to find a new wife outside of the clan.  Not only did the Khitans use marriage as a means to preserve alliances, their women also have sexual freedom (Franke, Women under the Dynasties of Conquest, pp. 24-26).  They were able to mingle with boys in social events and to some extent have a say in selecting their mate.  This degree of sexual freedom most likely occurred within the Khitan commoners because elopement marriages were common and because commoners were not bound by clan alliances through marriage, as in the case with the elites.  Additionally, this sexual freedom among the Khitans reflects the rugged life in the steppes, where there is low population density, which causes difficulty in finding mates outside of their clans, and the lack of a money economy kept steppe marriage practices as a means to form alliances.

Compared to the Khitans, the Chinese has very different views of women in regards to marriage practices and sex.  During the Song dynasty, the Han Chinese arranged marriage developed into almost a ritualized business transaction with steps such as an engagement ritual, full credentials ritual, marital gift exchange, and marriage (February 19, 2004 outline).  These steps were developed to ensure that both parties were committed to the marriage, and gifts were used to affirm wealth and interest.  Like the steppe marriages, the marriages of the Chinese under the Song dynasty were marriages of alliances, except that they were economic alliances instead of political alliances as in the Khitan marriages.  The rise of the money economy is the main factor that added an economic element to the Chinese arranged marriage.  In regards to sex, both men and women were sexually segregated because it was believed that their sexual desires could be easily stimulated (Ebrey, The Inner Quarters, 162-165).  In addition, the sexual segregation also occurred because it was widely believed that men were able to awaken sexual desires in young girls and there was a growing problem of male excesses over concubines and courtesans.  Although, women were sexually segregated, they did not consider sex between lovers to be obscene and openly wrote about it in private (Ko, pp. 87-88).  They were able to promote their views privately through writing while the view of sex was publicly a male discourse through literature and regulations.  Moreover, Chinese women had a opposing viewpoint to men since they focused more on love and marriage through qing while men were trying to accommodate qing to their Confucian and Buddhist values.

Third, the political factors that led to different status of women in steppe and sedentary cultures were political power in the throne and the household.  The elite women in Khitan society were able to hold civil and military roles while empresses acted as co-ruler along the emperor and his heirs (Mote, 50).  An example of female political power in Khitan Liao dynasty was empress Yingtian, who was able to influence the Liao dynasty’s line of succession and control her own army.  Yingtian was able to acquire such political power because of her position of Abaoji’s wife, and she defied Khitan tradition to be buried with her husband by chopping her hand off to show her determination to act as a regent to her sons.  Her determination and defiance of Khitan traditions brought fear to her subjects and she was able to reinforce her political influence with her own army or ordo (Franke, 25), which she often used in battle.  Moreover, she was able to influence the line of succession, since she was close with her sons, and retain Khitan customs in the face of sinification, which pleased conservative Khitan nobles.  Not only were women able to influence government, they also had political power within their own households.  They were able to have influence within their household because of their clan ties, their position as the head of the household while the men were away, and because of their role as an educator to their sons.  These roles allowed for Khitan women not only the power to head their household, but also the ability to influence their children and contribute to Khitan society.

On the other hand, the Han Chinese had different views of women concerning their political influence in the throne and household.  During the Ming dynasty, Lady Wan managed to seduce Emperor Xianzong, and controlled the throne through him by controlling his harem and preventing any heirs from being born from other women (Mote, 630).  Lady Wan, like Yingtian, was able to exert great influence in the throne except she was an older woman who seduced Xianzong, an emperor who was weak-willed and feared Wan, and managed to dominate the emperor by restricting his activities and ensuring that she would be the one to produce his heirs.  Although Lady Wan was a woman who managed to influence the throne, many women during the Ming dynasty had political power mainly in the household.  In the Ming dynasty, a system of ranking families according to wealth and power allowed rich wives to lord over their husbands (Ko, pp. 108-109).  This was also possible because of the “Three no outs” where the husband cannot divorce his wife if her married her poor since the wife has a greater dowry and the husband does not have control of his wife’s finances, leaving him dependent on his wife for money and property (Ko, 190).  In addition, although husbands can buy concubines without the wife’s approval, the wife can still outranks her as head of household, and has the ability to lord over the concubine (Ko, pp. 106-109).  Even though the wife does not have rights outside her home, she still has power by simply being married and being the head of the household, making her the master of her own domain, while the concubine is simply used to service the husband’s sexual needs.  In addition, the concubine has little or no protection from the wife’s jealousy because of the wife’s position and usually becomes a victim in the household.

During the late Chinese imperium, Han women lived under a different status compared to their non-Han counterparts.  Unlike the steppe cultures, Han women were free only in the private sphere, while steppe women were accepted as full partners.  Moreover, like the steppe cultures, Han Chinese women during the Song and Ming dynasties were allowed to manage the household, but only steppe women had control over their marriage since they had the right to divorce and remarry.  Cultural differences also led to different marriage practices and sex; marriage was used by the Chinese as a means to improve their socio-economic standing and they had conservative views on sex while steppe cultures used marriage and practices such as sororate to solidify clan alliances and were generally open on sex.  Furthermore, while steppe cultures such as the Khitans had women that were able to exert real political power, Chinese women during the Song and Ming were able to exert their “political power” as the head of their household by managing servants, and controlling finances.  These differences among the roles and status of women in this period are due largely to the different steppe and sedentary lifestyles and also due to different value systems.


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