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Back on Planet Earth, people used to say that women in pre modern China were downtrodden and oppressed. Does the surviving evidence support that view?
Early back on planet earth, men dominated premodern China. Women were said to be highly oppressed, being inferior to their husbands, fathers, sons as well as brothers.
This situation is best depicted by the only surviving literature from earth, Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History by Mann, Susan and Cheng, Yu-Yin. This paper looks at how the book brings out the true picture of women in the pre modern China, and under the marginal regime. The paper looks at how the different authors and works, as analyzed in the book, brought out the position and role of women in the Chinese society.
The paper begins by defining Confucianism and its influence on the position of the Chinese women. It then generally discusses the Chinese women during the pre modern time and links these to the views brought out by Mann and Cheng in their book. The paper will hereby assess how the various chapters from different authors define women in the Chinese society, their rights, their position as authors and as domestic mothers and wives.
Confucianism is defined as a Chinese system of ethics and philosophy that was influenced by a theorist called Confucius during the early years. The teachings brought out by this philosopher were those related to statesmanship, education and ethics. The teachings lay emphasis on the love for all mankind, respect for parents, ancestral worship and peace.
With regard to women, Confucius was of the view that women were subordinate to men and that they served the role of looking after their husbands. The girl child according to this philosopher was unworthy and did not deserve to be educated. Girls according to the Confucius culture were items that could in cases of lack be exchanged for money.
The philosopher described the women’s place as being the home, with her most important duty as being that of bearing a son for the husband, as well as serving him. Confucius did not, however, fail to insist that all women should be respected as mothers as well as mothers in law.
Chinese Women during the Pre modern Time: an Analysis Based on the book, under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History by Mann, Susan and Cheng, Yu-Yin
The concept of the Chinese women during the early pre modern time was that of inferior beings whose role was to serve men. The women were over a long time viewed as items. This perception began right from where the girl child according to Confucians, was unworthy, up to the time of marriage, which was arranged, and continued even after marriage and until old age.
The service of the Chinese women to men in their society was such that, the women were expected to give service to their fathers during their early years, to their husbands during marriage and to their sons after the death of their husbands. Additionally, the society regarded the women as being passive, approachable soft spoken and flexible, compliant, quiet and thoughtful.
Education for the early Chinese women was regarded as unimportant. The women were also not allowed to practice ancestral worship, mainly because upon marriage, they would pledge allegiance and serve loyalty to their husbands and the husbands’ families. As they were barred from taking part in any form of examinations and were not educated, the women did not qualify to take up any government positions.
Only a few of the girls whose father scholars taught them the skill became scholars in future. A group of writers, however, emerged during the Ming and Qing era that saw them air out their views, opinions, feelings and deep emotions through texts such as poems (Mann & Cheng 2).
The title ‘Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History’ significantly looks at the ironic association between the opinions of the Confucians and the recognition of women in China’s chronological documents. The book works towards answering the question as to why the history documents by the Chinese women are not as visible as those of the men.
The authors, through their work, explore on the discrimination of humans with regards to the public circle. According to the two authors, the domination of the public sphere regards the private one as being unworthy and impassive (4). Understanding the oppression of the Chinese women, Mann and Cheng through their work, collect the different written works of, and about the woman in China, with an aim of understanding her inner or private sphere.
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The various collections include poems, fictions, letters, biographies and instructions. Through this, the authors manage to also bring out the strong but unrecognized role of women, who society only viewed as domestic workers.
To begin with, the most evident historical literature in China was that from what is regarded as the public circle. This was related to the male associated sectors that include politics and the economy. The life of women, in the early 10th century, and that included domestic work was in most cases invisible, with the elite group of women denied the right to leave their homes for any other place (2).
The inferior perception of women in the society is similarly evidently brought by Mann and Cheng when they talk about the recognition of women’s writings. According to the authors, women’s work in historical writing is mostly dominant when it comes to drama and fiction as well as random jottings.
The authors continue to state that in spite of the reality that majority the writings were done by men, women played a major role in the development of the plot. The two areas of writing with which women were closely associated, drama and fiction and random jottings, were lowly regarded in terms of position in the historical documents.
The texts did not hold any position in the contribution towards the Chinese history, not because they were not rich in material, but because they were written by women and therefore regarded as inferior. It is for this reason that men always seemed dominant in China’s historic writing, while women remained invisible (4).
The various chapters in the book have strongly brought out the oppressed nature of women in China during the pre modern time, with the various authors deeply exploring the various ways through which the position of women during that time was extremely downtrodden. Most of the writings in the book relate to the life of women with regard to their families as well good behavior (47-80, 119-68, 217-30).
The various works bring out a woman as one who readily obeys, virtually performs her duties, has chastity, and is hardworking and prudent. Such qualities were highly favorable, with regards to the women’s service towards their spouses, children and in laws. Many of these texts were written by men, a fact that evidently proves Mann’s and Cheng’s view that, male authors underscore the essential roles of women in a system where the father is the head of the family.
The various texts by women draw attention to the intellectual quests of the elite Chinese women. The women through the different works brought out the wide and unexpected array of their art and creativity (169-196, 240-250). Despite being creative and intriguing, however, the women’s writings were still invisible in the eyes of the patriarchal society.
The society failed to appreciate the talent brought out by the women in their various texts, a factor that heavily depicts the inequality between gender in authorship, and that further emphasizes the level of oppression and discrimination against the Chinese women during the pre modern time (6-9).
Despite the oppression from the Confucian culture, some women as brought out by the various texts defied some of the rules laid down by the culture. An example of this is with the religious beliefs and other ethnic practices. According to the Confucians, women’s complete loyalty and worship was supposed to be towards the husband’s family, hence, they did not require any form of ancestral worship.
Additionally, any woman who had attained the age of marriage was given a man to marry. The choice of man to marry was done by the family through astrological predictions, meaning that a woman had no control over who to marry. The chapters one, two, six and eight, however, bring out a group of women who resist marriage, contrary to the Confucian culture, and who instead opt to join Buddhism and Daoism. This choice created an intense conflict between the women’s spiritual independence and their expected role of taking care of the home and family.
The choice went against the Confucian’s view that women be subordinate to their husbands and of service to the in laws. The separation of genders was a common practice among the Confucians. A number of texts in the book however, bring out a minority group whose behavior goes against this practice. Among this minority group, women and men interacted with ease and engaged in numerous promiscuous activities.
Additionally, the group also saw the role of women as that of staying at home and handling the domestic chores change to that of working outside the home. The group also allowed women to inherit property, contrary to the Confucian culture (85-102, 253-80).
Though the society naturally put woman at the backbench and barred from freely expressing her ideas, women were still able to rise out of the locked cells through means such as through her son’s achievements, sexual and emotional ties, her virtuous nature, own networks as well as investments they were able to make through their various savings.
Through this, the women were able to move out of the inner sphere to which they had been assigned by the society. Their efforts aimed at breaking the boundary between the men’s outer sphere and the women’s inner sphere, and to in turn create a sense of equality between the two genders (3). This would help in reducing the increased rate of marginalization against the female gender at the time.
The oppression and inferiority of women is also evident in the fifteenth chapter of the book, whereby, women are charged with the hard role of picking tea from large farms. The various poems by men portray women in an inferior, oppressive and subordinate perspective.
An example is with the way the women are described as picking tea on the hillside with their legs tied up (Lotus feet) (234-5). This depicts a form of slavery and hard labor. The lotus feet in the traditional china involved the binding of the women’s feet as a way of enslaving them and making them suffer.
From the above review and analysis, the oppression of women in China during the pre modern time is strongly brought out in the book, Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History by Mann, Susan and Cheng, Yu-Yin. This has strongly been brought out by the authors’ views and through the study of the different texts in the book, and as discussed by other different scholars, both male and female.
From the discussion above, the inferiority of women’s writings in the historical records, and the continued dominance of men’s writings, evidently shows the existing marginalization of women by the Chinese society during the pre modern time.
The same evidence has also been brought out in the various chapters and texts that portray women as oppressed beings but who are still fighting to get out of the inner sphere and get into the outer sphere. The various chapters have shown women who strongly recognized their ability and who through their own means slowly sort to beat the existing marginalization at the time.
Mann, Susan & Cheng, Yu-Yin. Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001. Print.