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Confucianism and Women During the Tang Dynasty Research Paper

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Confucius is one of the greatest philosophers in the world. He established a moral and ethical code that helped to govern China for generations. He established the first public schools so that education would be available to everybody instead of only the upper class; however, since the education was so intense it was difficult for individuals from the lower classes to be able to afford the education. His teachings also helped change the way the government was run and organized. He edited and compiled the five classics, which became the foundation of his educational and philosophical teachings. Individuals who had passed the civil service examination were given posts based on their scores rather then on family connections, this helped increase attendance at schools as people studied to pass those exams since the questions were based on those five classics (Twitchett, 75).

Confucius lived in a time in which the social order of China was disintegrating. His teachings were focused on the ability to ritualize life; one of the main focuses of those teachings was that the majority of the problems in society were the result of individuals forgetting their proper station in life. In order to maintain harmony every individual needed to know how to react in any social situation. He established five social relationships. They included: ruler and ruled, husband and wife, parents and children, older and younger brothers, and between friends (Twitchett, 75). By teaching these relationships the society became much ritualized with every social interaction based on these teachings. His teachings created a lasting religion while promoted increased social harmony also resulted in the subjection of women to the will of either their husband or father (Croll, 721).

In the teachings of Confucius the authority of the husband over his wife was established (Croll, 721). This was done with the intent of increasing the strength of the slave owners and resulted in classifying the relationship between a husband and wife as the same relationship between a master and a slave (Croll, 721). The males decreased the roles that they were eligible to play in the society in order to continue control the female portion of the population. This allowed the males to create a society in which females could be used to consolidate power through marriage or given as gifts. This was also a way to provide minimal protection to the females by placing the responsibility for their safety onto the males related to them.

One of the foundations of Confucianism is “the subordination of women to men was one of the supreme principles of government” and “the relations between husband and wife, like those between king and minister and between father and son, were all, as those between master and servant, universal under Heaven” (Croll, 722). The basis of the ethical codes taught to the women of China during this time known as the “four virtues” were developed (Croll, 722).

Peasant rebellions are believed to include platforms in which the restrictions placed on women were opposed and at least one of those rebellions was led by a female (Croll, 723). With this understanding and research the women of China had overcome one of the flaws in Confucianism that women should remain at home focused on their husbands and family not concerning themselves with political matters (Croll, 723).

Even as late as 1949 the women in China were attempting to overcome the restrictions and attitudes placed on them by the teachings of Confucius. These women have overcome these prohibitions and gained the skills necessary to enter new areas of the workforce and be as proficient at those skills as the men in those fields such as pilots and scientists (Croll, 725).

While women in China have increased the variety of jobs that they are accepted in, the history of China shows that women have attempted to decrease the restrictions placed on them by the teachings of Confucius and maintained through the various political dynasties.

The Tang dynasty ruled China from 618 – 907 A.D. This dynasty is well known for promoting the Confucian values, increasing the administrative system throughout China, and created a code of justice that listed the penalties for crimes committed and the level of relationship between the offended person and the criminal. The Tang dynasty also created a program for the distribution of land among individuals. This was done in order to ensure that families had enough land to support their families as well as pay taxes. The tax system was based on the number of individuals in a family and each individual was responsible for a specific portion of taxes. This indicates that they had a very sophisticated and accurate method of conducting a census. Early in the Tang dynasty the rulers provided incentives for families and individuals who followed the ideals of Confucius such as decreased taxes and increased land.

One of the ways that the families maintained their strength and political power was through the marriage of their daughters to members of the seven most prominent families in China. In order to obtain these marriages the practice of dowries and betrothal gifts (Ebrey, 66). During the Tang dynasty the emperor outlawed the practice of mercenary marriages in which the two families negotiated price in order to increase the wealth of the family (Ebrey, 66). In the teachings of Confucius the discussing of wealth in matters of marriage was the way of the barbarians and should be a situation that was avoided (Ebrey, 66).

During the Tang dynasty there are references to several self-contained areas that were known as “kingdoms of women” in which there either were no men in the population or that women were in charge of the state. While there were kingdoms told in stories as legends as well as historical kingdoms of women located in Tibet, Japan and Korea which chose to interact with the Tang dynasty (Jay, 220).

The definition of matriarch is a social organization that in which descent follows the maternal line rather then the paternal line, children belong to the maternal clan and women are responsible for the decisions concerning the community, functions, social standing and values which can include the sexual conduct of the men in that society (Jay, 220). While researches and anthropologists believe that there were no actual societies in which women held full control and responsibility over the society due to the lack of available data (Jay, 220).

While there is a lack of data on any actual matriarch societies there are several kingdoms of women that are considered legends that have been mentioned in Chinese literature that can be examined. While historians have ignored the nature of these kingdoms due to their mythical nature and unreliability of the information available these legends have been incorporated into the history of China especially during the Tang dynasty (Jay, 220).

The first one is dated toward the fourth or third century B.C. known as Shanhai jing (Jay, 220). This is a land surrounded by water in the west. The women who lived there would bathe in Yellow Pond in order to become pregnant however any male children born would perish by their third birthday (Jay, 220). Historians dismiss this work as an unreliable source (Jay, 220). Despite this being considered unreliable the location of the kingdom of women was integrated into institutional histories. The second kingdom of women found in Chinese histories that was located in the eastern sea and was only populated by females.

Both of these kingdoms are described in a similar manner especially with regards toward procreation not involving sex and the absence of any adult male in the area (Jay, 220). While these are two examples of stories available in Chinese literature they fall into the same category as legends due to the fantastic nature of the stories. While there are other legends that refer to kingdoms of women located in remote geographical areas they maintain similar characteristics. Another similarity in these writings is the authors were entirely men, this indicates that there was a wide spread fear of what would happen if females were to gain power. The writings of the women indicated weariness with the current methods of government and the restrictions in which women faced. These writings were shared only with other females and were generally buried with the writer upon their death (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 72).

In order to promote the ideals to future generations several books were written and distributed that taught young women how to behave in the appropriate manner. These books were the only formal education that the women would receive since the other type of school was designed to assist students in passing the civil service examine and were only open to male students. The Lessons for Women consisted of 12 chapters and was written in order to extend the understanding of female virtues to typical everyday behavior (Wang, 327). Each chapter is separated into certain attitudes and behaviors. While it emphasized the ideal behaviors it cautioned the women from learning from women who refused to follow the ideals set forth by Confucius (Wang, 328).

Women followed the teachings of this book in the effort to avoid dishonoring themselves and their families. This book also had a greater influence on the women of common descent then the members of the aristocracy (Wang, 328). One reason for this is the women of the upper classes could see an impact of their words and behaviors on the political system while the women of the lower classes were restricted by the social norms of their village.

While the political process of the time revolved around men there were several instances in which females were able to gain power and influence the decisions of policy within the Tang dynasty. If a woman were the wife of a political leader then she would have the ability of assisting her husband during their rule. One of these individuals was the Empress Zhangsun of the Tang was one of these women who gained recognition for her assistance (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 93).

During specific situations the wife of a ruler could participate more openly in decisions of policy. These situations included the illness of the spouse or the elevation of a minor child to the throne (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 93). In these instances since the spouse or minor child were not capable of making decisions completely on their own due to their age or illness the wife or mother was expected to assist them through the creation of policies and actions that would reflect the values of the time.

One instance of a women-gaining power on her own merits or through the manipulation of the political system is the women known as Wu Zetian. In the year 690 B.C. the Zhou dynasty was formed under the leadership of Wu Zetian who is the only female in the history of China to have openly ruled (Jay, 228). Through various methods she ruled China for fifty years (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 93). In order to achieve this status she had to become incredibly ruthless even to the point where she killed her own daughter. She was compelled to look for additional power when she became one of the Emperor Taizong’s concubines at the age of fourteen (Nosotro). In order to solidify her position and maintain her safety in the harem she looked for ways to increase her power through increased association with the Emperor. Upon his death she and other concubines were sent to live in a convent for the rest of their lives. Wu Zetian was removed from the convent at the request of the new emperor Kao Tsung (Nosotro). In order to protect her new status as the second concubine she strangled her own child and blamed the current empress for the death of the child (Nosotro). In response to the allegations the empress was banished and Wu Zetian was named the new empress. With her husband’s illness she began to assume more control over the nation, with her husband’s death she appointed her weakest son as emperor and then assisted his abdication after several years. After this she declared herself the emperor her husband’s death she was able to gain control over the throne

While she ruled until her death in 705 she had no living child in which to pass the throne to and a male relative took over the throne (Jay, 228). This wife of the new emperor waited until her husband died in 710 and attempted to become ruler. The empress’s mother in-law and her daughter were executed and their heads were publicly displayed in order to deter further attempts to overthrow the male leaders (Jay, 228).

Due to the constraints of the government in China before and after the Zhou dy related to the emperor could only rule from behind the scenes if their husband was ill or for their minor children until they reached the age of majority (Jay, 228). Wu Zetian was able to establish her claim to rule with the assistance of the Buddhist temples, imperial rituals and the declaration of a new dynasty (Jay, 228). Her rule was short-lived and is considered to be an anomaly by Chinese historians.

A second method in which a female could participate in politics was through marriage to another clan (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 93). These women were considered “peaceful envoys” that promoted friendly alliances with other clans or to increase the social progress of that particular clan. One of these princesses was the Princess Wencheng of the Tang dynasty (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 93). These women were sent away from their home in order to continue to gain support and allies for China. Through their education in the Four Confucian virtues and proper court etiquette they were able to influence their new husbands in areas of culture and some maters of religion.

A third method for a female to gain power was through inciting peasants rebellions in which a female could declare herself ‘king’ ((Mow, Tao and Bijun, 93). These rebellions were intended to remove a corrupt court using a slogan that indicated that the will of heaven had changed and the individuals in power no longer had the heavenly authority to rule. The Mandate of Heaven is the divine favor shown to an emperor of China. Should an emperor be overthrown then it was said that they had lost the Mandate of Heaven and that he was unable to govern the people so heaven had displayed its displeasure.

Chen Shuozhen of the Tang dynasty managed to create an official bureaucracy using a beginning form of government (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 93). The government only lasted for several months but had an influential effect on later rebellions (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 94).

A fourth example of how a female could participate on her own merits in this male dominated society was by hiding the fact that she was a women and continuing through life dressed as a male. This allowed her to be treated with increased respect and pass through the civil service entrance exams and gain a position in the government. One of these females was Huang Chonggu (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 94). While she passed the civil service exam and was competent in the execution of her duties once it was discovered that she was not male she was dismissed from her post and returned home in disgrace (Mow, Tao and Bijun, 94).

The women who chose to force themselves out of the Confucian ideals promoted by the Tang dynasty either used their influence on the political process from behind the throne as advisors or regents to the ruling individual, through marriage, through an open declaration of war against the ruling classes or by hiding their femininity and posing as a male. In very few circumstances could a female obtain power or recognition for their own abilities during this dynasty. However when females stepped outside of their assigned roles they were creating precedents that were able increase the roles women were allowed during the next dynasty.

The period of time known as the Tang dynasty enforced policies that were restrictive to women of all classes living during that time. These restrictions were based on the teachings of the Confucius. However at the end of the Tang dynasty with the onset of Neo-Confucianism the brave actions of those women increased the freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by the women of that dynasty.

After the Tang dynasty ended the Song dynasty was the next ruling system. The dominant religious, philosophical and political force in China from the Song dynasty of the tenth century until the end of the imperial system in the early 20th century was Neo-Confucianism (Huang, 14). The first Song ruler asked the reemerging Confucian literati to help him bring stability to his administration. Following their recommendations he removed the Taoist and Buddhist texts from school classes and reestablished the Confucian classics. While many Chinese individuals continued to follow the popular religious cults that included elements from Daoism and Buddhism, individuals that made up the scholarly and ruling classes returned to the 5 classics to develop new theories of government and a satisfying way of life (Huang, 14).

Neo-Confucianism blended the old Confucian way with Buddhism. While it pulled the moral principles from Confucianism, it also pulled the concept of ultimate reality from Buddhism (Huang, 2). Neo-Confucianism sought properly order, harmonious relationships that were reflected in rule-governed behavior, but they incorporated the Buddhists teachings that all thought, experience, and performance of ritual are based on an ultimate reality (Huang, 12).

The goal of a properly ordered life in Neo-Confucianism is the attainment of ultimate Li. Ultimate li means reason, principle, and order. While traditional Confucian classics had used it to refer to the orderliness of life, in Neo-Confucianism li had become a metaphysical reality. They described it similarly to the Buddha nature as empty and tranquil yet with all things present.

Neo-Confucianism’s continued to place a high value on ritual being the pattern that harmonious human relationships were built on proper behavior which originated in an ideal realm of Li (Huang, 6). This realm was only approachable through inner experiences that would be found through meditation. In contrast to their Confucian predecessors the Neo-Confucianists were interested in probing the human mind for insights into how it operates (Huang, 6). One of the paradoxes that they considered was how was it possible for the mind to be tranquil while being active. They solved the paradox by seeking tranquility in activity.

While Neo-Confucianism was seeking an understanding of the human condition for males it was decided that having ones emotions be over stimulated the connection between ones inner nature and outward life would become unbalanced. To assist the male population in controlling their emotions the moral code of women was transformed from a restrictive but balanced combination of virtue, personal cleanliness and domestic work to an obsessive preoccupation with chastity (Huang, 14).

While the women were still expected to be chaste in action the options available to them increased with the new order. Without the struggles and sacrifices made during the Tang dynasty these changes experienced by the women in the Song dynasty would not have received the decrease in the restrictions of their movements. While the changes made after the Tang dynasty was not sweeping social reforms they increased the freedoms and women in China have continued to build on that foundation to this day. Without their efforts it is possible that the women in China would still be experiencing these types of restrictions and limitations on their movements.

Works Cited

Croll, Elisabeth. “The Movement to Criticize Confucius and Lin Piao: A Comment on The Women of China.” Signs. 2.1 (1977): 721-726.

Ebrey, Patricia. Women and the Family in Chinese History. New York: Routlege, 2002.

Huang, Siu-chi. Essentials of Neo-Confucianism: Eight Major Philosophers of the Song and Ming Periods. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Jay, Jennifer W. “Imagining Matriarchy: “Kingdoms of Women” in Tang China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 116.2 (April 1996): 220-229.

Mow, Shirley, Tao Jie, and Zheng Bijun. Holding up Half the Sky: Chinese Women Past, Present, and Future. New York: Feminist Press, 2004.

Nosotro, Rit. Web.

Twitchett, Denis C. The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906.

AD, Part One. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Watson, Rubie S., and Patricia Buckley Ebrey, editors Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991. Web.

Wang, Robin. Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qui Period through the Song Dynasty. Hong Kong: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003.

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