Modern historians and sociologists focus on the education of women in Confucian cultures. According to a popular stereotype, it was only supposed to reinforce the strict gender roles of these societies, especially the subservient position of women in families and communities.
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Nevertheless, this assumption does not take into account the complexities of Asian societies that can differ from one another in terms of political, social or economic relations. Secondly, this view overlooks the possibility that women could resist some principles of Confucianism.
They could be aware of their disadvantaged position in the community. This paper is aimed at showing that Confucian education could indeed reify the dominant power structure or the idea that men should play the main role in family, government or organizations; however, at the same time, it enabled women to challenge popular perceptions of gender roles.
This is the main issue that should be examined in more detail.
Scholars are very cautious when using the term Confucian education because it is very ambiguous. This concept can be defined as a set ethical and political principles formulated by Confucius and his followers (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003, p. 3).
However, this philosophical and ethical underwent significant changes when it was adopted in Korea or Japan (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003, p. 3). So, Confucian education can take many different forms. It has to be admitted that to some degree, Confucian education can make women comply with existing social norms.
For example, one can refer to the works of a prominent Chinese writer Ban Zhao. She was a prominent female educator and she argued that women had to be obedient and compliant to the will of their husbands in order to avoid conflict in the family (Zhao as cited in Wang, 2003, p. 178).
They were not supposed to voice their opinions if they contradicted the views of their fathers or husbands (Zhao as cited in Wang, 2003, p. 178).
However, at the same time, she argued that women should be knowledgeable in the classical Chinese philosophy; otherwise there would be no harmony in the family life (Zhao as cited in Wang, 2003, p. 178). In other words, the wife of a nobleman had to be an educated person.
So, one can say that Confucianism does reinforce the idea the males should act as leaders and decision-makers; however, it does not deny women the right to knowledge. This is one of the main issues that should be taken into consideration when people discuss the peculiarities of Confucian education.
One can refer to other examples of Confucian thought on the education of women. For example, such a scholar as Kaibara condemned those aristocrats who chose their wives only on the basis of their physical appearance (Kaibara as cited in Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003, p. 196).
In his opinion, such an approach will not help people create good families. Moreover, Confucian scholars urged people to remember that women are responsible for the education of young children; this is why they must have access to good education (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003, p. 197).
To a great extent, this argument implies that women could take a decisive part in the development of family as well as society because they had to act as educators who shape the worldviews and values of children.
This example also indicates that Confucian cultures could give women some responsibility as well as power, but their roles were more limited that those of men.
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It should be noted that education could greatly empower women who lived in Confucian societies. For instance, during the Kamakura period, literate Japanese could participate in different social activities such as lawsuits, land transactions, or writing wills (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003, p. 215).
In other words, their opinions and decisions had to be considered by the legal institutions of the country. The participation in these activities could hardly be possible provided that they had not had access to education.
This example undermines a popular stereotype according to which Confucian education only reified the subservient position of women. It has to be acknowledged that these women did not possess the same legal or political rights, but they were not fully excluded from social relations.
Apart from that, education enabled women to voice their opinion and express their views on family, love, or marital relations. For example, female-authored poems can throw light on the frustrations of women, especially their subservient role in marriage (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003, p. 163).
Many Japanese women wrote the so-called family novels (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003, p. 294). Certainly, only very few women could create this form of literature; in most cases, they were members of rich and noble families (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003, p. 294).
So, education was not the only factor that determined the position of women. Special attention should be paid to their social class.
More importantly, education enabled women to create histories and narratives that were inaccessible to men. Special attention should be paid to the written language called Nu Shu. It was created by Chinese women who wanted to share their ideas with one another without revealing them to men.
Their diaries were related to a variety of questions, for instance, the family status of women, the discrimination against them, and their inability to take independent decisions.
The development of this written language is closely examined in the film Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China directed by Yue-Qing Yand (2009). According the movie, the very existence of Nu Shu script remained unnoticed for several centuries.
It enabled women to express their ideas and views on the status within the family and society. Again, Nu Shu is a by-product of Confucian education. So, one can say that the access to knowledge could undermine the dominant power structures of the Chinese society.
This discussion has several important implications. First of all, it is not permissible to argue that Confucian education was only aimed at subjugating women.
As it has been said before, Chinese, Japanese or Korean scholars argued that females should have access to knowledge; otherwise they would be able to act as mothers or wives. In this way, these writers tacitly acknowledged women’s significance for family and society.
Secondly, education enabled women to take part in social relations and helped them express their discontent. Admittedly, their learning was limited, and sometimes it could reify the dominant power structures, but women resisted this ideology in part by creating their own written narratives.
By looking at Confucian education in such a way, one can better understand the complexities of modern Asian societies.
Ko, D., Haboush, J. & Piggott, J. (2003). Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Yang, Y. (Executive Producer). (1999). Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China. Beijing: Women Make Movies.
Wang, R. (2003). Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period Through Song Dynasty. New York: Hackett.