Confucian Views on Women in Chinese Society


The teachings of Confucius have influenced all types of relationships in Chinese society, and they have also affected the social position of women, their status, and their accepted roles. In spite of the fact that Confucius did not directly write specific teachings about women, his approach to treating female members of Chinese society has affected people’s perceptions of women. In the Analects by Confucius, there are only three passages where women and their roles are mentioned, and in other Confucian writings, there are also limited descriptions of females. However, even these few ideas presented by Confucius in relation to women make it possible to draw conclusions about the place of females in the social hierarchy, which has further impacted Chinese people’s approach to treating women. Although Confucian messages explaining the role of women in Chinese society are limited, they have had significant impact on forming traditional views of females’ social status as subordinate to men and focused on the family.

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Women As Depicted in the Analects by Confucius

The literature that explains and critiques the Confucian canon and determines the social hierarchy in traditional Chinese society includes multiple views and ideas regarding women in the context of Confucian ideology. Confucius referred to females, and indirectly to their status, only in a limited number of passages in the Analects. In most cases, women in the Analects are portrayed as the source of temptation and object of desire for men, and also as preventing men from following the principles of Confucian morality. However, the most notorious passage in this context is 17.25, which has provoked debates as a misogynous statement. According to the philosopher, “Women and servants are particularly hard to manage: if you are too familiar with them, they grow insolent, but if you are too distant they grow resentful” (Confucius 211). It would follow from these words that women have a lower status than men in society, and that they need to be managed by men. Nevertheless, further critique of the statement with reference to the issue of translation has allowed researchers to reconsider the interpretation of this idea.

Thus, researchers and translators have stated that Confucius could have meant not all the women in the country, but only female servants who worked in aristocratic households in China. In other translations, the word “servants” was changed to “small people.” Thus, according to Kinney, in this passage, Confucius “uniformly and somewhat unfairly dismisses women of servile status as grasping and manipulative, but nevertheless ranks them along with the similarly disconcerting ‘small men’” (161). This statement in 17.25 was further used as the basis for developing the Confucian theory of women in Chinese society, which significantly influenced their position. However, other researchers have stated that this message also accentuated the fear of Chinese men regarding the development of female power (Kinney 161). Therefore, Chinese women were expected to be obedient and subordinate to men.

There are also some other passages in the Analects that can be interpreted with a focus on the role of women in Chinese society. In 8.20 of the Analects, it is stated that, among the ten ministers of King Wu, there was a woman. Thus, “Virtue flourished as never before … and yet [even among King Wu’s ten people] there was a woman included, which means he really only had nine good men” (Confucius 84). According to researchers, that woman could have been King Wu’s wife or mother. Still, as noted by to Kinney, this passage is important evidence of the idea that women of the higher classes were traditionally seen as important for the progress of a dynasty (152-153). Thus, “the presence of women in the ancestral cult and their contributions toward dynastic strength is also documented in bronze inscriptions” (Kinney 153). From this perspective, low-ranking women were regarded in the context of the Confucian tradition as holding a low social status and position in society. In contrast, elite women seem to be regarded by Confucius as deserving respect.

In passages 9.18 and 16.7, Confucius refers to female beauty as a source of desire for men, thus influencing their behavior. It states in 9.18, “The Master said, ‘I have yet to meet a man who loves Virtue as much as he loves female beauty’” (Confucius 92). According to critics who focused on this passage, Confucius emphasized the necessity of loving virtue as much as men were interested in the beauty of women (Confucius 92). Thus, some researchers have stated that Confucius emphasized the lower moral status of women when asserting such ideas.

In 16.7, Confucius again emphasizes the risks of female beauty for men. A gentleman can guard against different things: “when he is young, his blood and vital essence are still unstable, and therefore he is on guard against [the temptation of] female beauty” (Confucius 195). From this perspective, women make men forget about their morality and virtues, or according to the alternative interpretation, women cannot be regarded as socially significant actors because of their flawed morality. Although there are only a limited number of passages that are related to women in the Analects, it is important to analyze how these ideas by Confucius influenced the approach to treating women in China. This influence spread along with Confucian ideology and philosophical teaching.

The Impact of Confucian Teachings on the Traditional Image of Women in China

In spite of the fact that the Analects of Confucius refers to women only a few times, his ideas about the low position of the female were actively interpreted by his followers. These ideas spread to form the specific view of women typical of traditional Chinese society. In line with how they were compared to servants and “small people,” women came to be treated unequally to men and were discussed in the context of patriarchal authority (Kinney 162). In Chinese society, women came to be viewed as appropriate only for performing tasks in the domestic field, even being the equivalent of servants according to some interpretations.

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As a result, the gender hierarchy typical of Chinese society was reinforced by Confucian ideas and teachings. The focus on Confucian teachings allowed for the development of the view that women were secondary to men and less important in the social hierarchy. According to Kang, this approach to treating women remained in effect for hundreds of years, and it was followed even in the twentieth century when women came to be viewed as “genderless and classless” (6). However, they still did not become equal to men in their roles and the public’s perception because of the role of traditions in Chinese society.

Interpreters of the ideas of Confucius focus on and accentuate the important role of men in Chinese society, but the role of women seems to be ignored. The followers of the Confucian ideology contributed to creating a society in which women were regarded as unequal to men at any level of the hierarchical social structure. As a result, the followers of Confucius came to perceive the dominance of males and the suppression of females as natural (Kinney 152-153). With this in mind, it is possible to state that 17.25 in the Analects may have contributed significantly to the spread and popularity of such views in society. Nevertheless, 8.20 from the Analects can be regarded as a passage that contributed to understanding the role of a woman in the family according to the beliefs of the followers of Confucius. Thus, in the context of Confucian ideology, the essential role of a woman as a mother and a wife is highly accentuated and valued. Women in families can have some limited influence and power, and this aspect is typical of Chinese culture even today.

For hundreds of years, women were viewed as having low-ranking roles in the context of the gender-oppressive reality of traditional Chinese society that was built on the principles of Confucian ideology. The passages by Confucius in the Analects in which women were mentioned were explained in a way that was agreeable to the political authorities of that period. As a result, for many years, traditional Chinese women in the country were educated to serve the needs of men and children according to the principles of the Confucian code (Kinney 154-155). The specific interpretation of Confucian teachings made it possible to exclude women from social and political arenas and to increase the dominance of powerful men.

After Confucianism was adopted as the key religious, philosophical, and ideological teaching to influence the views and beliefs of people in China, there were different interpretations of the words of Confucius regarding women. According to Leong, much attention was paid to developing the principles of Confucian womanhood (95-97). What is interesting in this area is that, in contrast to the message by Confucius in the Analects regarding female beauty and women’s impact on men, females came to be viewed as virtuous in their families. It was critical for the Chinese to create a core concept for the family based on the virtues of women who were entitled to act only in the domestic arena. Hinsch notes that “the universal humanism of Confucianism [recognizes] the possibility of female virtue, allowing women to overcome negative ancient stereotypes of female ignorance and immorality” (qtd. in Leong 98). As a result, Confucians interpreted the teachings emphasizing the importance of women for performing their roles at home in order to provide support for men.

According to the rules for women associated with Confucianism, females are expected to be obedient to their father, husband, and brothers, as well as sons if they are widows. Furthermore, women are expected to be good mothers because of their important reproductive role that was emphasized in Chinese society for many years. Therefore, although limited by their obedience and submission to male members of the family, women were respected as mothers who were able to make their household stronger and give birth to male descendants. The fact that women had to leave their home and family after getting married also influenced their perception in society because families had an interest in their labor (Billioud 769-780). From this perspective, the treatment of women in Chinese society seems quite exploitive and unfair. These roles of women in the family and society were clearly reflected in the teachings spread by Confucians, and they have influenced the treatment of Chinese women over the years.

These interpretations and the image of women as only able to perform housework, educate children, and do related tasks prevented females from obtaining higher positions in Chinese society. Many women wanted to be educated in the same way as men, but they had no opportunities. In addition, women were also interested in contributing to social development and progress. Still, they were deprived of many rights, and the only option they had was participation in cultural life. Qian, Fong, and Smith state, “versions of an ideal Confucian womanhood and the unprecedented need to portray women in terms of their public presence find new forms of expression” in literature (qtd. in Leong 110). Thus, women’s voice in literature became the first step on the path to accentuating the role of Chinese women in society. However, when it came to the concept of the traditional Chinese woman, male representatives of society were not ready to accept such changes in females’ status.

Nevertheless, according to Confucius, women who belonged to the elite of Chinese society could be regarded as having rights almost equal to men. However, these ideas were not emphasized in Confucian writings, and they also seemed to be ignored by the followers of Confucian teachings. However, according to Kang, the idea of regarding elite women differently was supported in Chinese culture, in contrast to the treatment of women from lower social classes (5). Over a long period of time, females were viewed as limited to doing housework and as less valuable than men. As noted by Kang, in the twentieth century, the situation finally changed as the cultural elite in China began to discuss the concept of the “traditional woman” as “a trope, symbolizing the backwardness of Chinese civilization” (5). Thus, the elite started to promote “female education, freedom of love and marriage, and women seeking careers outside the home” (Kang 5). Still, the Confucian teachings and the views of women that had spread throughout society remained influential for a long time, as the situation began to change only in the early part of the twentieth century.

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In discussing how Confucianism affected Chinese people’s views of women’s roles and status, it is also important to note that Confucius did not focus on these issues and questions in his writings. However, his teachings and works, including the Analects, were interpreted in a way to emphasize the inferior status of women compared to men. This interpretation formed an important support to the stability of traditional Chinese society because women were needed for giving birth to male children and for their upbringing. As a result, Confucians spread ideas about women’s specific roles and virtues. These principles allowed men to dominate political and social life while relying on the obedience of women at home. This order based on the principles of Confucianism was accepted in Chinese society for a long period of time, and it has influenced the social status and rights of females.

Works Cited

Billioud, Sébastien. “The Hidden Tradition: Confucianism and Its Metamorphoses in Modern and Contemporary China.” Modern Chinese Religion II: 1850-2015, edited by Jan Kiely, Vincent Goossaert, and John Lagerwey, vol. 1, BRILL, 2016, pp. 767-805.

Confucius. Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Edward Slingerland, Hackett Publishing, 2003.

Kang, Xiaofei. “Women, Gender and Religion in Modern China, 1900s-1950s: An Introduction.” Nan Nü, vol. 19, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-27.

Kinney, Anne Behnke. “Women in the Analects.” A Concise Companion to Confucius, edited by Paul R. Goldin, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, pp. 148-163.

Leong, Eliza S. K. “Lamenting Loss: Transforming Confucian Womanhood in Modern China.” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2016, pp. 95-113.

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