Female Consciousness in Chinese History

In the primitive society, women had a high social status because they had the reproduction ability, yet they had approximately the same subsistence productivity as men did. The idea of marriage was not formed yet and  “people know their mothers but not fathers”.

In the Pre-Qin Period, with the emerging of the agriculture and livestock industry, women gradually lost their social status to men who had the advantage in those industries. Patriarchy started to replace matriarchy. Laws and rules stressed the importance of obedience for women and male superiority. Confucianism further restricted women’s right since the Han Dynasty.

By the time of the Tang Dynasty, women’s status relatively improved due to the great prosperity of the society. The royal families at that time were also influenced by their bloodline of minorities which promoted women’s activeness in society in certain ways.

Afterward, women’s status had declined rapidly since the Song Dynasty because of Neo-Confucianism. They further advocated “three obediences and four virtues” for women and women were perceived as the attachment of men. Women’s rights were completely restricted and the appreciation of foot-binding and extreme thinness also emerged around the Song Dynasty.

In Modern China, revolutions for equal rights has taken place and resulted in abolishment of foot binding and the establishment of new laws that protect women’s rights.

Empress Lü Zhi is the first woman who reigned China for several years during the Former Han. Ban Gu revised Sima Qian’s depictions to fit his purpose of rationalization of the problems inherent in the political system. But it is Ban Gu’s version of her story which influenced most later historians and they examined Sima Qian’s Shiji through the lens of Ban Gu which resulted in misinterpretation of Sima Qian’s intention.

Sima Qian accessed Empress Lü in the most positive terms for her political achievement. But Ban Gu attributed those achievements to a dynastic house that consolidated the empire and its people after a long period of war. For Sima Qian, the main feature dominating the life of Empress Lü was fear that herself and her clan might be extinguished, whereas Ban Gu attributed her actions to naked cruelty. Shiji mentioned eight sons of Gaozu who at that time were kings, which outnumbered the people ennobled in the Lü family. Ban Gu, on the other hand, did not include this information and deleted the remark that one of the Empress’s brothers had died for the cause of the Han. Ban Gu alleged that Empress Lü’s efforts to ennoble her own family members as a wrongful usurpation of power.

Empress Wu persuaded Emperor Gaozong to perform a set of sacrifices and herself led a part in the ritual in which women were normally not allowed to participate. Omens and religions were also used to legitimatize Empress We’s reign. She placed emphasis on loyalty to the state over the traditional value of loyalty to the father and son. And she sent a prince as a diplomatic gift instead of a princess. She also expanded the use of civil service examination. Although little information was left about the political and administrative aspects of her rule and much was negative, she was still a strong and adept ruler.

From 1861 to 1908, Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China for nearly half and century. She was a consort of the Emperor Xianfeng, and after the Emperor’s death, she assumed regency. Then her son died so she installed her nephew as the Emperor Guangxu, but she still held the actual power till her death.

There are two contrary views about her ruling, that she extended the life of the Qing Dynasty, or that she is the one to blame for the fall of the Qing Dynasty. But as a matter of fact, the long-term problems embedded in the Qing Dynasty were beyond her control. She was already an effective ruler for balancing internal chaos and foreign challenges, however, Empress Dowager Cixi failed to catch up the opportunity of modernizing China.

  • Although Empress Wu is not consciously a feminist, what she did still elevate female status in a way. Examples for. Showcase female consciousness in actively involving and finding their place in the patriarchal society.

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