The Status of Women is Not an Issue for the Ru (Confucian) Tradition

03/06/2017 09:22 am ET Updated Mar 06, 2017
Ruism can support the full-flourishing of women’s life.
Ruism can support the full-flourishing of women’s life.

The status of women is not an issue for Ruism (Confucianism), at least not more so than for other world traditions, and certainly not more so than for the status of men.

This is because Ruism is intrinsically progressive. Ruism is progressive but not in the sense that it believes the future will always be better than the past. Neither does it assume any final destination for human history toward which all societies ought to progress. Instead, the progressiveness of Ruism consists in teaching people to continually renew themselves through self-cultivation, and accordingly, to adjust the system of social rules and rituals so as to create dynamic harmony within what are always ever-evolving situations.

This implies that none of Ruism’s traditional (many invented) teachings about women need be irrevocable dogma, and more importantly, Ruism is historically long enough and philosophically deep enough to use its own resource to support the full-flourishing of women’s life in today’s social context. So, let’s enumerate some stereotypes about Ruism’s view towards women that Ruism’s critics usually hold to, and then, disprove each of them using Ruism’s own resources.

Stereotype One: Ruism teaches that women are inferior to men in their marital relationships, and thus that there is no idea of gender equality in Ruism.

The Disproof: According to the Zuo-zhuan (the Zuo Commentary of the Annual of Spring and Autumn), in Confucius’ (551-479 BCE) time people used varying titles to refer to the wife of a person which was determined by her husband’s rank of nobility. An emperor’s wife was called hou (empress); a prince’s wife was called fu-ren (madam); a high minister’s wife was called ru-ren (affiliate), and so forth. The wife of a commoner without any noble rank was called qi (wife). Zheng Xuan (127-200 CE), one of the most important commentators on the Ru classics in the Han Dynasty, explained why wives needed to be titled in different ways. About the qi of commoners, he said: “The wife of a commoner is called qi. This is because the status of the wife is even and equal [1] to that of her husband. Because commoners have no noble rank, wife and husband should be equal.” [2] Zheng Xuan’s view was that since high officials in the government were known by their rank, there needed to be titles to refer to their wives for, first, their wives ought to be honored, and second, in this way the husbands’ ranks would be highlighted as well. However, for people with no noble rank, doing this is entirely unnecessary. Following the same rationale, in today’s China, since the ranks of “nobility” mentioned in this Ru text have completely lost their context, people just use qi to refer to any wife.

Stereotype Two: The Ruist conception of an excellent woman is confined within the family, so women cannot flourish in non-domestic contexts.

The Disproof: Ban Zhao (45-116 CE), author of Admonition to Women (Nu-jie), was a well-known Ruist scholar in her time. She helped her brother, Ban Gu, to finish writing the History of The Prior Han (Han-shu), one of the greatest historical works in ancient China. More importantly, because of her great knowledge of Ruism, she was invited by the emperor to teach his royal family. This was the highest official honor that a Ru scholar could receive in traditional China.

Stereotype Three: The cosmology of Ruism is misogynic, since it teaches that there are two fundamental powers in the universe: one is called yang, which is creative and explorative, and the other called yin, whose role is to help yang to create and thus, is always receptive. Thus, woman, as the embodiment of yin power, should always be subservient to man who embodies the yang power. In other words, woman was necessarily yin and man was necessarily yang; accordingly, man must be superior to woman.

The Disproof: According to the same Ruist cosmology, everything is a subtle combination of yin and yang. If the wisdom of a woman exceeds that of a man, she is more yang in this respect, and thus should teach man whatever is better. This is not my own philosophical speculation, but was actually written in the Classic of Filiality for Women (Nu-xiao-jing), an extremely influential book composed by a female Ruist in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) to instruct women in learning and in cultivating their virtues: “Some women asked: Should not ‘wisdom’ be counted as a virtue belonging to woman? The author answered: Human beings imitate heaven and earth. [Every one of us] carries yin and embraces yang. So, every one of us can be smart and wise [, which is a yang virtue]. Learning wisdom and practicing it can only bring benefits, let alone when we do it whole-heartedly.” [3] This quotation is followed by plenty of examples of how wise women in history taught their husbands, children and fellow countrymen about the great things in life.

Stereotype Four: No Ruists fought for women’s rights in ancient China.

The Disproof: There were in fact great Ruist heroes fighting for women’s rights. One example is Li Zhi (1527-1602 CE) who relied upon Wang Yang-ming’s (1472-1529 CE) teaching that “everyone has his or her authentic conscience” to fight for women’s right to learn, to re-discover and to express their authentic consciences. He wrote several works in this regard, and even accepted female students in his local Ruist academy. It is, however, true that partly because of these efforts in elevating woman’s status, Li Zhi was thought to be a heretic by other less progressive literati in the imperial court, and ultimately committed suicide in order to avoid political persecution.

Based upon these disproofs of these various stereotypes concerning Ruism’s view of woman, contemporary Ruists can have great confidence in easily pointing out Ruism’s progressive teachings about woman even in its traditional forms, and thus, to continue the same fight as traditional Ruists once did.

[1] The Chinese character qi, 妻 (wife), has a similar pronunciation as qi, 齊, which means ‘evenness’ or ‘equality.’ Zheng Xun uses the latter to interpret the former according to their phonetic connection.

[2] 陈鵬,中國婚姻史稿,北京:中華書局,1990: 526.

[3] 唐 鄭氏, 女孝經,賢明章第九.

Editor: David Schiller

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS