Gender and Sex Roles in Chinese Civilizations

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The structure of the Chinese family
resembled that of families in agricultural
civilizations in accentuating the
importance of unity and the power of
husbands and fathers in the family.
› There was a strong emphasis on obedience
of children to their parents, as well as women
to their husbands. (No friction between the
men in the family and women and children.)
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Shown above is a cartoon stressing
the power or influence mothers had
over their sons.
Women were
subordinate to men.
They had their own
clearly defined roles
and could sometimes
gain power through
their sons.
There was a clear
hierarchical order for
children:
› Boys were superior to
girls.
› The oldest son had
the most fortunate
position of all.
The position of women showed signs of
improvement in the Tang and early Song
periods, but slowly declined in the late Song
era.
 The Confucian idea of male dominance
held control at all class levels.
 The authority of elders and males within the
family was supported by laws that stated:

› beheading as a punishment for children who
struck their parents or grandparents.
› one-half years of hard labor for children who
struck their siblings.
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Women remained subordinate to men.
Unlike the previous eras, women in the upper
classes in urban areas were offered better
opportunities.
› Could exert significant power at the highest levels in
Chinese society.
› Enjoyed access to an extensive range of activities.

Chinese wives had more defenses against
impulsive behavior by their husbands.
› E.g. – Laws prohibiting a husband from setting aside
his wife if her parents were dead or if he had been
poor prior to marriage and then later became rich.
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The neo-Confucians stressed the
woman’s role as homemaker and
mother, especially the bearer of sons
to continue the family line.
They encouraged the confinement of
women and stressed the significance
of virginity for young brides fidelity for
wives, and chastity for widows.
› Widows were discouraged from
remarrying.
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Men excluded women from the
education that would allow them to
join the civil service.
Neo-Confucians designed laws that
favored men in inheritance, divorce,
and familial interaction.
Upper-class men had a preference
for small feet.
Mothers began to bind the feet of their
daughters at the age of 5 or 6.
 Bound feet were a constant source of pain for
the rest of the woman’s life.

› Limited her mobility; only able to walk short
distances. This confined them to their households.
› This means that they could not engage in
occupations.

The lower classes were slow to adopt this
practice on account that they had to work in
the fields, markets, or homes of the wealthy.
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The Ming era continued the subordination of
youths to elders and women to men and
youths to elders.
Women were driven to underground activities
to revolutionize their subordination and expand
their career opportunities.
At the court, they continued to do play vital
roles behind the scenes.
Women had to settle for whatever status and
respect they could win within the family.
Women retained the role as bearer of sons for
the family lineage.
The daughters of the upper- class were taught
to read and write by their parents or brothers.
Similar to previous eras, the lives of
women at all social levels remained
confined to the household.
 Male control was improved by the
practice of choosing brides from families
slightly lower in social status.
 Daughters continued to be less desirable
than sons.
 Males were rather dominant and
outnumbered females in the population.
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Beyond the family complex, the world
belonged to men, with the exception of those
few women that continued to work in the fields
and sell produce in the local markets.
The best a woman could hope for was a strong
aid from her father and brother after she had
gone from her husband’s home and good luck
in the first place for being chosen as a wife,
instead of a second or third partner.
If they bore sons, wives took charge of running
the household.
› In elite families, the women exercised power over
other women and younger men.
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