Friday, August 6, 2010

Chinese Women, Confucian Yin-Yang Theory, and Living out Virtue through the Female Body

One nice thing about writing this blog while I am researching and writing my MA thesis is that things from the blog help me understand my writing, and theory for my thesis helps me understand my life as a Chinese daughter-in-law. Last post I mentioned that many of my female Chinese friends as well as female relatives in the Liu and Chu families were expected to do with less physically than the men and children. They got the worst food, they typically did not get medical care until after their children were grown, and they were expected to work from before dawn to after dark doing all the housework AND earning money to help the family.

I recently finished a chapter in my thesis that was a survey of the different Chinese concepts of what constitutes an ideal woman. After writing my last post, I did one more check of previous scholarship to be sure that I had not missed any key points. Well, lo and behold, that insight into my family life helped me catch a major theoretical point that is perhaps not readily realized by Westerners. I found it very interesting, so I thought I would share it here.

Some people may be surprised to see that there is a Confucian Yin-Yang theory as most people see yin and yang as being part of Daoism. It is true; the earliest discussions of yin and yang were in the texts and shamanistic religious traditions that eventually morphed into Daoism. In that tradition, yin and yang are complementary forces that always rotate in a cycle to keep the natural world alive and moving. Yang is bright, strong, outward, and moving. The character literally means the sunny side of a hill. Yin is dark, weak, inward, and still. The character for yin means the shady side of a hill. Yang is fiery and related to qi or spirit; yin is damp and related to blood or physical matter. All things are seen as having a yang aspect and a yin aspect. In relational pairs, one thing will be yang in the relationship while the other will be yin. But the person or thing that is yin in one relationship can also be yang in a different relationship. Thus, in Daoism and in Chinese medicine, women are powerful. They are connected to the earth and water; they represent fertility and life blood. The earliest Daoist goddesses actually hold the power of life and death. They are related to the early matriarchal social structure that I mentioned in earlier posts on this blog and that is described in Julia Kristeva’s book About Chinese Women.

The yin-yang cycle was not strictly Daoist at the outset. It was more the framework for the earliest Chinese science and philosophy. This is how it is used, even today, in Chinese medicine. Therefore, it was not until the first century BCE, in the middle of the Han Dynasty, that yin-yang theory was worked into both Daoism and Confucianism. By this time, Confucius was long dead. His philosophy was one of relational ethics. He did not say much about cosmology; he was interested in what rituals and forms of conduct would make all people in society civilized so that life would be good for the greatest number of people. He lived in a time of civil unrest and war at the end of the Zhou Dynasty (1027-221 BCE). He was mainly concerned with how to cause society to be at peace so that everyone could prosper. His teachings are principally about how to use the rituals and etiquette from the earliest Zhou dynasty court rule books to maintain order in society. He also advocated education as a means of promoting social order and prosperity.

Confucius described three foundational relationships for society: ruler—subject, father—son, and husband—wife. His teachings were based on the ancient classics such as the Book of Odes and the Book of Rites. Some of the rituals in the Book of Rites probably came from the Shang dynasty (1700-1027 BCE, think oracle bones) to the Zhou, and they represent part of China’s most ancient customs. In the early days, China developed an idea that inside China people were civilized because they were agrarian and worshipped their ancestors at family tombs near which they lived. The nomads roaming on the plains outside China were barbarians. The rituals related to ancestor worship were crucial to the practice of Chinese civilization. Chinese have always been pragmatic; their concept is more about doing than about being, and this is where they differ most from the West. Their ethics are worked out practically through the rituals related to their relationships.

In early Chinese antiquity, the ancients developed a gendered division of labor. Men worked in agriculture, and women worked in sericulture. Both occupations were considered crucial to the survival of society, and men and women participated equally in the worship of the ancestors with the products of their labor. During the transition time from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal society, there was a time when China had a dual-lineage society for ancestor worship. But by the time of Confucius, family blood-lines for ancestor worship were patriarchal. Women still engaged in sericulture, but their labor was done for the husband’s family. Thus, Confucius and his students, like Mencius, taught that for women the practice of civilization was a matter of obedience. Women had three major roles in their lives. First, they were daughters who needed to obey their fathers. Then they were wives, who needed to submit to their husbands. Finally, they were mothers, who needed to follow their grown sons. Fathers, husbands, and sons had responsibilities to care for and nurture their daughters, wives, and mothers. At the time of Confucius, women were still considered more complementary than inferior to men in the practice of Chinese civilization that was supposed to benefit the entire world when carried out properly.

In the first century BCE, Neo-Confucian scholars married yin-yang theory to this Confucian idea of obedience. The primary scholar to change Confucianism was called Dong Zhongshu. Dong Zhongshu moved women from their complementary position to an inferior position. He said that although yin and yang were complementary, because yin was dark and passive and weak, it was always inferior to yang. He even went so far as to say that the yin component of any relationship could not have any accomplishment in and of itself. Thus, if a woman had a success, it was solely because of and for the sake of her father or her husband or her son. Prior to Dong Zhongshu, women were not associated with yin, but afterwards, they were seen as belonging to the earth, belonging to the lower physical realm, belonging to dirty blood, belonging to the darkness, and being far inferior to men.

Over the centuries, each wave of Neo-Confucianism seems to have pushed women further and further down beneath men. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), China implemented a civil service examination system, and the ideal for men changed. Prior to the Tang, an ideal man was adept at warfare and strong enough to till the fields. After the civil service exam became the way for any male in China to obtain an official post, the ideal man was literate and a good writer. Men proved their worth intellectually and spiritually by writing prose and poetry, composing and playing music, painting, excelling at chess, and showing prowess in other mental feats. Such talents fit in with the spiritual side of yang. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) women began binding their feet as a way of proving their feminine yin virtue. Since men were excelling spiritually, women had to excel physically, not by being strong (because yin is weak), but by showing their ability and self-discipline in enduring pain. The earliest forms of foot-binding did not break the bones as thoroughly as later forms in the Ming and Qing dynasties, but they were still painful. But these two lines of gendered excellence continued to develop until the late imperial era in the 16th through 19th centuries. In this period, men were expected to express literary talent as a manifestation of their yang spirit. Women were expected to express their virtue as a manifestation of yin by enduring physical hardship through foot-binding, child-bearing, service to family, suicide in the face of rape, and not remarrying as widows. Although foot-binding has been abolished, the other expectations live on among many Chinese families.

Girls are taught from a very young age that they must endure physical deprivations. Women play one-upmanship with stories of how much pain they have borne or how many physical hardships they have suffered. Anthropologists interviewing some of the few remaining women with bound feet learned that these women took pride that their ability to endure pain was proven by their “tiny lotuses.” Many Chinese women today have a similar mindset concerning the trials they bear for the sake of their families. The ability to endure all pain and bravely soldier on is the highest form of virtue for these women. Ideas and expressions of the spirit belong to the realm of men; physical pain and material tribulations are the milieu of virtuous Chinese women.


Cloudia said...

I gotta read this rich piece of scholarship again!


Aloha from Waikiki :)

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Teresa said...

Wow! Sorry for staying in thesis mode. I thought I had lightened things up a lot, but I guess not.

Glad you found this interesting.


Barrie said...

Very interesting. And a little scary. We are so much a product of our culture. And not all cultures treat us fairly.

Teresa said...

I was speaking about this with a friend whose mother is Iranian. She said that she had noticed similarities between the Chinese and Iranian cultures, and when I mentioned the competition among women in enduring pain, she got quite excited at finding yet another point of cultural convergence. So apparently such thoughts have a certain universality.

It is very easy to get sucked into competing about your ability to endure pain, especially in the Chinese culture where it is tied to womanly virtue. I have to confess that I really got into the competition for many years, to the detriment of my health. I am very good at enduring pain, even when I shouldn't, and I won a lot of praise for it among my Chinese friends and relatives.

Once women buy into a negative cultural habit, they perpetrate things on themselves, and it becomes even harder to change attitudes. Foot-binding was done by mothers, grandmothers and aunts to girls when they reached the age of 5 to 9 depending on the region.

Mao spent decades trying to change things for women in China, but now with the Reform Era and the easing of Maoist controls, even urban women are reverting back to their old habits and attitudes. And of course, in many rural places, the old ways never died.