Should Modern Women Be Educated with Confucian Philosophy?

September 30, 2015
Editor: Kiki Liu

A photo of Confucius []

How exactly women achieve self-fulfillment will depend much on which social paradigm they wish to adopt and on what kind of values or philosophy they choose to believe. But how could any woman in China prefer gender-biased Confucianism and male chauvinism?

Lessons on Confucian values and Chinese women are often made the topic of debate among Chinese scholars and the general public. This time, it was an article publicized by pedantic Chinese mind Jiang Qing that incurred public wrath: In his piece, he focused on applying outdated Confucianism-rooted ideas to modern Chinese women.

Titled "Only Confucian Thoughts Can Fulfill Modern Women," Jiang's article emphasized that the social role of Chinese women is part and parcel of their family status, and that a woman's significance is often determined by her contribution and success as a daughter, housewife and mother.

Feminists felt repugnance to this interpretation of womanhood, as droves of critics came to the fore to take part in the condemnation of Jiang's rhetoric.

Contradictions between Gender-biased Rhetoric and Reality

According to Jiang, women should obey their feminine nature; and their value in life lies in traditional womanhood.

"Being a good daughter, mother and housewife is how a modern woman should act. That is a woman's great significance and social attainment," said Jiang.

In other words, Jiang means that women should withdraw from society and assume a subordinate role as is prescribed by ancient Confucianism — that is, it is unnecessary and meaningless to be a working woman in China. 

In the name of revitalizing traditional Confucianism, Jiang stated that women's value was measured in illiteracy: Women should be taught by a series of systemized and old doctrines and materials, such as "Bible for Girls" and "Biographies of Ancient Women," ignoring the true virtues of independence and self-respect.

Going from bad to worse, Jiang even shared his interpretation that independence — especially economic independence — and schooling were the products of Westernized values that advocated freedom and equality.

Such kinds of remarks may not stand alone in China.

"Women lose their beauty and virtue if they cannot or are reluctant to behave as a considerate housewife or a loving mother. It is of no significance to the matter whether a woman has widely recognized talents or great power," echoed Zhou Guoping, a famous Chinese scholar who has long made disparaging remarks against women.

To make matters worse, most Chinese men are encouraged to prefer the demure and "more feminine" woman to the aggressive and highly educated. In the eyes of such men, women generally should be taught to be quiet, shy and discreet.

Traditional Confucianism points out that a good woman is one who can look after her husband, give him sons and, roughly, "endure bitterness." Furthermore, it is famously said that a good woman is an illiterate one. Disobedience and disrespect to one's father when young and to one's husband when married will always be frowned upon.

However, in reality, China is not the male-centered society that it once was. China, nowadays, is hailed as a model for women in Asia — an achievement that started from Chairman Mao's remarks that women "hold up half the sky."

Confucianism emerged — as its ancient times required — more than 2,000 years ago and determined the superior–inferior relationship between men and women.

After New China was established in 1949, women were permitted to receive higher education and gradually gained equal opportunity in employment. China legitimated gender equality as a national policy at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995.

By the 1970s, Chinese women had made waves of protests along with concerted efforts to alter their place in society — efforts that began in the more-developed and more-progressive coastal areas, eventually spreading inward to inland cities.

In the era of great transformation, the position of contemporary women has changed significantly, where paid labor force proved to be the greatest one. That implies economic independence and self-esteem.

As gender equality becomes formally and commonly accepted across China, female workers are assuming positions and power in various fields, some of which had long been male-dominated, such as engineering and firefighting.

Professor Fu Tanming, a social behavioral analyst based in Beijing, claimed that men feel challenged and threatened by aggressive and well-educated women and want them to withdraw from the forefronts of society.

"Chinese women with a history of suffering tend to be more resilient than men. Gender equality and modern education lay a solid foundation for them to propel forward," explained Fu.

An Ongoing Struggle

Chinese women's-rights advocate Li Sipan, who heads a Guangzhou-based women's news site, indicated that Chinese women face immense pressures in their lives when it comes to marriage and work.

But asking them to evacuate altogether from the workplace doesn't help.

A 2011 survey conducted by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) on women's social identity and status showed that 54.6 percent of women and 61.6 percent of men agreed that men's field is out in the public while women's domain remains within the confines of the kitchen and household chores.

"In China, men's needs are understated, while women's family role is overstated," explained Lyu Pin, a middle-aged feminism activist, who dismissed Jiang and Zhou's emphasis on women's role as a wife and mother.

Chinese lawyer Huang Yizhi appealed that continuous efforts on gender equality would be made with regard to the government, legislation and public awareness. With these efforts, such voices on gender discrimination would fade away over time.

"But, with respect to the 2011 survey, there is still a long way to go to achieve real gender equality," said Huang.

(Source: China Women's News/Translated and edited by Women of China)

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