Painting: Chinese girl (1952) by Vladimir Tretchikoff. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The hijab, a headdress traditionally worn by Muslim women outside the home, became less popular during the 1930s as education and advancements in the Arab world encouraged women to adopt Western fashion and life-style. In his study on the vanishing veil, historian Albert Hourani (1955) notes how gradual changes to the status of women was an essential step to the advancement of Muslim societies, and was not contrary to Islamic principles. But, by the 1980s, predictions that the veiling custom would end were challenged. Religious conservatism became more prevalent after the 1979 Iranian revolution and Muslim women in both Arab countries and the West disputed the idea that the veil was a symbol of oppression. Freedom of choice and tradition were some of the reasons why many women chose to continue the veiling practice.
All the while, during this same period, Korean women got rid of the traditional headdress (nae-oe seugae) that women had to wear whenever they stepped out of the house. Although institutionalised and made compulsory for modesty and propriety, the headdress completely vanished in historical and cultural memory as it is not even found in Korean historical dramas set in the Chosŏn era (Cho, 2017). This particular style of clothing was unique to Korea and could not be found in other Asian countries that were also influenced by Confucianism. However, Korea’s understanding of Confucian values was significant as to why the headdresses were worn. For example, the name of the headdress, nae-oe seugae, where ‘nae’ (inner) and ‘oe’ (outer), are Confucian terms that mean there should be a clear distinction between the inner, domestic sphere of women and the outer, public sphere of men (Deuchler, 1992). ‘Seugae’ is a Korean word meaning veil.
The headdress was worn in accordance with Confucian teachings. The Confucian emphasis on proper relationships and social order meant that men and women were expected to act in their correct roles in society, where women should be proper and obedient to their fathers, husbands, and sons throughout their lives. Because of the hierarchical relationship between men and women, a woman’s major life decisions, such as choosing a partner, was made by the father or family patriarch. As a result, a woman’s value was not based on her skills, knowledge, or creativity, but on the extent that she was seen to take care of her family and follow her husband/father/son’s instructions.
Cho (2017) notes that during the Chosŏn dynasty, justifying social practices through Confucianism occurred as legislators saw Confucianism as ethically superior to the previous philosophical tradition of Buddhism. Proper father-son, ruler-peasant, and husband-wife relationships were of utmost importance in promoting this new value system. Restrictive dress codes were part of the practice of limiting women’s opportunities to engage in the public sphere, leading to an ideal Confucian society of harmony through order. While the argument that Confucianism is inherently sexist is difficult to put forward as these practices of limiting opportunities and rights to women can also be found in non-Confucian societies and many different historical time periods, before Confucianism became the official religion in Korea, women’s social and economic status were not that different from men’s. Women could inherit property and were part of ancestor worship rituals. Women were allowed to pursue their desired crafts and be part of civil service. The adoption of the Confucian hierarchy and separation of men and women changed all this and helped establish male political and institutional power.
The influence of Confucianism in other societies also restricted women’s rights. During the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties, foot-binding was a socio-cultural practice that has links to the Confucian doctrine. This is disputed by some scholars who argue that foot-binding violates Confucius’ teaching of filial piety and ‘not injuring the hair and skin of the body received from one’s parents’ (de Bary & Cohen, 1999). However, many women were encouraged and willing to engage in this practice to be able to participate and be valued in a neo-Confucianist society (Blake, 1994). The crippling of women’s feet is carried out by Mothers who, by a girl’s fifth birthday, bends her daughter’s toes under the sole of the foot before the foot is broken and bound by bandages that stop circulation. The operation lasts at least 10 years and once the foot stabilises in this bound position, a woman’s deformed feet are ‘eroticized’ (Kristeva, 1986). This means that women gain value, respect, and recognition as a bound foot symbolises capacity to suffer and obey. Here, crippled feet allow women to enter the ‘phallic order’ (see Grosz, 1989) as those from the upper classes can gain access to political and social expression.
Patriarchal and sexist customs were otherwise seen in Chinese society. In fact, Mou (2016) points out that without gaining an understanding of Chinese patriarchy, it would be difficult to grasp Chinese culture and spirit. At the core of Chinese patriarchal practices (as well as Confucianism) was the worship of deities and ancestors. By holding the family name, the father gains authority as he represents and carries forward the lineage which his children call the family ancestors. The son-father relationship is of great value as the son sees the father as a potential ancestor, and knows that he will one day be the potential authority figure in the family by taking over his father’s position.
The ‘rite of bonding’, where father and son take part in daily rituals, is important in this respect. French philosopher Julie Kristeva (1986) notes in the book chapter ‘Confucius— an eater of women’, the rite and rituals of father-son bonding occur once the baby is thought to acquire a soul (hun, 魂). This is not believed to come from the mother, but three months after birth, becomes apparent when the baby laughs. Like an initiation rite, for the first time when the hun is noticed, the son is presented to the father in a ritual ceremony. Later in life, once the son becomes an educated and married man who manages the family affairs,the father extends his respect to the son before the cycle starts all over again. Despite the distance and lack of intimacy or care between father and son, obedience and respect are continually due to the father even when the son takes over his role. The Analects reinforces this when it says that only the son who mourns and follows his father’s conduct for three years after the father’s death may be called filial (see passages 1.11 and 4.20, for example). The father’s symbolic authority is continually recognised before it is completely passed onto the son after these three years pass. A well-known Chinese proverb emphasises this last stage of the rite of bonding when it says that whereas animals know their mother and not their father, and peasants say mother and father are the same, it is the noblemen in the city that honour their dead fathers. The civilised man must know his role.
While daughters in the family are not required to take on difficult tasks and are excluded from these ritual practices, their exclusion symbolises complete disregard in a system that is based around revering potential (male) ancestors. Confucius considered women to be the in the same category as slaves and xiaoren (morally inferior people). As the Analects passage 17.25 notes, “The Master said, Women and xiaoren are difficult to nurture. If you get too close to them, they become uncompliant, and if you stay too distant, they become resentful.” Women are made to be child-like, in need of nurturing, and irrational. The passage provides insight into the oppression of women during Confucius’s time; it also forms and reinforces the patriarchal and sexist system that continues to influence Chinese social custom even to this day. Women are at best thought of as ‘humans for the inside’, destined to housework and reproduction. Unlike reading and writing, it is these bodily and maternal functions that give women status and function to create harmony and peace in society. Yang Chen, a Confucian from the Han Dynasty, is quoted to have said:
If women are given work that requires contact with the outside, they will sow disorder and confusion throughout the Empire. Shame and injury will come to the Imperial court, and the Sun and Moon will wither away. The Book of Documents warns us against the hen who announces the dawn in place of the rooster; the Book of Odes denounces a clever woman who overthrows a State…Women must not be allowed to participate in the affairs of the government. (cited in Kristeva, 1986, p. 76).
Similar to many other patriarchal cultures, women are seen as potential spoilers of man’s orderly world. Confucian values like filial piety, obedience, roles, and rites are all means of control that prevent women from challenging or breaking away from this restrictive system. Confucianism necessarily keeps a woman in her place. An outcome of Confucian thought that should also be mentioned is the worsening of women-women relations. Because women who conform and participate in the system have greater power and more access to privilege, there is an inherent tension between mothers, wives, and daughters. Women who bear sons are valued more than those who only bear daughters and have more power and voice through their sons. The daughter-in-law fears above all else the authority and discipline of her mother-in-law as both women are in constant battle for the affection of the husband and education of the children (Kristeva, 1986). Anthropologist Ilsa Glazer (1992) further points out that there is an ongoing conflict between mothers and adopted daughters. Because it was in the mother’s interest to get the maximum work out of her adopted daughter, beatings were common. In fact, “slaves were safe targets for women who vented on them the aggression they dared not express in other relationships” (p. 168). As a result of Confucian and earlier Chinese patriarchal value systems, women became potential oppressors to other women. Punishment and slander became a means of survival in a world where the father and son occupied central positions of power and choice.
Confucianism fails to escape the social norms of its time. It internalised and propagated these social values and became known for its strict separation of women and men in public and private spheres. While some scholars seek to provide a feminist perspective of Confucian thought – for instance, the book Confucianism and Women argues that Confucianism can provide an ethic of gender parity if it is taken out of its historical context – Confucianism cannot easily be taken out of its historical context. No system of thought is value free and exists outside of time and space. Though Confucian passages and texts can be reinterpreted to suit current times and needs, changing and adding new meaning to a text to serve the current period, there is a danger that such a practice can be adopted by those with vested interests or extremist ideologies do to justify their own end goals. Confucian thought can be taken as it is – that is, in the form it has come down to the present time – and its historical views and perspectives can be challenged and discussed. Indeed, Neo-Confucianism (around AD 1000) emerged through such a process, and in response to the more female-friendly spiritual philosophies of Daoism and Buddhism. By the 20th Century, New Confucianism emerged through its engagement with Western philosophy. These, however, are distinguished from the Confucian thought – based on the Analects – that is associated with Confucius’ own historical time.
This video shows a talk held by the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University in 2010. Featuring Tu Weiming, Harvard-Yenching Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy and of Confucian Studies at Harvard University, and Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, the subject of discussion is Confucian-Islamic cooperation in a globalising world.
Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
The meaning of the word ‘humanism’ refers to the significance of human beings in society. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1949) stated, humanism “not only states the question of the human person but also that of society…of the relations between men” (p. 23). Thus, Humanism is about the development of the individual, and about maintaining good relations between people. The emphasis on society is shown in educational thought. For instance, in nineteenth century Germany, teachers of Greek and Latin were called umanista as they taught studia humanitatis or humanistic studies, including literature and history (Kristeller, 1955). Humanities faculties in today’s universities have kept this namesake as most areas of study in these fields are concerned with human nature, behaviour, and action. Subjects like philosophy and politics, for example, reflect on the meaning of humanity and the potential for human beings to achieve dignity, freedom, and significance (Manzo, 1997). However, while these traditions in the West are well-explored in the literature, Eastern philosophies such as Daoism and Sufism are often thought to focus on the supernatural and mystical. This article examines rational humanism from an Eastern perspective by focusing on Islamic and Confucian thought.
The humanist tradition of prioritising the human being’s existence, duties, and potentials is found throughout classical Islam (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). For instance, human beings are thought to be filled with God-consciousness, living to fulfil the task of serving God in their lifetimes. The Qur’an says that God “(is) the One Who (has) made you successors (of) the earth and raised some of you above others (in) ranks, so that He may test you in what He has given you.” (Surah Al-An’am, 6:165). A human’s task is to serve God and take responsibility for their reason. So even though humans are not the absolute rulers of the world, as agents of God, they are responsible for establishing good relations with God, other humans, and the earth. This involves setting up societies based on human values of freedom, peace, and tolerance.
Tan and Ibrahim (2017) also point out that Islam’s ideology of humanism gives people the hope of achieving moral perfection when guided by religion. However, the religious aspect of this statement should not be overemphasised. Although God plays a central role in Islam, the way to God and moral perfection involves cultivating human skills, including reason, empathy for others, and knowledge. Adab is an important Islamic concept here. Abi-Mershed (2009) states that adab originally meant rules of conduct in social and political relationships, but later by the eighth and eleventh century referred to ethical ways of learning and engaging in the world. Through adab, humans can achieve self-actualisation, develop peace in the world, and be closer to the moral perfection of God.
In the Confucian tradition, human relationships and right education are central to harmony and order. As the Analects states, Confucius’s son, Boyu (伯魚), said that his father taught no secret doctrine. He only asked if his son had learnt poetry and the rites (16.13). In that case, learning poetry, music, and rites among a community of friends are important rituals for attaining humanity. Throughout the Analects, it describes how Confucius tried to apply the right pronunciation to the reading of poetry, and order sections of songs in the right order (Analects, sections 7 and 9, for example). Like Islam, the potential to develop moral perfection comes from organising society according to the correct principles, and developing human character through knowledge.
The spiritual side of Confucianism is debated. For instance, some scholars note that central to Confucianism is the concept of tian or Heaven. In the Analects 7.23, Confucius states that Heaven is the author of his virtue, and only Heaven understands him (14.35). Tu Wei-ming (2001) even introduced the idea of an ‘anthropocosmic’ system to describe a worldview where the human relationship to the world is one where tian is in perfect harmony with ren (persons), forming the greater triad of tian–ren-earth relations. By existing in such a system, human beings are able to achieve moral goodness through the practice of “praiseworthy behaviours, thoughts, and actions of sage-kings” (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017, p. 5). In other words, attaining harmony with tian and human beings is an ongoing and dynamic process where culturally, socially, and cosmically, human beings can be transformed.
On the other hand, while this cosmological aspect of Confucian humanism is discussed, Kato (2016) states that Confucius avoided discussing themes such as human nature and tian in detail. Confucius’s original vision was in the practical and present, while later Confucian scholars extended his doctrines to the metaphysical and spiritual. What this means is that the original Confucian teachings can be understood in ideas about teaching and learning or for Confucius, the here and now.
Western humanism developed from the practice of rhetoric of speech in ancient Athens. In a similar way, Confucianism uses li or private and public ritual to develop social harmony and self-cultivation. Li can be thought of as a system of language and body that communicates with others. Rituals express complex emotions towards ancestors, parents, colleagues, etc., that, accompanied by sincere feelings and intentions, send messages that words alone are unable to express. For example, taking part in tea and coffee ceremonies in Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, and Serbian cultures, sends messages of respect, hospitality, and willingness to take part in social engagement.
Teaching ritual practices is a key part of Confucian education, and it places humanist values of social relationships and human capabilities at its centre. Rather than attain moral perfection through divine intervention or luck, human actions through li are what leads to learning. The Great Learning uses the analogy of “carving and grinding” when discussing moral cultivation (section 3). In general, learning is about repeating, internalising, and applying knowledge. In moral cultivation, a similar process takes place, where self-reflection, correction, and interaction with the teacher places ritual and learning within a communitarian framework (Tu, 1985; Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). With a sincere heart-mind, one can begin to understand what is to be learnt by expressing themselves with the right words. This contrasts ideas about learning that are passive and require constant repetition and remembering. Learning in Confucianism involves investigating things, imagination, and rationality. The Great Learning highlights that students, “encountering anything at all in the world…must build on what they already know of principle and probe still deeper, until they reach its limit” (cited in Gardner, 2007, p. 7-8). The student is required to dedicate themselves to questioning, problem-solving, and in Confucius’s case, learning from the old: to “review what is old as to know what is new” (Doctrine of the Mean, section 27).
Aside from the Islamic emphasis on God-consciousness, Confucianism and classical Islam both situate human beings as central agents that are required to perform moral duties in their lives. Perfection is possible if humans take part in moral education that encourages people to use their faculties of reasoning to achieve adab and li, which involves self-actualisation and building dynamic relationships with others. Such principles are increasingly relevant in the West as higher education learning and teaching becomes commercialised through vocational workplace training.
In this audio clip, The Philosopher’s Zone podcast interviews professor in philosophy Roger Ames on his thoughts on Confucian role ethics. Ames discusses the Western idea of individualism versus the Chinese relationally-constituted self, and what it means to be a person today.
Submit your comments, thoughts, and suggestions in the tab below.
Book Extract- The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能
Since its founding in 1949, China has developed from an extremely poor country into a global power. After developing its industrial system under Chairman Mao, China opened up to the global economy and became the world’s second largest economy, maintaining a double-digit growth rate for over 30 years. To do this without engaging in war and maintaining stable domestic conditions has been unprecedented in modern history. For other countries, China represents an alternative path to development that involves applying development models that match different histories, cultures, and national and regional conditions.
In 2012, President Xi promoted the ‘Chinese Dream’ as a vision for China’s development over the next decades. Through a top-down political campaign, the Dream has been a main theme in the majority of Xi’s public speeches and in Chinese media and scholarly publications. In 2014, for example, 8,249 articles with “China dream” (zhongguo meng, 中国梦) in the title had been published within China according to the CNKI China academic journals database (Callahan, 2014). By 2017, this number has increased to 53,679 articles.
The concept of the Dream is based on China’s historical experience and the desire for rejuvenation following the Century of Humiliation (bainian guochi, 百年国耻) and colonialization by Western powers. Chinese people have been presented with many ideas describing collective aspirations for national independence, common prosperity, and the recovery of the Chinese nation from feudal backwardness. The Dream combines all of these past slogans, including ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious society’, by emphasising sustainable development, common prosperity, and independence from foreign domination through a system of socialism with Chinese characteristics guided by the Communist Party of China.
The following is an extract from Maya X. Guo’s book The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能. In it, Guo interviews a number of Chinese academics on topics around China’s development, including the prospect for democracy, the future of socialism in Chinese modernisation, and Chinese maritime strategy. In the section titled Century-old Quest for Renewal: The CPC’s Evolving Narrative and Historical Mission, Guo interviews Professor Cao Jinqing from East China University of Science and Technology. The following views and opinions expressed in this extract are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin.
Maya: In his first speech after being elected China’s president on March 17, 2013, Xi Jinping gave a detailed account of the Chinese Dream, a dream of the great renewal of the nation. How do you understand this concept in the context of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) narrative?
Cao Jinqing: By proposing this concept, the CPC has revisited the narrative of the century-old pursuit of national independence and modernisation. The Chinese Dream means the completion of a modernately prosperous society in all respects when the CPC celebrates its centenary, and turning China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) marks its centenary. The Two Centenary goals are based on a historical narrative different from the CPC’s conventional narrative. The new narrative appeals to all those who remain committed to the quest for national renewal, including Chinese people on the mainland and in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as well as overseas Chinese.
Maya: How is it different from the previous narrative? How did the previous narrative justify the CPC’s ruling status?
Cao Jinqing: The previous narrative was a Marxist-Leninist narrative. It was also a conventional narrative of the CPC. The CPC’s vision of Chinese history provides an important ideological perspective from which to explain the legitimacy of its political power. The publication of Chairman Mao Zedong’s article “On New Democracy” in 1940 marked the establishment of the Party’s conventional vision. The article answered questions about China’s past, present and future in Marxist terms: China had evolved through the stages of a primitive society, a slave society and a feudal society like other countries. Had it not been for the invasion of imperialist powers, China would have gone on to evolve into a capitalist society. The Opium War (1840-42) interrupted its routine course of development and reduced the country to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The exploitation of imperialism and feudalism was the root cause of China’s poverty and decline. Under those circumstances, fighting against imperialism and feudalism was the top priority of the Chinese nation. Going forward, China would experience in turn a new-democratic society, a socialist society and finally a communist society.
The theory redefined the history of the Chinese nation, giving rise to a comprehensive new vision of history. This vision, which applied the philosophy of Marxist materialist history to China, was one of the most important reasons for the success of the CPC. As it satisfied their spiritual needs, it attracted numerous disillusioned and hopeless intellectuals to Yan’an, the onetime headquarters of the CPC, making the small town along the Yellow River a gathering place of China’s top talents. One of the prime reasons why the CPC defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in the civil war was that the former seized the ideological high ground. It did so precisely by establishing a new vision of history. In keeping with this vision, Mao led the Chinese nation in advancing socialism. He exercised political power confidently because he believed he was on the side of truth.
Maya: Why is a vision of history so important? How could it make such a big impact on Chinese intellectuals?
Cao Jinqing: That’s because China is a nation imbued with a strong historical awareness. China does not have a Western-style religion or philosophy. The role of history in China is equivalent to those of history, philosophy and religious beliefs combined in the West. History maintains the cultural identity of the Chinese nation. Qing Dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng (1738-1801) made a good point when he said, “All the six classics come down to history.”
History lays the foundation of the Chinese culture. When China was a traditional agrarian society, the Chinese lived in clans. Each clan had its history, which helped it evolve by building upon past achievements. While ordinary people were attached to their clans, officials cared about their fiefdoms and the entire kingdom, which also had a history. The Chinese have long been aware of the value of visions of history. The classic works Spring and Autumn Annals and Records of the Grand Historian enabled us to identity with out common ancestor Huangdi and our common history. Visions of history are the center of the Chinese culture. At a minimum, they represent the shared cultural identity of the Han ethnic group.
After the Opium War, which marked the beginning of the modern era in China, Chinese intellectuals focused on reshaping China’s vision of history as they learned from the West to promote the country’s economic, political and cultural transition. Creating a new vision of history was considered a pivotal task for those who aspired to state power. The trailblazer in this field was Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a political thinker and reformer who accepted the Western evolutionist philosophy of history. After the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal political movement from 1919, a group of radical intellectuals turned to Marxist-Leninism. I think the most powerful past of this theory is its vision of history, with which the CPC reconstructed China’s history based on the historical stages of the West.
Regressive history and cyclical history are two traditional Chinese visions of history. The theory of cyclical history, coupled with the Mandate of Heaven, justifies the replacement of an old dynasty by a new one and the rule of a new emperor. The CPC modified this traditional narrative and repackaged it in Marxist language. But the underlying idea remained the same: Those who gain popular support will gain state power; those who lose popular support will lose state power. The CPC’s revolutionary narrative is consistent with the Confucian view of revolution: The Party, which represented the will of the people, overthrew a regime that had lost the Mandate of Heaven…In the CPC’s narrative the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was replaced by “rules of historical development.”
The Chinese Dream has returned to the narrative of the 100-year pursuit of national independence and modernisation, a process in which the Chinese strived to save China from being conquered, bring prosperity to the nation, and catch up with Western powers.
For the latest updates on the Chinese Dream, see Xinhua’s (2016) Chinese Dream webpage.