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.