Women in Chinese History ESSAY

Women in Chinese History:

How women’s social status transformed throughout Chinese

Tsu-Yi Chien

165:215 Intro to Chinese Civilization

Peng Liu

May, 7. 2019

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Throughout history, Chinese society has always been a patriarchal society. In most existing

texts or artworks, we can notice that men play an important role in politics or inventions, while

women are seldom recorded. Since the Zhou dynasty, historical records and books show that

women had lower social status than men. Even until today, women are considered underprivileged

than men, which can be seen in workplaces. However, from many renowned women in Chinese

history, such as Dowager Lu, Empress Wu, Li Qingzhao, and Dowager Cixi, we can tell that women

were able to obtain power. In fact, women were more powerful and had a higher social status in

some periods in Chinese history. In this paper, I would like to briefly introduce women’s social

status throughout Chinese history and compare the transitioning periods — Tang Dynasty and Song

Dynasty — of women’s social status.

Ancient times and the Han Dynasty

While there aren’t many existing arts before the Hand Dynasty, we can understand about

women’s role and daily lives through historical records. China has always had a patriarchal society

throughout history. Since the Spring and Autumn Dynasty, women had a lower status than men

because women couldn’t participate in political activities and only a few women were educated. 1

These phenomenons can be seen in the Confucian Analects, such as in chapter 25, Confucius said

that “of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult to behave to.” In the Han Dynasty, 2

feudal society further restricted women’s behaviors. For , the concept “a woman who lacks

talent is virtuous” was formed, which prohibited women from receiving education. As

Confucianism became the main ideology of the Han Dynasty, women had to follow many

disciplines, such as the three cardinal guides and the five constant virtues. These disciplines were

Ying Zhou. “A Brief Introduction to the Reading History of Ancient Chinese Women by Stages”. 1 Nov, 20, 2013. Accessed Apr, 23, 2019.

James Legge. “Confucian Analects”. 1893. Accessed Apr, 23, 2019. 2

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based on the Confucianism idea “men are yang; women are yin”, and that “yang is superior than

yin”. Due to these limitations, women before the Han Dynasty were tender and obedience. 3

Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty is an important period for the Han women’s transition. It is a time when

women had more freedom in various domains than previous dynasties. Compare to other dynasties,

the Tang society had a very unique aesthetic perspective on women: they believed that plump and

chubby figure represents beauty. Furthermore, they were viewed as more opened and powerful. One

of the most important artworks that represents Tang women is Zhou Fang’s “Court Ladies Adorning

Their Hairs with Flowers”. (Figure 1) In the picture, the women are actually different postures of

one court lady. While Zhou Fang depicts details of court ladies, the artwork also presents two

things: appearance and power. First, the court lady seems to be wearing low-cut dresses with silk

shawls to show their pump figure. Second, the two maids next to the court lady and the peony on

her head represents the court lady’s power. In fact, other historical records and arts also show Tang 4

women’s appearance, openness, and authority.

Ailing, Huang, “Female Psychology”, Dec, 11, 2017, ⾶翔時代, Beijing, China, Accessed May 4, 3 2019.

Xiulan, Huang, Weichao, Zhang, “簪花仕女圖” Zan Hua Shi Nu Tu (Court Ladies Adorning Their 4 Hairs with Flowers), page 91, Sep, 1, 2017, Cosmos Classics, Taipei Taiwan. Accessed May, 4, 2019.

Figure 1. <Court Ladies Adorning Their Hairs with Flowers> by artist Zhou Fang is currently located at Liaoning Provincial Museum

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As the Tang Dynasty is regarded as the “golden age” in Chinese history, Tang citizens were

considered wealthier than other dynasties. Therefore, Tang women are well-known for having

plump and chubby figures. Their plump and chubby figures can be seen from pottery figures in the

Tang Dynasty. In fact, from pottery figures, we can see that Tang wore loose dresses to

emphasize on their plump body figure. The two women pottery figures present the traditional “soft

dance” that was usually danced by Han ethnicities. (Figure 4) From the two pottery figures’ round

faces, we can know that the Han people also viewed chubby as beauty. (Figure 2 & 3) A renowned

example of depicting Tang women’s appearance is Yang Guifei, who is one of the four beauties of

Ancient China. In the poem “Th