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Gender roles in traditional Chinese society

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Gender roles in traditional Chinese society
Two ladies of imperial Chinese court
Gender Inequality Index
Value0.213 (2012)
Maternal mortality (per 100,000)37 (2010)
Women in parliament24.2% (2013)[1]
Females over 25 with secondary education54.8% (2010)
Women in labour force67.7% (2011)
Global Gender Gap Index[2]
Value0.6908 (2013)
Rank69th out of 149

Gender roles in traditional Chinese society consist of male superiority and female inferiority, which has been established for more than two thousand years.[3] At the beginning, this formation experienced a process of evolution from the no gender difference to the gender difference to male superiority and female inferiority.[4] This differentiation of gender roles in the early days of Chinese society has had a significant impact on China's feudal history of more than two thousand years and even today. With the passage of the times, the expression and connotation of this social gender differentiation has been continuously deepened or changed.

Gender roles in traditional Chinese society[edit]

Prehistoric China (c. 8500-c. 2070 BCE)[edit]

The ancestors of the Chinese nation established a highly developed matriarchal clan society in the prehistoric China.[3] Due to lack of understanding of the birth process and early human group marriage customs, the role of men in the reproductive process has long been ignored.[5] Therefore, in ancient China, the earliest reproductive worship was mostly relevant to women, and it was also one of the direct evidences for judging the matriarchal clan society.[5] As the role of men in reproduction is gradually appeared, male and patriarchal rights are beginning to be taken seriously, and eventually the matriarchal society collapses, and the patriarchy take place of matriarchy.[3]

Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (c. 2852 and c. 2070 BCE)[edit]

During the period of the Three sovereigns and Five Emperors, social development entered a period of transition from the matriarchal to the paternal clan commune.[6] People's gender consciousness was gradually changed from knowing their mother but not knowing their father to the period of knowing mother'and knowing father.[3] And at the five emperors stage the patriarchal status of was improved effectively, and men became the masters of society.[3] And formed the initial men and women are different. At this time, the gender division of roles between men and women has become clearer. Men are responsible for production activities, while women are responsible for reproductive functions.[6] Social roles of men are more comprehensive than women’s role. By contrast, women’s social role activities are limited to a narrow range of daughters, wives and mothers.[6]

History of China
History of China
Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BCE
Xia c. 2070 – c. 1600 BCE
Shang c. 1600 – c. 1046 BCE
Zhou c. 1046 – 256 BCE
 Western Zhou
 Eastern Zhou
   Spring and Autumn
   Warring States
Qin 221–206 BCE
Han 202 BCE – 220 CE
  Western Han
  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei, Shu and Wu
Jin 265–420
  Western Jin
  Eastern Jin Sixteen Kingdoms
Northern and Southern dynasties
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
  (Second Zhou 690–705)
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms

Liao 907–1125
Song 960–1279
  Northern Song Western Xia
  Southern Song Jin
Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1636–1912
Republic of China 1912–1949
People's Republic of China 1949–present

Pre-Qin Period (c. 2070-c. 256 BCE)[edit]

The formation of Chinese traditional gender was generated in the pre-Qin period (also known as Ancient China).[3] During this period, the gender of Chinese society changed from no difference between men and women to difference between men and women and from no difference between husband and wife to difference between husband and wife, which influenced the feudal society of China for more than 2000 years.

Xia Dynasty (c. 2070-c. 1600 BCE)[edit]

The role of men in the Xia dynasty is more dynamic and diverse than other periods.[7]This is because the role of men in the Xia dynasty involves the political and military aspects of social management, production and life.[7] The female role in Xia dynasty is relatively smaller than the role of men. Though, a group of women who maintain a close relationship between the male politicians can involve some political matters, it cannot deny the truth of inferior of women in Xia Dynasty.[8] Due to the Yin Ge Xia Ming (殷革夏命), the gender in the pre-Shang period has both inheritance and unique elements to the Xia Dynasty. There was a clear male lineage transmission in the pre-Shang era, which indicates that men had a dominant position in the family and social groups.[8] The role of women, as male assistants or representatives are often involved in both political and economic and military activities.[9] This is clearly reflected in the tomb burial regulations and funerary objects.[10]

Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-c. 1046 BCE)[edit]

Although the Shang Dynasty has the word Fu (夫), it does not have the meaning of husband.[11][12] In other words, the Shang Dynasty has not yet expressed the common name of husband.[11][12] Fu(夫)only represents the specific titles of men's various social roles.[11][12]At this time, men might act as husbands. In fact, they didn't realize that they had to clearly distinguish their sphere of influence with their wife in their marriage, and at this time the idea of ​​male superiority and female inferiority has emerged.[13]

Zhou Dynasty to the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 1046- c. 476 BCE)[edit]

In the Zhou dynasty, and the Spring and Autumn Period, the gender roles of men and women did not change greatly, but a clear gender system and rules were formed, which is gender difference and couple difference.[14] At this time, in terms of treatment and education of men and women, it has been obvious that men and women are entirely different.[15] In The Book of Songs, it is said:

If there is birth of a boy, he will sleep on a bed, wear clothes, and play with jade. He must have a good future and a distinguished status. He is at least a member of the royal family, and perhaps he can become an emperor. If there is a birth of a girl, she will sleep on the ground, wear swaddling clothes, and play with Pottery spinning wheels. In the future, she must be a good housekeeper as well as a good wife and mother who never gets into troubles.[16]

This part in The Book of Songs reflects strict boundaries and rules are imposed on the daily behaviors of men and women.[16]

Moreover, The Book of Rites has clearly pointed out that: It is necessary to deal with the relationship between men and women carefully, because it is the foundation of all rites.[17] This is reflected in one part of The Book of Rites, “to build a palace, it is necessary to strictly distinguish between inside and outside. Men living outside, women living inside.”[17]

In terms of differences between couples, the couples in the Western Zhou Dynasty have indeed had strict labor divisions at home and abroad.[14] The Book of Rites also strictly regulates female virtues, female words, female appearance, and female work.[17]

The Warring States Period (c. 475- c. 211 BCE)[edit]

The warring states period was a period of significant development and reform in political economy and culture. The basic trend of gender role change during this period was the strengthening and improvement of the role connotation.[18] In addition to inheriting the basic division of labor of the previous generation, the male gender roles of the Warring States period strengthened the professional quality and role expectation of the scholar (Shi 士) and produced many requirements and expectations to the scholar such as benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and trust.[19] The female gender roles of this period were relatively simple and quiet, and generally followed the tradition, but also produced special roles such as the empress dowager and female soldiers. In short, the Warring States period is an enhancement of traditional gender roles.[20]

The shift from traditional culture to orthodox Confucianism (c. 551 BCE)[edit]

As Confucianism established the status of social orthodox culture, Confucianism was derived into the cultural basis of various social systems, and gradually established the ideological basis of the gender model of Chinese traditional society.[21] In the early stage of the politicization of Confucianism, the Chinese Confucian Dong Zhongshu built a corresponding relationship between the natural law and the human society by systemizing the relationship between Confucianism and politics.[22] The core of his doctrine regulated the relationship between men and women in the traditional society.[22] Dong Zhongshu associates the three basic human relations in Confucianism (the monarch and courtier, the father and the son, and the couple) with the yin and yang (阴阳), and the heavens and the earth(天地).[22] The king, the father, and the husband are the yang and the heaven, the Courtiers, the son, and the wife are the yin and the earth.[22] This relationship has a clear hierarchical order and constitutes a reasonable basis for men to rule women.[22] This hierarchy has a profound impact on future generations.

Impacts of gender roles in Chinese history on later generation[edit]

The gender role model formed in the pre-Qin period, opened up a social role model of male superiority and female inferiority, and became the basic model of

The approximate territories of dynasties in Chinese history

Chinese gender roles in the next two thousand years.[3] During the two thousand years from Qin dynasty to Qing dynasty, men, women, and couples existed in accordance with each other's different mode.[23] The male gender role is based on the monarch and courtier, father and son, brothers, and husbands.[3] Moreover, men are constantly active in different social roles in social life. Correspondingly, the gender role of women is based on women or women, and they continue to be active in the narrow circle of family life.[3] They are engaged in the work of raising children, pleasing men, and assisting men.

At the same time, the moral standards of men and women established in the pre-Qin period also have a profound influence on later generations, especially in later generations of women. The concept of gender in Confucian culture in the pre-Qin period played a profound role in shaping the personality of Chinese women and the historical fate of Chinese women.[24] Some people think that the tragedy of Chinese women begins with Confucian culture. In order to satisfy the man's effective inheritance of his private property and the purity of the paternal lineage, the concept of the woman's chastity has been formed in the pre-Qin period.[25] In the Qin and Han Dynasties, it was clearly stated that women were required to obey the concept of chastity.[26][25] Jie Fu (节妇) is a woman who sticks to her chastity and never remarries.[27] Lie Nv (烈女)is a woman who commits suicide to avoid being insulted.[27] Some scholars have counted the number of these two types of women in Gujin Tushu Jicheng ( 古今图书集).[28][25] The statistics shows 13 cases in the pre-Qin dynasty, 42 cases in the Han Dynasty, and 282 cases in the Song Dynasty. There were more than 700 cases in the Yuan Dynasty, more than 36,000 cases in the Ming Dynasty, and more than 12,000 cases in the early Qing Dynasty. This continuous growth of the number indicates a growing trend of the concept of chastity.

The traditional Chinese gender roles have gradually been established as a model of men and women are different and couples are different through the Xia, the Western Zhou Dynasty, the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period and have a significant impact on later generation.

The traditional gender model (men and women are different and couples are different) not only influenced on the ancient China, but also influenced on the modern China.[29] In the modern China, women have moved from family to society and become an important human resource for social development. The division of labor within the male and female women is no longer as strict as the ancient China.[30] However, the concept that women are mainly responsible for family matters is still the universal value for the society. For instance, housework, caring for the elderly and children are still the obligations of women.[29] In this way, women who are employed must not only undertake social work which shares the family's economic responsibilities with men, but also be responsible for housework.[30] Although the development and progress of society gives women more space and gives women more opportunities to realize their potential, it leads to the double pressures from society and family to women.[30]The situation of rural women is similar to that of urban women. It is necessary for rural women to participate in agricultural production and to carry out heavy domestic work. As far as a housewife, except certain rights from the law, there is no substantial change in the situation and social status of women. Economically, women largely depend on men.[30] Therefore, women can only depend on men in the family.

Relevant surveys show that more than 85% of housework are mainly carried out by the wife, including daily cooking, washing, washing, and cleaning.[31] The average daily housework time for women is 4.01 hours, 2 more hours than men.[31] By contrast, the average daily housework time of the urban employed women is 2.9 hours, which is still 1.6 hours than men.[31] There are 53.9% of men and 50.4% of women still are consensus of the traditional gender model of “men are responsible for social work and women are responsible for housework”.[31] This shows that of the traditional gender model of “men are responsible for social work and women are responsible for housework” still plays a significant role in modern China. Although social changes of China have experienced for thousands of years, the gender concept of “male superiority and female inferiority” and “men are responsible for social work and women are responsible for housework” in ancient China remains in the present.

See also[edit]


  1. "Women in Parliaments: World Classification".
  2. "The Global Gender Gap Report 2013" (PDF). World Economic Forum. pp. 12–13.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 CHENG; QIN, Chen; Bo (12 May 2019). "The Ancient Origins of Chinese Traditional Female Gender Role: A Historical Review from Pre-Qin Dynasty to Han Dynasty" (PDF). Retrieved 12 May 2019.
  4. Xie, Z. (December 1994). "Regarding men as superior to women: impacts of Confucianism on family norms in China". China Population Today. 11 (6): 12–16. PMID 12290499.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Guo Hua, Zhao (September 1993). "China's Culture of Reproduction Worship". The Journal of Popular Culture. 27 (2): 101–111. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1993.101354.x. ISSN 0022-3840.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 李, 衡眉 (1997). "三皇五帝传说及其在中国史前史中的定位 (The legend of the three emperors and the five emperors and its positioning in Chinese prehistory)". 中国社会科学 (2): 178–189. ISSN 1002-4921.
  7. 7.0 7.1 徐, 中舒 (1958). "论尧舜禹禅让与父系家族私有制的发生和发展 (On the emergence and development of yao, shun and yu's abdication and the patrilineal family's private ownership)". 四川大学学报(社会科学版) (Z1): 115–128. ISSN 1006-0766.
  8. 8.0 8.1 邹, 衡 (1979). "关于探讨夏文化的几个问题 (Several questions about the discussion of Xia culture)". 文物 (3): 64–69. ISSN 0511-4772.
  9. 丁, 联 (2005). "夏商妇女社会地位研究 (Research on the social status of Xia dynasty and Shang dynasty women)". 漳州师范学院学报(哲学社会科学版) (3): 105–109. ISSN 1004-468X.
  10. 杜, 正胜 (1991). "夏代考古及其国家发展的探索 (Exploration on the archaeology of the Xia dynasty and its national development)". 考古 (1): 43–56. ISSN 0453-2899.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Graham, A. C. (1972). "The Classical Chinese Topic-Marker "fu" 夫". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 35 (1): 85–110. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00107384. ISSN 0041-977X. JSTOR 612796.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Graham, A. C. (1955). "The Final Particle "Fwu" 夫". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 17 (1): 120–132. doi:10.1017/S0041977X0010638X. ISSN 0041-977X. JSTOR 609233.
  13. The Cambridge history of ancient China : from the origins of civilization to 221 B.C. Loewe, Michael., Shaughnessy, Edward L., 1952-. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1999. ISBN 0521470307. OCLC 37361770. Search this book on
  14. 14.0 14.1 赵, 东玉 (2007). "论西周春秋时期性别角色的深化 (On the deepening of gender roles in the spring and autumn period of the western zhou dynasty)". 社会科学战线 (2): 110–118. ISSN 0257-0246.
  15. 白, 路 (2009). 先秦女性研究 (Research on women in the pre-qin period) (博士 thesis). 南开大学.
  16. 16.0 16.1 The Book of Songs. Waley, Arthur., Estate, The Arthur Waley. Routledge. 2012. ISBN 978-1283842266. OCLC 823282401. Search this book on
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Liji (in 中文). Search this book on
  18. 周, 海霞 (2004). 论春秋战国妇女地位 (On the status of women in the spring and autumn period and warring states period) (硕士 thesis). 江西师范大学.
  19. Richter, Matthias L. (2017). "Roots of Ru 儒 Ethics in shi 士 Status Anxiety". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 137 (3): 449–471. doi:10.7817/jameroriesoci.137.3.0449. ISSN 0003-0279. JSTOR 10.7817/jameroriesoci.137.3.0449.
  20. 赵, 玉宝 (2005). 先秦性别角色研究 (Research on gender roles in the pre-qin period) (博士 thesis). 东北师范大学.
  21. Rainey, Lee Dian. (2010). Confucius & Confucianism : the essentials. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 9781444323597. OCLC 632157671. Search this book on
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 Wang, Robin (2005). "Dong Zhongshu's Transformation of Yin-Yang Theory and Contesting of Gender Identity". Philosophy East and West. 55 (2): 209–231. doi:10.1353/pew.2005.0013. ISSN 1529-1898.
  23. 王, 金涛 (2014). "《从男女之别到男女尊卑——先秦性别角色研究》评介 (Research on gender roles in the pre-qin period as to male superiority and female inferiority )". 妇女研究论丛 (1): 125–128. ISSN 1004-2563.
  24. Li, Chenyang, (1956- ) Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, (1947- ) (2000). The sage and the second sex : Confucianism, ethics and gender. Open Court. ISBN 081269418X. OCLC 883513470.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link) Search this book on
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Fei, Siyen (November 2012). "Writing for Justice: An Activist Beginning of the Cult of Female Chastity in Late Imperial China". The Journal of Asian Studies. 71 (4): 991–1012. doi:10.1017/s0021911812001167. ISSN 0021-9118.
  26. Hinsch, Bret (2011-12-01). "Male Honor and Female Chastity in Early China". NAN NÜ. 13 (2): 169–204. doi:10.1163/156852611x602601. ISSN 1387-6805.
  27. 27.0 27.1 王, 传满 (2008). "妇女节烈旌表制度的衍变 (The evolution of the Jie Fu and Lie Nv)". 西华大学学报(哲学社会科学版) (5): 70–73. ISSN 1672-8505.
  28. Giles, Lionel; British Museum. Dept. of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts (1911). An alphabetical index to the Chinese encyclopaedia ... Chʻin ting ku chin tʻu shu chi chʻêng. Cornell University Library. London, Printed by order of the Trustees of the British Museum. Search this book on
  29. 29.0 29.1 Mann, Susan L. (2011-09-19). Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139502481. Search this book on
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 吴, 晓华 (2009). "周代男女角色定位及其对现代社会的影响 (The roles of men and women in Zhou dynasty and their influence on modern society)". 长安大学学报(社会科学版). 11 (3): 86–92. ISSN 1671-6248.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 31.3 "第二期中国妇女社会地位抽样调查主要数据报告 (The data report of the sample survey on Chinese women's social status)". Retrieved 2019-05-27.

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