The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender

The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender

The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender

The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender


Chenyang Li brings together a collection of essays that investigate the common conception that Confucianism is a religion that devalues and oppresses the female sex, and instead demonstrates that the reality is far more complicated.


Confucianism has meant many things over the centuries in China. Feminism, in its much shorter history, has also taken many forms, made many claims, and lent support to many different social policies. Not surprisingly, therefore, the encounters between these two complex sets of ideas have been complicated. Scholars and activists, in China and the West, have drawn on one to challenge the other in several distinct ways.

Early in the twentieth century, Chinese reformers, influenced at least indirectly by Western feminism, decried the deleterious effects of Confucianism on women. The “New Culture” reading of Confucianism was that it sacrificed individuals for the sake of families and fell particularly hard on women. Chen Duxiu, for instance, wrote in New Youth in 1916 that women would not be able to take their proper place in society so long as they were bound by Confucian teachings such as “To be a woman is to submit,” or “Men and women do not sit on the same mat,” or “Never disobey or be lazy in carrying out the orders of parents or parents-in-law.”

In the decades that followed, Chinese Marxists, even when adhering to a materialist interpretation of history, rarely challenged the view that Confucianism was bad for women, and Chinese government organs commonly blamed the persistence of “feudal remnants” for part of what held women back. In 1985 one author explained that the “physical and mental gap” that persisted between the attainments of men and women could be explained in terms of the long history of denigrating and repressing women, mentioning in particular “feudal morality and ethics” with its “three obediences and four virtues” and its ideas that “men are superior and women are inferior” and that “the absence of talent in a woman is a virtue.”

Those who have blamed Confucianism for holding back Chinese women have usually used the term loosely to cover the whole gamut of orthodox, normative behavior related to the family in late imperial times. Confucian authors over the centuries celebrated the patrilineal, patriarchal, patrilocal family system, and urged men and women alike to be filial, loyal to their families, and serious in their obligations to their ancestors and kin. The ideas that underlay the daily practice of the Chinese family system can thus with some justice be labeled “Confucian.” Tracts for women's education and exemplary biographies . . .

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