Academic journal article Social Education

Teaching about Women in China and Japan: A Thematic Approach. (Women of the World)

Academic journal article Social Education

Teaching about Women in China and Japan: A Thematic Approach. (Women of the World)

Article excerpt

One way for teachers to include topics in their curriculum pertaining to women is to identify significant themes that appear with some regularity throughout history. The use of overarching themes helps illustrate the effect that major forces-such as beliefs, political events, and economic events-have on women's lives, and demonstrates how gender expectations change over time. I have selected three themes because of their strong links to commonly taught East Asian history topics: beliefs about gender difference, the legacy of real and mythical women, and women's economic contributions.

Beliefs Support Gender Difference

Many cultures maintain the belief that, beyond biology, women and men possess essentially different capacities and functions. Understanding this conviction helps explain the perpetuation of the male/female difference with regard to behavior expectations, position within the family, legal rights, public status, education, and work. Because American students usually view such culturally transmitted beliefs negatively, it is important to highlight the spheres where women's contributions were positively acknowledged, when and where they held power, and the times women overcame gender oppression.

When studying China, the concept of gender difference might be introduced by first exploring the male/female aspects of the yin/yang Taoist symbol. The dark swirl within the symbol's circle represents the passive, yielding, feminine yin; the light swirl represents the active, aggressive, male yang. What is significant is that neither principle is considered subordinate; each complements the other and is capable of expressing both "female" and "male" characteristics. Within Taoism, women were able to seek spiritual fulfillment beyond their family duties. Some joined convents, others gathered with men to discuss philosophy and religion, and a few became Taoist adepts.

Ancient China's highest goddess, Hsi Huang Mu (Queen Mother of the West) (1), depicted in the classic tale "Journey to the West," also expresses aspects of yin/yang beliefs. As yin, this goddess is compassionate, promising immortality; as yang, she is a force that had the power to disrupt the cosmic yin/yang harmony. This pervasive fear that women could bring chaos by upsetting the cosmic harmony was an obstacle for women who aspired to political leadership. Those who succeeded were accused of breaking one of nature's laws, of becoming "like a hen crowing" Years after the reign of Wu Zetian (Tang Dynasty, 625-705 C.E.), China's only female emperor, this derogatory phrase was applied to her reign.

Buddhism as practiced in Japan and China also granted women areas of empowerment while at the same time treating them as subordinates, and portraying them as deceitful in much of the literature. Women went on pilgrimages to Buddhist temples, retreated to nunneries, sometimes gave public lectures, and led temple groups. Chinese Buddhism was at its height during the reign of Wu Zetian, who promoted the religion and even justified her rule by claiming she was a reincarnation of a previous female Buddhist saint. During Wu's reign, and throughout the early to mid Tang period, women enjoyed relatively high status and freedom. Lovely Tang Era paintings and statues depict women on horseback and as administrators, dancers, and musicians. Stories and poems, like those by the female poet Yu Xuanji, also attest to the openness of the period. (2)

In contrast, Confucianism became the most pervasive doctrine to promote a belief in women's "natural place." Confucius himself did not directly denigrate women, although he placed them at the lower end of the patriarchal family structure. Through the ages, however, the belief that men and women had distinct social roles was based on Confucian hierarchical precepts. Prescriptive advice manuals like Lessons for GMs reinforced these lessons. (3) Written by the female historian Ban Zhoa (Han Dynasty, ca. …

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