Chinese women have been lauded and denigrated throughout history. Their status has changed as different philosophies gained popularity in China.
The yin/yang symbol of the Tao religion exhibits the Chinese concept of gender difference. The dark swirl is the feminine yin, meant to be yielding and passive. The light swirl, symbolizing man, is drawn as active and aggressive. Taoism intends one to complement the other, with neither subordinate to the other.
Under the philosophy of Confucius, a patriarchal family structure reigned. Confucius' hierarchical concepts placed assumptions on women regarding their social places and expected behavior. Popular advice manuals gave guidelines to women to put themselves last and yield to others.
In the Song dynasty (960–1279 BCE), women were forbidden to hold positions of power. They were sold into marriage at young ages. The practice of foot-binding was widespread. From a girl's young age, her feet were bound tightly to prevent them from growing. Girls and women eventually became crippled, unable to run off or to perform most tasks independently. Notably, members of most ethnic minorities and peasants who worked in the fields chose not to bind their daughters' feet.
Despite their status as objects, some women held power within the households. The head wife of a household would completely control the daily functioning of the family. She determined the fate of the other wives, deciding who could go where, how much money could be spent and what type of education the children would receive. Additionally, the mother of a young noble ruled in place of her son. She would govern the land and make financial decisions. Those women were given titles such as Empress Dowager.
Historical records, both official and unofficial, show that some ancient Chinese females were shrewd businesswomen. Records also report about female military figures. Women served as commanders of the armed forces of various kings and emperors. Chinese fictional writings also depict women as good fighters.
During the years of the republic, women living in cities could receive a formal education. Although they did not enter the workforce, many women took advantage of the opportunity to study.
When the Communists took power, Chairman Mao aimed to eliminate differences between men and women. Under his rule, women attended school and entered the workplace, wearing the same uniforms as their male comrades. Women held positions of power as state officials. They were often viewed as more dominant than men during the Communist era.
After Mao's death, modern Communism did not offer the same level of opportunities to women. At the same time, the opening window into the Western world allowed modern conventions to seep in. Women were influenced by Western music, movies and culture, and they began to experiment with freedoms.
Even though the late 20th century brought women more freedom to marry, divorce and work at will, the Chinese one-child policy created a widespread proliferation of discrimination against females. The Chinese showed their preference for males by aborting female fetuses or abandoning newborn females. Ten years into the 21st century, the number of males born far exceeded the number of females. Projections into the middle of the century have predicted an unbalanced society, with the number of males predominating.
Even in ancient China, women were pivotal to the essential work of silk production. Women cultivated the mulberry trees, raised the worms from which they extracted the silk threads and spun the cloth. Women's place in textile production remained throughout the ages, continuing to modern times. By the early 21st century, they were the major workforce in the mills of South China.
The modernization of the Chinese woman might have its roots in ancient culture. Tradition has influenced modern Chinese women in three areas: diligence, fairness and fulfilling one's duties.
Women were traditionally diligent and hardworking, performing farm chores, cooking and cleaning. They demonstrated a willingness to face the challenges of a changing environment. Fairness refers to the recognition that women can be as capable as men, if given the opportunity to develop. The legends of women as warriors and businesswomen give credence to this concept. Last, the concept of maintaining one's duties to the family and the country has always been a driving force of the Chinese people. Women's position has been improved by the joint efforts of men and women who believed in mutual help and cooperation.