Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview

1
Women, money, and class
Sima Guang and Song Neo-Confucian views on women*

Most historians of China have heard the charge that the revival of Confucianism in the Song period initiated a decline in the status of women. The principal accusations are that Neo-Confucianism fostered the seclusion of women, footbinding, and the cult of widow chastity. It is widely recognized that these constraints on women had become more oppressive by the Qing dynasty, but their roots are traced back to the Song period. 1 Cheng Yi's (1033–1107) statement that “To starve to death is a small matter, but to lose one's chastity is a great matter” is commonly blamed for much of the misery of women in late imperial China.

The evidence offered to support these charges is of several sorts. In his Zhongguo funü shenghuo shi (History of Chinese Women's Lives), written in 1928, Chen Dongyuan argued that women's lives started to deteriorate after Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi (1130–1200) promoted “the idea that women must value chastity.” Thus “the Song really was the turning point in women's lives.” 2 More recently, Zhu Ruixi, after examining a wide range of evidence concerning views on women and marriage in the Song, concluded that these attitudes gradually hardened during the Song, bringing in divorce as well as remarriage.

Especially from the time of Song Lizong [r.1225–1264], because of the honor granted Neo-Confucianism in the intellectual sphere, the right of women to seek divorces was almost completely eliminated, and their right to remarry after the death of their husbands decreased every day. 3

Popularizers and polemicists have been quicker to assert the influence of Neo-Confucianism on female seclusion, footbinding, and even female infanticide. Lin Yutang in My Country and My People and Howard Levy in Chinese Footbinding report that Zhu Xi, while prefect of Zhangzhou in southern Fujian, promoted footbinding as a way to foster the separation of

____________________
*
This article originally was published in Papers on Society and Culture of Early Modern China, ed. by Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, 1992, pp. 613–69. Reproduced with permission.

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