Chinese Historical Literature and Gender Inequality in Social Position in Ancient Society

Chinese Historical Literature and Gender Inequality in Social Position in Ancient Society


Historically, women suffered gender inequality for long in the Ancient Chinese society. Women in China had their traditional roles categorically restricted into prostitutes, wives and concubines. Generally, it is justified from the underlying literature that the oppression of women in China had roots in the traditional beliefs on roles associated to each gender such as Confucian which remained influential over time. As per the Confucian, wives were supposed to be submissive to their husbands. Concubines on the other hand were only kept by men as mistresses only for sexual services. Prostitutes entailed women who had been sold by their parents into brothels. The Qing Dynasty had no adequate laws regulating prostitution hence prostitutes had no legal rights. Men were free to get sexual services from the three categories of women; wives, concubines of prostitutes. Therefore, men had all the powers to control women in all social affairs.

In ancient Chinese societies, women’s education was only made to boost their inferior statuses. Particularly, woman pursued education for them to gain adequate knowledge on how to follow rules subjected to them by men. The social norms taught to women actually restricted their behavior and rights. After all, it was for the benefit of men. Special books that had all the social norms that restricted women were used by specific teachers to teach women. Such books include Nu Sishu which had in it Ban Zhao’s Nuje and Nu lunyu by Sing Ruoxin. These books taught social norms that were made to harm women socially, politically and economically.

Women in ancient Chinese were led by three forms of obedience, they were supposed to obey the father before they are married, obey husband when married and obey sons after the death of the husband. The obedience women owed to men meant that throughout their lives they remained to be subordinates. In addition to the obedience were the four virtues. These virtues were female words, female appearance, female work and female virtues. All these virtues were made to satisfy the needs of men and the society at large. Several works of literature were composed to demonstrate the role of different classes in Ancient China. This paper, therefore, is set to discuss gender inequality in social position in ancient Chinese society. The article will focus on inequality in social norms, occupation, marriage and education.

Inequality in Social Norms

Ban Zhao is among the prominent female writers, who in her work, Nuje, described which social norms were associated with women. Nuje expanded the famous four virtues that women were bound to adhere. By definition, social norms are the suitable behaviors that are expected of an individual to adhere in a certain group, culture or community. The social norms form the bases of good behavior and conduct. Historically, the ancient Chinese society had social norms that were not equally considerate.  Males in the ancient China were given higher privileges. They controlled everything in the society and women had to be submissive to them.  The society at large new which norms belonged to men and which belonged to women.

Inequalities in social norms were shaped better by the three forms of obedience and the four virtues that governed women’s conduct within the society. The norm that emasculated women and powered men was contained in special books that are used in teaching social normal in the society. Women were expected to obey men thought their life. In this case, women were supposed to obey their fathers during their childhood and most specifically before marriage. Whatever the father said was considered to be right and the daughters had to submit to them. The oppression of women further continued after marriage. Married men were placed in an upper position as compared to their wives. Wives were expected to obey their husbands and submit to all their views. Even after the death of their husbands, women had to fall under their own sons and obey them.

Inequality in social norms is also evidenced in the four virtues that governed woman’s discipline in ancient China.  The four virtues were developed by Ban Zhao in her most prominent work, Nuje, which were basically instructions to woman. The teaching of Nuje among other social norms works entirely taught women submissive norms to men in the society. These virtues were speech, behavior, work and virtue. According to these virtues, women were expected to speak, work, behave and portray moral standards that showed their inferiority before men.  Any deviance from the stipulated norms was termed as disobedience and consequences followed the culprit. However, Zhao has a belief that women could become successful people in the society if given chance. She argued that women should be given chances to pursue education to gain knowledge and skills to help the husband in performing some chores.

Historically, there are various composed literary works illustrating the roles of women in ancient Chinese. Pu Songlings’ Ma Jief, for instance gives a commentary of women and their roles is in the ancient Chinese society. Ma Jief revolves around a character named Madame Yin. Madame is portrayed as a woman who goes contrary to the expectation of the society. She denies her father shelter and food, beats up her own husband and servants and also she is responsible of her brother’s suicide. Pu Songlings contradicts the roles of men and women as evidenced in Confucian values and points out how women should behave or act in the society. Madame represents the women who did not value men and was not ready to satisfy their desires.

Considering the expectations of women and men in the ancient Chinese society, it is justified that there was significant inequalities in the social norms. Men dominated everything in the society and made all the rules to ensure that women remained as subordinates to them.  Women on the other hand, were taught norms that ensured that they were powerless before men. Therefore, the social norms encouraged men to oppress women.

Inequality in Occupation

Inequalities in ancient Chinese extended to occupation. Occupations also favored men. Very few women had occupations in the ancient China. The occupations that the few women had were entirely not pleasant. The central role of women in ancient China was to stay at home, look after the children, clean the house and cook food. Women also engaged in sewing, spinning and weaving for the rest of the family members where some took it as their occupation. Some women also made it to work with men in fields. However, women were generally restricted from working outside their homesteads for them to perform their homely duties.

Men on the other hand had privileges of participating in all the occupations. They worked in the fields in jobs that were restricted for women. Men were the source of income in the families. Through their daily activities they ensured that the needs of the family were catered for.  Women had to stay at home doing the necessary duties at home as they waited for their husbands to provide for them. In general men were to offer financial support for the families and participate in performing rituals like ancestors worship. Also, men were to perpetuate the name of the family in all the aspects. Women in the other hand could not participate in any activity of earning money a factor that made them subordinate to men.

Gender inequality in ancient China is also evident in Feng Menglong’s short stories. In Fenglong’s short stories, prostitution is portrayed as a commodity. Women were forced to take prostitution as a form of trade. Prostitution in the city was open and there were merchants and officials who regulated the houses where prostitution took place. In most case, it was men who regulated how women carried out prostitution. Prostitution is one of the greatest forms of moral decay. In this case, women were subjected to activities that that were against their personal characteristics contrary to men who engaged in occupation of their choice.

Inequality in Marriage

In ancient China, marriage was basically planned by the parents of the bride and bridegroom. Marriages were not driven by love. Instead, social and economic factors were the topmost considerations when planning for marriage. Sometimes, marriage was usually planned by parents at tender ages. A typical marriage was at twenties for men and late teens in the case of women. Traditionally, in a case that marriage was planned and the bridegroom died before marriage, the bride was supposed to move to the bride’s family and start a new life as a widow.

In Chinese marriages, it is evidently that there was no equity in all the aspects, Men as usual remained to be at the top of the family and did everything to uphold their seniority. Woman on the other hand remained inferiors to their husbands. For instance, women were believed to be a property of the husband. The foot-bidding in ancient Chinese is a significant example that woman belonged to men after marriage. Traditionally, girls at the age of three onwards were to have their feet crushed. The resultant small feet after binding were believed to please future husbands. Apparently, wives were properties of their husbands and were to do everything to please them.

As per the ancient Chinese law, men had the rights to divorce their wives if she did not meet some standards. Contrary, women had no right to suggest a divorce not unless the husband showed no respect to the wife’s family. Failure to get a son, unfaithfulness and theft were some of the factors that made the grounds for divorce. Divorce generally favored men. Women had no say on divorce on grounds such as unfaithfulness. Divorce therefore was a great sign of inequality in marriages in ancient China.

Inequality in Education

Education in ancient China was kept for older boys only. Young boys had to stay at home and learn directions and numbers. Older boys in school learned important things that could prepare them to take part in war, religion, and government posts. When books were invented, boys had particular books that they had to learn. Confucius was the main focus of many books in ancient China. According to the Confucius, all boys were capable of reading regardless of their social-economic background.

Girls on the other hand had no chance of going to school regardless of the families they come from. Rather, they stayed at home with their mothers. In the home, girls were taught how to work and take care of the families. Wong Yin Lee described inequalities in education in ancient China basing on Qian and Kun belief. According to this belief, Qian was heaven and Kun was earth. Boys were represented by the Qian which meant that they were positive and bright. Women on the other hand were represented by Kun which meant that they were negative and dark. The classification of the abilities of men and women discriminated women from undergoing education since they were dull and negative. Therefore, education was reserved for boys only.


Historically, ancient China society was characterized by inequalities in social positions. The norms of the society required women to be submissive to men. Women were portrayed as properties of men who took care of them. To respond to the constant inequalities, various writers composed literary works that showed how the society has been viewing each gender. The Confucian for instance empowered men in all aspects and insisted for obedience of women to men. However, some female writers attempted to empower women by claiming that women were capable of doing all what men did. They suggested that women could read and participate in all the fields just like men did. To date, these writers such as Ban Zhao and their works can be used as a point of reference when campaigning for gender equality in the current societies.