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Ancient China

Women in Ancient China

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           In ancient China, women were routinely discriminated. China’s society was male-dominated. The gender differences are visually seen in the yin/yang Taoist symbol. The dark swirl within the symbol’s circle is the passive, yielding, and feminine yen. The light swirl is the active, aggressive, male yang. Both principles subordinate the other expressing both the male and female characteristics. Women within Taoism were able to seek spiritual fulfillment beyond their family duties. Some women joined convents, others gathered with men to discuss philosophy and religion, and some became Taoist adepts.

 

Hsi Huang Mu was ancient China’s highest goddess. She expresses aspects of the yin/yang beliefs. As yin, she is compassionate, promising immortally. As a yang, she is a force who had the power to disrupt the cosmic yin/yang harmony.  The fear that women could bring chaos by upsetting the cosmic harmony was an obstacle for women who aspired to male political leadership. Those who succeeded were accused of breaking one of nature’s laws, of becoming “like a hen crowing.”

 

            The Zhou period had a phrase “Men plow and women weave.” This applied at different times throughout China’s history. The silk production was vital to China’s trade and diplomacy. China rested on the initial labor of women who cultivated the mulberry trees, raised the worms, extracted the silk thread from cocoons, and spun and wove cloth. Lady His-Ling-Shih was credited for the introduction of silkworm rearing and the invention of the loom.

 

            Little is known about the women in Shang China. In China the Queens seemed to have been well respected. Among the royal family and nobles, men often had more than one wife. The first wife and her sons were the most important. Unlike royalty and the nobles, the peasant family men probably married only one woman. Peasant women worked alongside the men in the fields. Women were also responsible for silkmaking and weaving.

 

            A part of women’s apparel was foot binding. Women’s feet were bound to keep them at home and to fulfill men’s erotic fantasies. Foot binding began at about age four to seven on young Chinese girls. The foot was soaked in hot water and massaged. It then was wrapped in a way in which the child's toes were turned under and pressed against the bottom of their foot. The child’s largest toe was left unturned in order to give the girl a sense of balance. The child's arches of her foot were broken as the foot was pulled straight with the leg causing the foot to actually shrink. This process took anywhere from three years or longer to complete. The result of this process was a deformed "tiny" foot (about three inches long). Another result was extreme pain for the child, as well as infection, gangrene, and for 10% of the girls who had their feet bound death. Some accounts say that when the process was complete the feet were unbound. Other accounts say that the foot was continually bound because it was more painful to have it unbound.
Regardless, of some unclear information regarding this practice, it is without debate that this process kept women from being able to move as their western counterparts. It further rendered them subservient to men and was used as a social control over women for 1000 years. 1

                                  

 

 

 

 

1: http://www.international.ucla.edu/shenzhen/2002ncta/miles/index.htm

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