Gender Difference in History
Women in China and Japan


Underlying the beliefs of many cultures is an assumption that, beyond biology, women and men possess essentially different capacities and functions. Understanding this assumption helps make sense of the perpetuation and even institutionalization of male/female difference with regard to behavior expectations, position within the family, legal rights, public status, education, and types of work. While this most often results in the subordination of women’s position in society vis-a-vis men, it sometimes can be a source of women’s special strength.

In China, the concept of gender difference appears visually in the male/female aspects of the yin/yang Taoist symbol. The dark swirl within the symbol’s circle is the passive, yielding, feminine yin; the light swirl the active, aggressive, male yang. Neither principle is considered subordinate to the other; each complements the other and is capable of expressing both female and male characteristics. Within Taoism, then, women were able to seek spiritual fulfillment beyond their family duties. Some joined convents, others gathered with men to discuss philosophy and religion, a few became Taoist adepts.

Ancient China’s highest goddess, Hsi Huang Mu (Queen Mother of the West), found 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 who 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 male political leadership. Those who succeeded were accused of breaking one of nature’s laws, of becoming “like a hen crowing.” Years after her reign, this derogatory term was applied to China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian (Tang dynasty, 625-705 C.E.).

Buddhism as practiced in Japan and China also granted women some areas of empowerment. 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 from the pen of the infamous female poet Yu Xuanji, also attest to the almost modern openness of the period.

In contrast, Confucianism became the most pervasive doctrine to promote the belief in women’s “natural place.” Confucius himself did not inherently denigrate women, although he placed them at the lower end of the patriarchal family structure. Yet, through the ages the assumption that men’s and women’s social places and expected behaviors were quite distinct was based on Confucian hierarchical precepts, and were reinforced by prescriptive advice manuals like Lessons for Girls. Written by the female historian Ban Zhoa (Han dynasty, ca. 45-120 C.E.), Lessons became one of China’s most durable sources of advice about female behavior. One nugget tells women to “yield to others; let her put others first, herself last.”

In the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E), a reinterpretation of Confucian teaching called NeoConfucianism stratified the position of women even more. Augmented by ideas of wife fidelity and husband worship brought by the Mongols, NeoConfucian beliefs led to the egregious practices of footbinding, insistence on widow chastity, and the selling of unwanted daughters. Although footbinding illustrates the perceived need to limit female mobility, the practice did not appear until the Song Dynasty and was not universally followed. Women of most ethnic minorities, including Hakka and Manchu women, did not practice it, nor did some peasants who had to work in the fields, nor did women in Japan.

In Japan, the influence of Shintoism lessened the initial impact of NeoConfucian on women’s lives. Within Shintoism women held power as mikos, a type of shaman with divination abilities. Before the 8th century, half of Japan’s reigning female sovereigns, such as the popular semi-legendary empress Jingu, were believed to have shaman-like powers. Japan’s sun goddess Amaterasu, to whom every emperor has had to claim direct descendancy, was also worshiped as a symbol of female mystical power. Her Great Shrine at Ise, cared for by high priestesses, still plays an important role in the lives of the Japanese today.

The more positive influences of Shintoism were weakened by the samurai culture and spread of Confucianism and Buddhism in Japan. Yet, in the Heian era (950-1050 C.E.) women still held relative equity in marriage, education, and property rights. Gender difference in this period favored literate women who were free to write in the expressive, popular vernacular language, while men most often wrote in the more formal, inaccessible, classical Chinese. Both the independence and the gender limits of women of the pampered elite are wonderfully illustrated in the lively, gossipy writings of Shikibu Murasaki, Sei Shogonon, and other Heian female writers.

Women’s independence was increasing limited during the long centuries of shogunate rule. Although in the early feudal period samurai women took a considerable role in household management and defense, by the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), women’s rights within the samurai family were practically nonexistent. The oft quoted Three Obediences dictated their lives: “When she is young, she obeys her father; when she is married, she obeys her husband; when she is widowed, she obeys her son.” The 1762 treatise called Greater Learning for Women illustrates this NeoConfucian ideal of proper female behavior.

By the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, serious challenges to accepted beliefs about gender were mounted in both Japan and China. Although concerns about women’s position had been expressed earlier, the concept of women’s liberation became a major motivating force within the era’s nationalist, reform, and revolution movements. Male nationalists initiated the discussion by arguing that an improvement in the status of women was essential to their country’s acceptance by other technologically advanced nations. A core of educated women in both Japan and China joined the call by speaking and writing in public for the first time. Conservative nationalists and traditionalists in Japan and China at different times reacted by mounting long campaigns against any change in gender roles. Ultimately female activists were labeled unseemly, unfeminine, and too western.

An ideal case study of this action/reaction phenomenon is Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) when the nation’s rapid transformation from a feudal shogunate to modern nation opened the door for female public participation. Through speeches, magazines, and within newly formed political parties, a small group labeled Japan’s “first wave feminists” tried to raise women’s consciousness about their subordinate position. The phrase “good wife, wise mother” was coined, meaning that in order become good citizens women had to become educated and take part in public affairs. The drive to encourage women to adopt new “modern” ways was pervasive. Woodblock prints were even circulated showing previously forbidden views of women in the imperial family attending public events adorned in western Victorian-era clothes. In spite of these efforts, conservative legislators reasserted NeoConfucian family values by passing restrictive laws, codes, and a new constitution. Women were denied the right to any political participation, including even taking political science courses, and married women lost some of the legal rights they had held during the Shogunate. The term”good wife, wise mother” was reinterpreted to refer to a woman who sacrificed herself to her family welfare, an ideal that finds some resonance today.

The challenge to unequal gender difference was mounted anew in the 1910s when women in Japan’s “second wave feminism” set about to oppose the NeoConfucian ideology of “good wife, wise mother.” One, Hiratsuka Haruko (pen name Raicho), in 1911 founded the feminist magazine Seito (Bluestocking), where its contributors considered broad social issues such as freedom of love and marriage. Not surprisingly, the magazine was often censored and banned.

Japan’s rebellious writers can be compared to those in China where in the decades between 1915 and 1925 a kind of women’s emancipation movement also emerged. As young people were drawn into the struggle against imperialism and traditional Chinese society, women in the 1919 May Fourth Movement (also called the New Cultural Movement) experienced for the first time their own emancipation and wrote about social restraints within the traditional authoritarian family system. Using the slogan, “Down with Confucius and his disciples” they sought personal fulfillment and fought for substantial changes in women’s legal status. Throughout the 1920s and early 30s, familial conflicts raged over bobbed hair, coeducation, and freedom in love and marriage. Ibsen’s The Doll’s House was popular reading as young people thought of their own lives when trying to answer the question, “What happens to Nora after she leaves home?”

During China’s long revolutionary years the state both promoted and negated new roles for women. The most severe reaction against female activism was the Guomindang’s counter revolution, called the White Terror (1927 - 1928), when female activists were accused of being instigators of societal chaos. During Chiang Kai-shek’s relentless hunt for Communists, thousand of women were murdered and raped, including those who had simply bobbed their hair. The Communists, for their part, turned away from what they saw as bourgeois feminist reforms to attack the socioeconomic conditions they perceived as the source of all female oppressions. The idea was that once gender difference was erased, women would be freed to help spearhead the “new society.” Mao Zedong coined the phrase “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” and set in motion a campaign to get women out of the home and into the work force. Selections from oral histories collected during the period illustrate his attempts to mobilize the lowest in society, the female peasant, so she could confront “feudal” fathers, husbands or landlords.

Ultimately, the need to develop a sense of solidarity between male and female peasants as both subjects of oppression resulted in criticizing concerns relating to women alone. Such was the fate of author Ding Ling, the most prominent female writer of her generation, whose attack on the sexist attitudes of her comrades resulted in suppression. The state also failed to deal with opposition to the progressive changes embodied in the Marriage Law of 1950, which granted young people the right to choose their own marriage partners, and women to initiate divorce and to inherit property.

Female-specific concerns continued to be ignored during the Cultural Revolution when equality between sexes was assumed and class war took center stage. In China’s post 1980 modernization efforts, new tensions have emerged as women are urged to return to their traditional roles at home and at work, and to “feminize” their physical appearance. At the same time, the old ideal of the worker who forsakes even family duties to selflessly contribute to society still holds. A new slogan, coined by a detractor to today’s modernization drive, claims that now “Women Hold Up Two Skies!” Propaganda posters dramatically illustrate these shifts from revolutionary times to today when, although over 80 percent of women work outside their homes and some participate in political activities, it is clear that habits established thousands of years ago do not easily disappear.

Women’s Work: Beliefs in gender difference find reflection in the age-old assignment of women to “women’s work,” and men to theirs. This can be seen in the predominance of women in the essential work of cloth production. The Zhou (Chou) period (1100-770 B.C.E. ) phrase “Men plow and women weave,” resoonated at different times throughout China’s history. In silk production, so vital to China’s trade and diplomacy, rested on the initial labor of women who cultivated the mulberry trees, raised the worms, extracted the silk thread from the cocoons, and spun and wove the cloth. Legends, such as that of Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih who is credited with the introduction of silkworm rearing and invention of the loom, illustrated women’s connection to this work as do poems, like the 11th century female poet Ch’ien T’ao’s lament that upper class, silken clad “beauties” knew or cared little “of a weaving girl,/ Sitting cold by her window/ Endlessly throwing her shuttle to and fro.”

During the expansion of trade during the China’s Song dynasty women were heavily recruited to work in the cotton and silk mills as spinners and weavers. In both China and Japan, it was women’s work in the textile industries which proved to be the key to industrial success. Japan’s burgeoning export trade in silk and cotton textiles, for example, was the result of the women who by the 1880’s had formed almost two-thirds of Japan’s industrial workforce. Many of the mill workers in both countries were girls who left poor rural homes to live in dorms. Short diary excerpts, songs, work contracts, and charts, dramatically describe the mill workers’ hard work, low wages, and attempts to improve their working conditions. Accounts also reveal that with an independent income, some women began to lead a more self-sufficient life. The unusual marriage resistance movement among some silk workers in South China was a particularly intriguing outcome of this independence.

The notion that women “have their place” in textile production persists today. Women are the major workforce in the South China mills and in globalized textile factories and clothing sweatshops world-wide. And the question of whether this sexual division of work marginalizes women, or offers them expanded opportunities, is still being debated.

Strong Legendary and Real Heroes: Counterbalancing beliefs about women’s place is the historic veneration of some powerful, albeit exceptional, women. Stories of warrior women such as Hua Mulan and various militant Ninja types appear regularly in classical Chinese fiction. In Japan, samurai women appear, like Tomoe Gozen who supposedly rode into battle alongside her husband during Gempei Wars, or Hojo Masako (1157-1225), wife of Japan’s first shogun, who directed armies and in effect ruled the Shogunate from the convent where she had “retired” after her husband’s death. Later, bands of women armed with the exclusively female sword called naginata, were called upon to defend their towns or castles. Japanese girls today still learn to use this long sword.

In the modern era, women have been honored for their militant participation during civil wars and the struggles against invaders. In the Taiping Rebellion mainly Hakka women with unbound feet fought both as soldiers and generals against the Manchu government. Women took up arms again in the Boxer Rebellion when young women organized themselves into militant “Red Lantern” groups. During the Cultural Revolution, the militancy of young female Red Guards attest to their willingness to become revolutionary heroes when struggling for what they perceived to be a just cause. Individual revolutionary female icons who have been held up as powerful figures for women to emulate include China’s Chiu Chin (Qiu Jin), who in 1907 was executed by the Manchu government, and Soong-li Ching (Soong Ching-ling), wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and champion of social justice and women’s liberation, and Deng Yingchao, an advocate of women’s rights and wife of Zhou Enlai. The societal admiration of female heroines such as these has helped justify the actions of the women who managed successfully to define new roles for themselves alongside men.

(This essay is excerpted and modified from Teaching About Women in China and Japan, by Lyn Reese, found in Social Education, NCSS, March 2003.)

(the Ch’ien T’ao poem is from Kenneth Rexroth & Ling Chung, Women Poets of China, New Directions Book, 1972)


- A biography and story based on life of Yu Xuanji,(Yu Hsuan-Chi) can be found in the curriculum unit, Eyes of the Empress: Women in China’s Tang Dyansty.

- A story and biography of Tomoe Gozen and Hojo Masako can be found in Samurai Sisters: Women in Early Feudal Japan.

- A briography Chiu Chin (Qiu Jin) and women in Japan “first feminist” movement can be found in I Will Not Bow My Head: Documenting Political Women.

- Web Links for teaching about women in China and Japan.

Partial Bibliography

1. Jennifer Anderson and Theresa Munford, Chinese Women Writers, A Collection of Short Stories by Chinese Women Writers in the 1920s & 30s. China Books and Periodicals, 1985.
2. Gail Bernstein, ed. Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945 , University of California Press, 1991.
3. Mikiso Hane, Peasants, Rebels, & Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan, Pantheon Books, 1982.
4. Ono Kazuko, Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution, 1850-1950, Stanford University Press, 1989.
5. Susan Mann,, Women’s and Gender History in Global Perspective: East Asia, American Historical Association, Washington, D.C., 1990.
6. Janet Ng and Janice Wickeri, May Fourth Women Writers: Memiors, Renditions Press. 1997.
7. Barbara Ramusack and Sharon Sievers, Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
8. Sharon Sievers, Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan, Stanford University Press, 1983.
9. Yukiko Tanaka, To Live and To Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers, 1913-1938, The Seal Press, 1987.
10. E. Patricia Tsurumi, Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan, Princeton University Press, 1990.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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