Nirmal DASS

Historical illustration of a noblewoman who is a wife and mother. Her life would likely have been modeled after the Confucian ideals of Three Obediences, or Submissions (to the men in her life), and the Four Virtues (a code of moral conduct for women).

The Three Obediences and the Four Virtues describe precepts for womanly behavior that derive from Confucian ideals of harmony and order. The first century CE book Lessons for Women states that the proper role of a woman is to be a submissive daughter, wife, and mother who restrains her speech, dresses in a pleasing manner, and manages her household.

The role and function of women in Chinese society has long been defined by the Confucian moral precept of the Three Obediences, or Submissions, and the Four Virtues. The Three Obediences seek to give stricture to the entirety of a woman’s existence, and accordingly state that the woman, in her youth, should be obedient to her father and her older brothers; in married life, she should be obedient to her husband; and as a widow she should be obedient to her son. The Four Virtues, on the other hand, impart rules of propriety, whereby a woman may be able to govern her life and her conduct. The first virtue is the ability of a woman to know and adhere to a submissive place in society and to modulate her behavior accordingly. The second virtue consists of restraining speech, since a talkative woman is not only considered impolite but even tiresome. The third virtue instructs a woman to dress and adorn herself in order to please a man. The last virtue states that a woman must know the proper management of her household and she must cheerfully do all the work needed in the home.


The idea of defining and instilling a mode of conduct for women may be traced back to the first half of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), during which time the scholar Dong Zongshu (179–104 BCE), who was instrumental in making Confucianism the state religion, formulated his Three Cardinal Guides and Five Constant Virtues, through which he sought to describe the ethical relationship that existed between humankind and heaven. The Three Guides consisted of axiomatic formulations on the proper correlation between the individual and institutional power. Thus it was stated that (1) a prince was the guide of his ministers; (2) the father was the guide of his sons; and (3) the husband was the guide of the wife. These Three Cardinal Guides led to the Five Constant Virtues, which consisted of mercy, correctness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness. The guarantor of both the Virtues and the Guides was heaven itself, which required obedience in order to ensure that human society functioned well, and in order to bring about a consistent ethical balance, or harmony, in the world. Therefore, to go against the Virtues and the Guides was to go against the will of heaven itself. For women, the stipulation of being obedient to the husband meant that the state of being a mother and a wife was deemed the highest achievement, which brought about an ethical stability of sorts, in which all persons knew their place in society.

The perception of women as wives and mothers is intimately related to the Confucian understanding of the two essential principles that govern both the world and the universe: the yin–yang (shady/sunny), and the nei–wai (inner/outer). Care must be taken to ensure that these principles are not interpreted as mutually exclusive or even oppositional; rather, they are to be seen as complementary opposites, in that the one principle finds completion in the other; nor can the one exist without the other or come into a position of dominance; and both are required to achieve harmony and balance. Whereas the yin–yang principle defines the characteristics of men and women, the nei–wai elaborates the realm in which each of them functions.

The Four Books for Women

It was within this Confucian context that the earliest woman historian of China, Ban Zhao (45–116 CE), composed her small but influential book Lessons for Women, in which she expounded the precept of the Three Obediences and the Four Virtues. The book received wide acclaim and was often entirely memorized by women to serve as a convenient vade mecum (Latin for “manual”) of proper behavior and comportment. The book consists of seven chapters: “Humility,” in which the female is described as being humble by nature; “Husband and Wife,” in which a woman is instructed to do all she can to serve and attend to her husband; “Respect,” in which a man is given the nature of hardness, while a woman is soft and yielding—therefore, a husband and wife are to treat each other with respect; “Female Virtues,” in which the Four Virtues and their benefits are stipulated; “Devotion,” in which a wife is advised to be entirely devoted to her husband; “Obedience,” in which the Three Obediences are outlined and explained; “Harmony among Younger In-Laws,” in which a wife is advised to work towards creating harmony among in-laws that are younger than she, as if she were their mother.

These various moral precepts sought to describe the ideal station for a woman in the world, namely, that of a wife and mother. Wisdom for a woman, therefore, resided in her ability to gain the knowledge that would ensure the achievement of her place in society. In other words, the realm of the woman was the house; that of men was the public sphere. But a woman did not naturally come by such domestic wisdom; she had to be taught it, just as men had to be taught the ways of the world. This brought about a concern to create and establish a system of education for women that would inculcate in them the spirit and willingness to become good mothers and good wives. Indeed, it was argued that just as men brought order into the world, so women brought order into the family and to the house; and an orderly family led to an orderly society. By the time of the latter Ming period (1368–1644), a specialized educational system for women was firmly established. Just as men studied the Four Books (The Analects, The Mencius, The Doctrine of the Great Mean, and The Great Learning), women were provided with their own four books, the first of which is Lessons for Women. The other three are The Women’s Analect by Song Ruoxin, the eldest of the famed Song sisters, in which the proper behavior of a woman is outlined: how she may educate herself in womanly virtues, how she is to bring up her children, how she is to treat her husband and her in-laws, and how she is to observe the various religious rituals. Then, there is Domestic Lessons, written by the Empress Xu, wife of the Ming Emperor Liu Xiang (77–6 BCE), in which the traditional Three Guides and the Five Virtues were made relevant to women living in the domestic sphere by way of examples drawn from the past.

The Traditions of Exemplary Women brought about a subgenre of books for women in which the lives of women deemed worthy were recounted, the reading of which would provide tangible examples which other women could imitate in order to become worthy themselves. However, these biographies of sorts do not simply relate the lives of good mothers and wives; rather, they show women involved in the entire breadth of Chinese society. For example, there are women who are both virtuous in the Confucian sense, as well as women who exist outside this traditional definition, namely, demonic and power-hungry women who act for their own benefit and advancement, and women who are skilled i
n debate, argumentation, and intellectual and cultural activities. Further, these biographies in no way show women to be docile creatures, who submit to the will of fathers, husbands, and then sons; rather, they show women who seek to fulfill their destinies as they will them to be, entirely outside the demands and wishes of men. Thus we read of women admonishing and shaming their husbands into action, of women defiantly mutilating their faces in order to avoid having to marrying a man they cannot respect or love. In effect, these biographies seek to define what the realm of a woman is in Chinese society; they do not seek to demarcate that realm. It may even be stated that when we read of such active and engaged women, we are being presented with the various possibilities available to them, rather than simply reading about the reification of the docile and submissive woman. But these examples may also be seen as the chaos that results when a woman does not follow the precepts that have been laid down for her.

Women and Universal Harmony

The Confucian ideal of womanhood was closely related to notions of order and disorder, in that personal behavior reflected universal harmony. Thus, a disobedient woman who acted without virtue created chaos in the sphere assigned to her, namely, the home; this chaos extended outwards to disrupt the world and society. Since women were inseparable from domesticity, they had no right to divorce or separate from a husband. But a husband could divorce his wife if she failed to obey and serve her in-laws, if she bore no son, if she talked too much, if she stole, if she was libidinous, or even if she became ill with some disease. The only time a husband could not divorce his wife was if he had married her when he was poor and had eventually got rich, if she had given birth within a given year, if she had no family to return to, or if she had officially mourned the passing of one or both of her husband’s parents.

The strength of this tradition is still prevalent in China, despite Maoist teachings to the contrary, and the old adage that men are in charge of external things and women are in charge of internal things is very much part of Chinese society.

Further Reading

Ayscough, F. (1975). Chinese women: Yesterday and today. New York: Da Capo Press.

Behnke, K. A. (2003). Lienü zhuan: The traditions of exemplary women. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from

Bernhardt, K. (1999). Women and property in China, 960–1949: Law, society, and culture in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cass, V. (1999). Dangerous women, warriors, grannies and geishas of the Ming. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Chang, Pang-Mei Natasha. (1996). Bound feet and western dress: A memoir. New York: Doubleday & Company.

Chung, Priscilla Ching. (1981). Palace women in the Northern Sung, 960–1126. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Cole, R. A. (1998). Mothers and sons in Chinese Buddhism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Croll, E. (1984). Chinese women since Mao. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Cusack, D. (1986). Chinese women speak. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square.

Davin, D. (1980). Woman-work: Women and the Party in revolutionary China. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (1991). Confucianism and family rituals in imperial China: A social history of writing about rites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (1993). The inner quarters: Marriage and the lives of Chinese women in the Sung period. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eunson, R. (1975). The Soong sisters. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts.

Fan Hong. (1997). Footbinding, feminism, and freedom: The liberation of women’s bodies in modern China. London: Frank Cass.

Gross, S. H. (1980). Women in traditional China. Saint Paul, MN: Upper Midwest Women’s History Center.

Hoe, Susanna. (2001). Chinese footprints: Exploring women’s history in China, Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong: Roundhouse Publications.

Jaschok, M. (1988). Concubines and bondservants: The social history of a Chinese custom. London: Zed Books.

Johnson, K. A. (1985). Women, the family and peasant revolution in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ko, Dorothy. (1994). Teachers of the inner chambers: Women and culture in seventeenth-century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1986). About Chinese women (A. Barrows, Trans.). New York: Marion Boyars. (Original work published 1977)

Ling, Amy. (1990). Between worlds: Women of Chinese ancestry. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lee Yao, Esther, S. (1983). Chinese women: Past and present. Irving, TX: Ide House.

Lee, Lily. (1994). The virtue of yin: Essays on Chinese women. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Tsai, Kathryn A. (1994). Lives Of the nuns: Biographies of Chinese Buddhist nuns from the fourth to sixth centuries. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal. (2009). Three Obediences and the Four Virtues. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2260–2263. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Historical illustration portraying the husband of a noblewoman. Women in China have historically been expected to obey the wishes of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons.

Historical illustration of two Chinese girls caring for their younger siblings. Being a mother and wife was traditionally viewed as the highest achievement a woman could reach.

Three Obediences and the Four Virtues (S?ncóng Sìdé ????)|S?ncóng Sìdé ???? (Three Obediences and the Four Virtues)

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