Historical illustration of women at work. The Chinese saying, “Women hold up half the sky,” reflects the importance of women’s roles through history—in the family, the field, and the factory.

Chinese women, as wives, mothers, and workers, have been central to the functioning of both state and society. In recent years they have contributed to Chinese state-building and commerce in the professions and also as soldiers and scholars, cadre commanders, and political leaders.

The Chinese expression, “women hold up half the sky,” describes the important role of women throughout China’s history. Confucius (551–479 BCE) believed that strong family relationships were the key to a moral society and, in turn, a moral state. Women thus contributed to state-building. In the upper-class mansions of traditional China, women managed the household and educated the young. In peasant households women worked alongside the men to shape family economies, however meager, that maintained the state.

China changed dramatically during the twentieth century. Women’s roles changed as well. No longer only domestic managers and family caregivers, women were now workers and professionals, soldiers and scholars, cadre commanders and political leaders. In the twenty-first century, women remain critical to China’s future economic growth and social stability.

Confucian China

Until the twentieth century, Confucianism prescribed the roles of women from birth to death through three sets of principles. The earliest set of principles was the “four womanly virtues,” set forth in Lessons for Women by the woman scholar Ban Zhao during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The four virtues were proper virtue, proper speech, proper countenance, and proper conduct. The next important set of principles was that of the “three obediences”: obedience to one’s father before marriage, to one’s husband when married, and to one’s son if widowed. Finally, there was the principle of bie (separateness). Women and men held different roles in distinct spheres. Women stayed at home. Elite men ran the state and commerce in the public realm. Peasant men worked the fields. Although separate in many respects, the lives of both women and men were a public matter. Because the family was the basic political unit in the Confucian system, the state had a vested interest in the lives of women and men alike.

The Confucian moral code applied equally to women and men. One of the five basic Confucian relationships was that between wife and husband. While husbands were placed over their wives, the principle of reciprocity (shu) required that husbands treat their wives with respect if they expected to be obeyed. The very important Confucian virtue of filial piety (xiao) required sons to honor and serve both their fathers and their mothers.

Aspects of the imperial bureaucracy also provided elite women with status and power in the family. Elite boys and men spent much time studying for civil service examinations. Passing these exams qualified a man for an official position and most likely a privileged life. As a way to curtail corruption, Chinese officials were not allowed to hold office in their home province. Once a man received an official appointment, he was assigned to a post far away. In their absence wives and mothers managed the household and often the entire family estate.

Foot Binding

No discussion of women in traditional China would be complete without mentioning the custom of foot binding. Foot binding was the painful practice of wrapping young girls’ feet so they would not grow. The practice has led to the stereotyping of Chinese women as victims of male subjugation and ornaments for male amusement. Yet foot binding was not condoned in orthodox Confucian literature. In actuality foot binding was an aesthetic fashion that was part of female culture.

Foot binding began during the Song dynasty (960–1279) as a fashion among courtesans. It was soon adapted by women in court circles. Tiny feet became a point of status and a mark of beauty for women in elite society. Because it was the custom in China for men to marry women of lower social standing, foot binding eventually spread across the social strata and became a means of upward mobility—or aspiration—for some families, as they would have their daughters’ feet bound to make them more desirable to prospective husbands of a higher social status.

Foot binding was a private female ritual. Mothers bound the feet of their daughters. Young girls embroidered intricate slippers as part of their trousseau and wrote poems about their tiny feet. Bathing and rebinding feet became a lifelong part of women’s daily toilet. Except for her husband, no man ever saw a woman’s feet, and even he never saw his wife’s feet unbound.

Women in Traditional China

The adage “men till, women weave” described gender roles in traditional China. Originally, it also described women’s economic contributions to the state. In early and middle imperial China (221 BCE–1279 CE), taxes were paid in rice and woven cotton cloth; thus, women were responsible for a portion of the family tax levy. Gradually, however, the adage referred to the differentiation of men’s and women’s work. Elite men served in public office; peasant men labored in the fields. Both elite and peasant women worked in the domestic household.

Women’s social status was based on their roles as wives and especially mothers. Producing children, especially boys, was highly valued in China’s patrilineal society. The custom of revering one’s ancestors made a male heir indispensable because only he could conduct these family rituals. The virtue of filial piety required sons to care for parents in their old age. Sons brought honor, prestige, and wealth to their families if they passed their civil service examinations and were appointed to government positions. Even the lowest bureaucratic position elevated the entire family to scholar-gentry status with its many class privileges.

Even with so much emphasis on boys, girls were equally necessary for a strong society because they were the ones to produce the next generation of male heirs. From earliest childhood girls were groomed for their future roles as wives, mothers, and daughters-in-law. Marriage was a social contract between families. A bride and groom never saw each other before their wedding day. An emotional attachment may or may not have developed between a wife and husband.

A wife’s primary relationship was with her mother-in-law, the ruler of the household. A woman’s status within her husband’s family was complicated, especially in a large extended family with many other women. Status for a woman was determined by her own age, the position of her husband in the family, and whether she produced a male heir. Her beauty, womanly virtues, and domestic skills also contributed to status, although in a minor way.

Concubines were “secondary” wives who were not legal wives; they also had little or no social standing. If a man’s first wife failed to produce a male heir, law and custom allowed him to bring a second woman into the household to father his son. The son was considered legitimate, but the first wife—not the concubine—was recognized as the child’s mother. While the practice of concubinage was officially condoned only as a means to secure a male heir, the practice of taking more than one concubine became a mark of wealth among the affluent.

Women in Modern China

China faced tremendous challenges over the last century and a half. Every aspect of Chinese life—social, political, and economic—changed during this time. This especially included the roles of women, who emerged from the domestic household to take an active and public role in building modern China.

Education was the key to women’s transformation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, women received educations outside of the home in missionary schools and private academies. Beginning in 1907 government-run schools began to accept women. Some women continued their studies in Japan or the United States. With the growth of higher education for women in China—through Christian union colleges for women founded between 1905 and 1915 and government-sponsored universities after 1919—women leaders were more likely to have been educated entirely in China.

Women’s modern transformation was very gradual, and there were setbacks. Professions only slowly opened to women. In the 1920s women worked as doctors and educators, and in many “white-collar” jobs in stores and businesses. Gradually women entered government service. Political rights were even more elusive. Both the Nationalist and the Communist parties were essentially patriarchal. The New Life Movement, an ideological campaign launched by General Chiang Kai-shek in the early 1930s, actually emphasized the four womanly virtues and sought to curtail women’s new public roles by promoting domesticity. But also in the 1930s a civil law code was finally passed that granted women many civil rights, such as the right to inheritance and property ownership.

Most of the progress women made in the first half of the twentieth century affected only women in the urban centers. In the rural countryside, where most of China’s population lived, life changed slowly, if at all. Wars, rebellions, famines, floods, and a growing population drove most of China’s rural populations into poverty. Infanticide, especially of girls, and the selling of girls into slavery, prostitution, and indentured servitude in factories and mills were common. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally put an end to these practices when it came to power in 1949.

The creation of the People’s Republic of China brought other significant changes to women. In 1949 women from various women’s organizations formed the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF). A quasi-official organization, the ACWF provided Chinese women their first real opportunity to have a voice in their own affairs and those of their country. Although ideologically bound to the CCP, the ACWF is exclusively a women’s organization that lobbies the government on behalf of women and helps enforce policy at the regional and local levels. In 1950 the government also enacted a series of marriage laws that, at least theoretically, made women and men equal under the law. The laws also legalized divorce and banned concubinage and the sale of brides. But women have also endured much. Political purges, ill-conceived economic reforms, and the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) compromised or destroyed the lives of thousands if not millions.

China’s rise as a world power has opened up even more possibilities for women. Educated, trained, and skilled women are helping drive China’s burgeoning economy. For the first time in history, many women are delaying marriage, finding financial success, and enjoying independent lives. However, as has been true throughout Chinese history, these educated, urban professionals represent only a small fraction of Chinese women. The majority of women living in the rural areas receive only middle school educations at best and, for most, marriage remains their only option. But even women from the rural areas are testing the waters in the new industrial centers springing up across China. Whether veteran party members or young urban elites or laborers, Chinese women still hold up half the sky.

Further Reading

Cong Xiaoping. (2007). Teachers’ schools and the making of the modern Chinese nation-state, 1897-1937. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.

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

Ebrey, P. (2002). Women and the family in Chinese history. London: Routledge.

Hershatter, G. (1997). Dangerous pleasures: Prostitution and modernity in twentieth century Shanghai. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ko, Dorothy. (1994). Teachers of the inner chambers. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ko, Dorothy. (2007). Cinderella’s sisters: A revisionist history of footbinding. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mann, S. (1997). Precious records: Women in China’s long eighteenth century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Spence, J. (1981). The gate of heavenly peace: The Chinese and their revolution, 1895-1980. New York: Penguin Books.

Tsao Hsueh-chin. (1958). Dream of the red chamber. New York: Anchor Books.

Wang Zheng. (1999). Women in the Chinese enlightenment: Oral and textual histories. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Women hold up half the sky.

妇女能顶 半边天

fùnǔ néng dǐng bàn biāntiān

Source: Littell-Lamb, Elizabeth A. (2009). Women, Role of. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2454–2458. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

In the twentieth century Chinese women began to take on a more prominent role in community leadership, politics, and the military.

The 1979 Women’s Delegation from China to the United States at the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin. The women also visited the Pentagon and New York City. COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL COMMITTEE ON UNITED STATES–CHINA RELATIONS AND THE JOHNSON FOUNDATION.

A young girl dressed in soldier’s garb greets a press plane landing in Beijing on 21 February 1972.

Women, Role of (Nǚrén de dìwèi 女人的地位)|Nǚrén de dìwèi 女人的地位 (Women, Role of)

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