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  • The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender
  • Li-Hsiang (Lisa) Lee
The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender. Edited by Chenyang Li, with a foreword by Patricia Ebrey. Chicago: Open Court, 2000. Pp. xiii + 256.

The relationship between Confucianism and sexism, or between "the sage and the second sex," as Chenyang Li suggests in the title of his new anthology The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender, is a complex issue. For one [End Page 429] thing, scholars who engage in the field of Chinese gender studies would immediately be confronted with the questions "What constitutes Confucianism?" and "Can such sexist social practices as footbinding, concubinage, and widow suicide in premodern China be attributed to Confucian ideology?" Yet, since the surge in interest in women's studies in the 1970s—and even as far back as the 1930s—the Confucianism in Western feminist studies on the condition of Chinese women has commonly been portrayed as a sexist, feudal ideology that is solely responsible for the oppression of women in China. In some sense, the attribution of women's oppression in China to Confucianism is justified, since Confucianism, as scholars generally agree, is the underpinning of the social structure of China. However, by reducing Confucianism to a set of hierarchical kinship and rigid gender roles in its ritual presentation, one also overlooks the dynamic aspect of Confucianism, whose ethical theory of ren as well as its emphasis on self-cultivation, at least on the theoretical level, are akin to the feminist ethic of care and its understanding of the self as socially constructed. In other words, Confucianism, despite its historical and social connection with women-oppressive practices, is also an ethical theory of care, self-cultivation, and proper relations, which can provide a platform for the flourishing of a harmonious society. The similarities, and hence a possible convergence, between Confucianism and Feminism are, then, the subject of Li's anthology.

The engagement between Confucianism and Feminism, however, as Li points out in the Introduction, has long been one-sided; that is, feminists criticize Confucianism for victimizing Chinese women (pp. 1-2). The characterization of Confucianism by Western feminists as a patriarchal ideology through and through is indeed an over-simplification of the root of women's oppression as well an obstacle to achieving a genuine understanding of Confucian ethics. And the lack of research studies from contemporary Confucian scholars on the issue of sexism has also fueled the misunderstanding. The well-known disagreement between Margery Wolf and Tu Weiming on the openness of Confucian self-cultivation is a case in point. Yet, as Li points out, Confucianism cannot remain a world philosophy and religion if it continues to ignore the issue of sexism and fails to respond to the feminist critique of its role in women-oppressive practices (p. 1). Li's anthology is an attempt to reconcile this antagonistic relationship and to overcome the one-sided engagement between Confucianism and Feminism by exploring the possibility of a rapprochement based on their common approach to ethics and their understanding of the self as a relational one. In short, this collection can be seen as a bold experiment on a positive convergence between two seemingly conflicting ideologies.

The Sage and the Second Sex is a collection of ten heterogeneous essays whose eleven contributors represent such divergent fields as philosophy, religion, history, Asian languages, and interdisciplinary studies. Although the content of the essays is diverse, the anthology as a whole, according to Li, aims to provide a starting point where Confucianism and Feminism can begin to come to terms with one another (p. 19). In general, the content can be divided into three different themes: first, the commonality between Confucian ethics and Feminist ethics; second, the Confucian [End Page 430] construction of gender and its solution; and third, the representations of women in early China.

The essays that fall into the first category set out to demonstrate the similarity between Confucian and feminist ethical thinking and hence to suggest that a significant convergence is possible. For instance, Chenyang Li, in his pioneering contribution "The Confucian Concept of Jen and the Feminist Ethics...