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  • Confusion, Elision, and ErasureFeminism, Religion, and Chinese Confucian Traditions
  • Vivian-Lee Nyitray (bio)
Chenyang Li, ed., with a foreword by Patricia Ebrey, The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender (Chicago: Open Court, 2000), 256 pp + xiii.
Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), 200 pp + ix.
Joanne D. Birdwhistell, “Mencius” and Masculinities: Dynamics of Power, Morality, and Maternal Thinking (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), 158 pp. + ix.

Over the past two and one-half decades, scholarship on China has amassed a wealth of data exposing the historical shifts in conditions of women’s lives and examining the gendered effects of state-sponsored Confucian patriarchy.1 Not surprisingly, fresh views of women’s victimization have been exposed, even as other studies reveal that particulars of time, class, and locale allowed surprising degrees of female agency and authority. Familiar feminist strategies of reading canonical texts against the grain and of mining local records, biographies, and diaries have fueled recovery of Chinese women’s voices and historical experiences. Studies of sexuality, labor, migration, and urbanism have increasingly employed sex and gender as principal categories of analysis. Recent scholarship is particularly rich in documenting the late imperial period (Qing dynasty, [End Page 143] 1644–1911), the Republican era (1911–49), the Maoist era (1949–78), and the present reformist era in the People’s Republic of China (since the mid-1980s). Studies of women in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and diasporic and transnational communities worldwide complicate the picture usefully. In fact, so many monographs focused on women in late imperial and modern China have been published that historian Gail Hershatter, when asked to write a “state of the field” essay, found it necessary to restrict her assessment to (a) English-language studies of (b) twentieth-century (c) majority Han Chinese women (d) on the Chinese mainland. These restrictions notwithstanding, she still amassed roughly five hundred citations.2

In sharp contrast, I realized quickly that my intended review of feminist studies of Confucian traditions, particularly if restricted to Chinese cultural contexts, might be the shortest such essay in the history of the JFSR. The fact of the matter is this: of the hundreds of works that examine the intersection of Confucianism and Chinese women’s lives, few interpret Confucian traditions in religious or spiritual terms, and even fewer adopt a feminist approach in doing so. Of course, an explicitly religious analysis is not the only way to ground a feminist study of Chinese (or other) traditions of Confucian thought or cultural practice, but the relative paucity of such studies is notable.

Contributing factors are several. First, there is no agreement on the definition of “Confucianism.” The Chinese term for “Confucian,” ru, seems originally to have had multiple meanings but eventually denoted a scholar or classicist; its association with Confucius (551–479 BCE) and his followers stemmed from their derivation of an ethico-political system from ancient texts. Over the centuries, Confucianism has been vaunted as a continuous narrative of culture/civilization and vilified as a tool of the state—an “imagined world” lacking in cultural essence or continuity but promoted cynically as a means of social control. In the 1920s, both of these characterizations figured in the May Fourth/New Culture Movement’s attack on the tradition as a remnant of patriarchal “feudal ideology” that had kept the nation technologically backward and its women oppressed; patriotic duty required the expulsion of “Confucius and Sons.”3 More recently, under the guise of “Asian values,” Confucianism has been valorized as the force powering the late twentieth-century engines of economic success achieved by Japan and the Four “Mini Dragons” of Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore. As varied as these characterizations are, they are alike in understanding Confucian traditions as deeply rooted in, and expressive of, a distinctively [End Page 144] patriarchal familialism. Confucianism thus represents a system of historically patrilineal and patrilocal social structures bolstered by the demands of ancestral veneration and regulated through codes of filial behavior.

Yet Confucianism is also rightly understood as a moral philosophical system. Over the past thirty years, many Western-trained philosophers have focused their attention on the earliest texts of...


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