- Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation
The purpose of this book, as Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee explains in her deeply personal “Reflections and Conclusions” (p. 159f.), is “to answer to myself what it means to be a Chinese Confucian woman,” that is, to resolve “the tension between being a feminist and being a Chinese.” In a bold and original introduction (pp. 1–13; see also p. 139), the author takes Western feminists to task for regarding traditional Chinese womanhood as a heartrending condition waiting to be ameliorated—rather like beriberi—by superior Western theory and knowledge. Understandably repelled by this kind of cultural imperialism, Rosenlee sets out first to survey the origins and character of Confucianism, then to assess its role in establishing and cementing gender status in Chinese history; and finally to present the outline of a new Confucian feminism that would remain true to Chinese roots while affording women a just and dignified place in the world. This concluding vision (pp. 149–159) is genuinely Confucian in that it is centered on the goal of self-cultivation, especially the pursuit of ren . But it remains uncompromisingly feminist by insisting on equal opportunities, both moral and economic, for both sexes. [End Page 371]
The vast compass of Confucianism and Women is rare in the burgeoning field of Chinese gender studies. Some studies have focused on gender in Confucianism, others on women’s lives in various periods of history, but few attempt to correlate Confucian philosophy with the real experience of men and women through the ages. The reason is not obscure: in order to provide any meaningful answer to the question of Confucianism’s responsibility for, or tendencies toward, gender inequality in Chinese history, one needs to master two large and distinct fields: Confucian philosophy and Chinese social history.
Regrettably, Rosenlee is noticeably less familiar with the latter sources than with the former. Her book contains some embarrassing gaffes, as, for example, when she states that the Qin dynasty had only one emperor (p. 25), that the Guliang was a Qing commentary on the Zuo zhuan (p. 81), and that women were never granted titles or posthumous names (p. 128). Part of the problem is that she appears to be unaware of much of the secondary literature on Chinese history. Her sole source for the Song bureaucracy, for example, is E. A. Kracke—although even this guide should have been sufficient to reveal what is wrong with stating that “even in the heyday of Ru learning in the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE), Ru official-scholars held no substantial power in determining state policies, which were in the hands of the hereditary ruling house” (p. 25). Ministers like Sima Guang and Wang Anshi had no hand in determining state policies? This assertion will astonish anyone who has worked with primary documents of Song administration.
Similarly, some reference to the work of Nathan Sivin1 and Donald Harper2 might have proved helpful in the weakest section of the book (pp. 55–68), in which Rosenlee attempts to demonstrate, in a tenuous argument, that what she calls “the concept of yinyang wuxing” was originally a non-Confucian idea that was absorbed by the canonical commentaries to the Yijing (the so-called “Ten Wings” ), whereupon it laid the foundation for Han cosmology. The main problem with Rosenlee’s scenario is that she fails to provide a single example of wuxing cosmology in the “Ten Wings” (and I am unaware of any). There are references, to be sure, to yin and yang, but that is not the same thing as Five Phases cosmology. Indeed, conjoining yinyang and wuxing, as though they were but two elements of the same overarching philosophy, is inherently objectionable, inasmuch as the two concepts have very different origins and applications. One can find yinyang without wuxing in some texts, wuxing without yinyang in others, and yinyang and wuxing blended in still other sources.3
This mishandling of “the concept of yinyang wuxing” is...