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  • Reconceiving Women's Equality in China: A Critical Examination of Models of Sex Equality
  • Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee (bio)
Lijun Yuan . Reconceiving Women's Equality in China: A Critical Examination of Models of Sex Equality. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005. xi, 137 pp. Hardcover $66.00, ISBN 0-7391-1005-5. Paperback $22.95, ISBN 0-7391-1228-7.

Following her "Ethics of Care and Concept of Jen" (2002)—a provocative response to Chenyang Li's "The Confucian Concept of Jen and the Feminist Ethics of Care" (1994)—Lijun Yuan in her Reconceiving Women's Equality in China (2005) restates her definitive rejection of Confucianism as a positive model for gender equity. In Yuan's examination of four historical models of sex equality—Confucianism, formal equality of the May Fourth era, substantive equality under Mao's directives, and equal opportunity in the post-Mao free market—Confucianism offers countless rationales for women's inferiority (p. 103). In her concluding chapter, "A Democratic Conception of Women's Equality," Yuan's proposed solution, as the title indicates, is by and large a liberal democracy of the Western model. Furthermore, according to Yuan, only within this liberal model is the Confucian concept of reciprocity useful to women at all. In short, to Yuan, the solution to women's oppression in China must be framed in the Western model of liberal democracy and Confucianism qua Confucianism offers primarily the oppression of women. Yuan's dichotomizing contrast between the progressive Western liberal tradition and the anachronistic, oppressive Confucian tradition, in my view, is unfortunate, since it only feeds into this already poisonous attitude of Western imperialism with the West offering the only progressive future for the rest of the inferior societies plagued by their own sexist traditions. If feminists and scholars alike are to be conscious of this sort of neocolonial discourse in a feminist disguise, a greater [End Page 288] attention must be paid to the reappropriation of non-Western traditions as viable alternatives for women's liberation.

In her historical journey into Confucianism in chapter 1, "Confucius, Confucianism, and the Confucian Rationale for Women's Inequality," Yuan decisively rejects the possibility of a progressive future within a Confucian framework. As Yuan writes in reference to three contemporary revivals of Confucianism in the modern context of feminism offered by Chenyang Li, David Hall and Roger Ames, and Tu Weiming, "I will challenge these interpretations by arguing that Confucius and Neo-Confucians converge in a unified line that contributes to the notion of the inferiority of women" (p. 2). In Yuan's estimation, Confucianism is synonymous with oppressive social roles for women, and its ethical ideal of ren is only achievable for men.

In particular, in restating her 2002 rejection to Chenyang Li's claim of the compatibility between Confucianism and feminist care ethics, Yuan argues that Confucian ren differs from feminist care ethics in that the later aims at eradicating the oppression of women while the former is not applicable to women who are relegated to the category of the moral inferior. As she writes, "The category of women, just like the category of small men in the The Analects, is different from the category of junzi (gentlemen). Women simply do not count in Confucius's mind" (p. 15). Differing from Li who relegates sexism in Confucianism to Dong Zhong-shu and the Cheng-Zhu school, Tu Weiming advocates a gender-neutral understanding of Neo-Confucianism in which the moral achievement of self-cultivation is available to both genders. Yuan repudiates Tu's claim by pointing to the empirical evidence in China's past (p. 16). Yuan, once again, rejects this alternative view of Confucianism as well. To Yuan, the Confucian concept of correlative dependency or reciprocity is inseparable from the concept of hierarchy, which, in turn, is incompatible with her proposed democratic model of sexual equality. As she writes, "In my view, the issue of women's equality is inevitably related to issues of democracy that oppose a value of hierarchy" (p. 22). In short, to Yuan, Confucianism seems to have nothing useful to offer to a progressive world, especially in regards to the issue of feminism and democracy.

In fact...