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Chapter One INTRODUCTION Discourse on gender oppression marks the modernity of China in the early twentieth century. In the late Qing period, literati belonging to the Reform Movement and to the May Fourth Movement in the era of the early Republic , in particular, capitalized on the inferiority and unspoken misery of Chinese women in history as part of an emerging nationalistic discourse.This was the discourse of the new generation confronted with China’s countless defeats and humiliations at the hands of the new imperial power of Japan as well as the West. Victimized, illiterate, rural Chinese women systematically oppressed by the patriarchal family, which was in part supported by the feudal ideology of Confucianism, became the symbol of what was wrong with Old China. China was in desperate need of new value systems to replace the useless ones that were unable to withstand the military force of the West. Although what was needed to replace the old value systems was still uncertain at the time, what needed to be discarded was clear. In the nationalistic discourse of the early Republic, anti-Confucian sentiment ran high. In the political arena, a total purge of Confucianism was completed during the Communist Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s and this purge was viewed as the beginning of New China, the beginning of modernized China and of its entry into the international community of the New World.The May Fourth Movement and Communist China both radically rejected Confucianism, seeing it as the root of China’s malaise and inferiority. Their nationalistic discourse, in turn, laid the foundation for the later Western feminists’ and Asian specialists’ representation of Confucianism as the root of gender oppression in the history of Chinese women. Beginning in the early 1970s, there was a surge of interest in Chinese gender studies on the part of Western feminists as well as Asian specialists who often frame Chinese women’s liberation chronologically in relation to Western intellectual traditions.1 The surge of feminists’ writings and the like on the condition of Chinese women formed part of the grand feminist movement toward constructing a global history of women designed to validate feminists’ 1 2 CONFUCIANISM AND WOMEN defiance of patriarchal social structures as well as the social construction of gender in the West. By going beyond the Western sphere, feminists intended to validate their insistence on the urgency of the problem of gender oppression , while expanding their sphere of concern to include their less fortunate sisters in the third world. The dream of forming a global sisterhood across cultural, geographical, religious, and ethnic boundaries underlies the wellmeaning intent of Western feminists in their writings on the condition of third world women. While the concept of “gender” is well articulated and deconstructed in contemporary feminist scholarship, the concept of “culture” remains relatively marginal in cross-cultural studies of the problematic of gender.The lack of attention to the element of “culture” in feminist writings constitutes an obstacle to a genuine understanding of the gender system in an alien culture, where gender is encoded in the context of a whole different set of background assumptions. Indeed, our conceptual framework is that within which the world first becomes intelligible to us, since we only come to comprehend the meaning of the world through participating in a network of shared cultural assumptions of the nature of the world. Hence, in any attempt to understand an alien culture, we must first of all understand the “Otherness” of the other, and the imposition of our own cultural assumptions must be held in check. In China, the background cultural assumption is by and large informed by Confucianism—the most prominent intellectual tradition in Chinese history. Although it is true that blunt, imperialistic statements degrading Confucianism are no longer discernible in this age of political correctness, the imperialistic sentiment of the superiority of Western ethical theories in regard to the issue of gender parity continues to be assumed in the theoretical background . For the fact that the viability of Confucianism as a feminist theory has never been affirmed or suggested by feminists or sinologists, whether they are sympathetic to Confucianism or not, is itself suggestive of the assumed superiority of Western theoretical traditions in relation to gender. Naturally, it begs the question: Why not Confucianism? In this project, I will try to take that first step to provide a conceptual space for scholars to imagine the possibility of Confucian feminism. However, by singling out Confucianism, I am not...


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