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Chapter Two CONFUCIANISM, CHINESE-NESS, AND REN VIRTUOUS PERSONHOOD It was quite evident that sexism prevailed in premodern China, given the existence of notorious social practices such as female infanticide, child-servant/ child-bride, concubinage, footbinding, and widow chastity across a wide range of different historical times and regions. These practices not only reflected unbalanced gender status and power, but also called into question the state sanctioned moral teachings of Confucianism since Confucianism is understood in its historical narratives as a teaching of self-cultivation, care, and proper relations.Yet despite the state’s upholding Confucian moral teachings as orthodoxy , the severe subjugation of Chinese women persisted in premodern China. In a word, there is an irreducible gap between Confucian moral teachings and the historical reality of gender oppression in Imperial China. The issue of gender oppression inevitably leads to the question of what, if anything, Confucianism as a system of ideas contributed to the social abuse of women. And, in what way could Chinese women be seen as active participants in the Confucian discourse of virtue ethics and ritual propriety? The interconnection between Confucianism and Chinese sexism is complex. One should resist the temptation to postulate an affinity or a transparent relationship between Confucianism and Chinese gender oppression. In order not to make uncritical assumptions, scholars who engage in the field of Chinese gender studies should immediately confront the following questions: “What is Confucianism?” and “In what way could dominant social practices such as footbinding, concubinage, and the cult of widowhood be attributed to Confucian teachings?” In other words, how does one identify the “Confucianness ” in the practice of footbinding, concubinage, etc.? Conversely, how does one identify the “sexist” components in Confucianism as a whole? Finally, is there such an inevitable causal link between “Confucianism” and “sexism”? In short, is “Confucianism” sexist through and through? In order to sort out the answers, we must first of all have a genuine interest in understanding Confucianism as a system of ideas, its unique place in Chinese civilization as well as its use and abuse by the imperial court throughout history, otherwise any attribution of women’s oppression to Confucianism would seem superficial. 15 16 CONFUCIANISM AND WOMEN Since the surge of women’s studies in the 1970s and even as far back as the 1930s, Confucianism in early Western scholarship on the condition of Chinese women has been commonly portrayed as a sexist, patriarchal ideology that is responsible for women’s oppression in China. Most notably, early French feminist Julia Kristeva, in her book About Chinese Women, boldly entitled a chapter “Confucius—An Eater of Women” in 1974.1 And as late as the mid1990s , Confucianism was still by and large characterized by scholars as a patriarchal ideology that should be discarded as irrelevant to the modern and supposedly superior, Western way of life. For instance, Margery Wolf, in her assessment of Tu Wei-ming’s popular reinterpretation of neo-Confucianism, wrote: “The Confucian principles defining the propriety of hierarchical authority structures and the orderliness of the patriarchal family system seem anachronistic in this age of multinational corporations in Fujien, and young people from Shanghai acquiring Stanford MBAs. But to my surprise, books about Confucianism still sell well, and a superb Harvard scholar named Tu Wei-ming writes cogent ‘reinterpretations’ of neo-Confucian thinking that are very close to being ‘guides’ for modern living.”2 The disparaging undertone in Wolf’s perception of Confucianism is clear. For her, Confucianism—a useless ideology of Old China—is synonymous with patriarchy and misogyny. The anti-Confucian sentiment in feminist works is highly inflated. But in some sense the attribution of women’s oppression in premodern China to Confucianism is not without justification, since Confucianism, as scholars generally agree, underwrote the social structure of China and dominated its intellectual traditions, especially after the establishment of Confucian teachings as the orthodox official teaching beginning in the Han dynasty of the second century BCE and lasting until 1905 with the termination of the Confucian text–based civil service examination system in the Qing, the last dynasty. However, Confucianism should not be reduced to a set of hierarchical kinship and rigid gender roles, since in this reductionism one overlooks the dynamic aspect of Confucianism, whose ethical theory of ren 仁 as well as its emphasis on the lifelong project of self-cultivation and maintaining proper relations, at least at the theoretical level, are akin to the feminist ethic of care and...


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