Ancient Chinese View on Women
In most areas of the world, including China, women are subordinate to men. Ancient Chinese philosophies like Confucianism institutionalized the concept that women served men and that a woman could not be independent of male dominance. According to Lisa Ralphs in her analysis of gender differences in early China, the Threefold Obedience doctrine states that women pass through three stages in their lives: "to their fathers as girls, to their husbands as wives, and to their sons as widows" (Raphals 1998).

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A drawing of the Yin & Yang symbol depicting the winter and summer solstice. Yang (male) is the light side and Yin (female) is the light side.
Chinese view on on gender differences is based primarily on cosmology. According to ancient Chinese texts, there are two forces: yin and yang. Yin is female, which is dark and negative whereas yang is male; it is light and positive. Yin and Yang are needed to preserve balance in the universe. Thus, both sexes have responsibilities depending on their gender roles to maintain order within society. Men focused on matters of the state and on their social lives while women were in charge of the household activities, even though they were still under male supervision. (Ralphs 1998)


Furthermore, polygamy, specifically polygyny, has existed in China for many generations since before the first dynasty. If women were in charge of the household, then did polygamy possibly aid in accomplishing homely duties? It is important to note, however, that Chinese society did not accept polygamy entirely because they saw marriage as a relationship between only one man and one woman, which correlates to the binary pairing of yin and yang. Nevertheless, Chinese culture does recognize that men have numerous sexual desires and that there must be at least one male heir to care for the
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A traditional Chinese wedding
family after the father passed away. Therefore, they sanctioned the practiced of concubines, who were subservient to both the man of the household and his wife. (McMahon 2010) This view on polygamy is similar to that of Muslim belief. My colleague, Melissa Rios, focused her Wiki page on Social Relations in Ancient Egypt where she discussed Muslim view on marriage. In this part of the world, polygamy also functions as a guaranteed way to ensure that a man has at least one male heir to succeed him.

(For more information about polygamy, please visit Polygamy.com)

Despite sexism in China, women have gradually elevated their status throughout the centuries. For instance, during Tang dynasty, women had much more freedom to do as they pleased than in previous times and were permitted to participate in society's changing culture towards hedonism. Women experimented with the different fashion trends like cross-dressing and lavished in the luxuries of this time period. They even pursued traditional male activities. Moreover, it was during the Tang dynasty that the first and only empress ruled China. (Airphoto International Ltd. 1999) This progression towards freedom can be observed through Peking opera, which is a style of theater where Chinese history has often been depicted through its various plays. It became widespread during the late eighteenth century. Since then, female characters have gained more importance and recognition on the stage as time has passed since the late 1700s. (Jie et al. 2004)

Below is a video sampling Peking Opera for the common viewer:






Chinese Beauty

In ancient China, a woman was to appear like a flower in the springtime, lovely and alluring. The painting A Palace Beauty depicts this ideal Chinese woman of the Imperial Court standing near a banana tree, adjusting her hair. This
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A cropped portion of the painting A Palace Beauty (Laing 1990)
stereotypical woman was supposed to care deeply about her physical appearance because, according to various love poems, she could only keep a man's love by her beauty. This ideology illustrates that Chinese women, from an anthropological viewpoint, were acknowledged only for the way they looked and less for how intelligent or talented they were. This superficial belief in beauty was most likely the reason why there was a limitless quantity of young concubines for an emperor because aging and the gradual loss of beauty were inevitable. Therefore, a constant resupplying of young beauty would have been necessary to satisfy an emperor's sexual appetite. In regards to the woman shown in the painting, A Palace Beauty, she was probably a concubine, tidying herself up before meeting with her beloved emperor for as long as her physical appearance allowed her to do so. Furthermore, women of the Imperial Palace were admired for their beauty regardless of how plump or slender they appeared. Many concubines who wished to catch the Emperor's eye often paid large amounts of money to a painter so that he can draw them at their finest. In addition to their looks, they were taught palace etiquette because a concubine had to know her place within the palace. (Laing 1990) In Egyptian art, women were also idealized as beautiful, fragile beings, according to my colleague, Jennifer Corbin. This recurring theme in Chinese art is also present in other areas of the world.




Archaeology of Ancient Chinese Figurines and Beauty Tools from the Tang Dynasty, courtesy of The Close UP Series and Airphoto International Ltd

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Figurine depicting the elaborate dress and hairstyle trends of the Tang dynasty


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Figurine displaying the 'just fallen off the horse look' hairstyle which was very popular thanks to imperial concubine Yang Guifei
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Figure holding a mirror. The concept here is that Chinese women cared intensively for their looks becuase beauty defined a woman more than her intellect. The textile imprinted on this figurine can be seen despite the partial errosion.







































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Part of a gold comb used by Tang women to shape their extravagant hairstyles.


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A beautiful gold ornament that was once used to pin on the forehead with glue.


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A powder compact case made of jade with carved mandarin ducks and lotus motif.


These artifacts indicate that regardless of how silly or fancy the fashion trend was, women of Ancient China went to great lengths to be and stay 'beautiful.'


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