Confucianism is one of the most influential philosophical teachings in Asian region that had a great impact on the formation of the identity of several nations, including the Chinese and Korean ones. Due to a special emphasis on family, gender roles are one of the milestones that makes the Confucian society different from those influenced by other religions and ideologies. The issue of masculinity and femininity is quite complex, its controversy consists in the fact that viewed by the eyes of the Western culture representatives the women are oppressed by men, while seen from inside this situation can be treated in a different way.
To many researchers of Confucianism its focus on hierarchy and order is one of the most evident principles that have shaped societies on all levels. Because of the structured roles that people play in relation to each other, the traditional opinion has been that Confucianism equals patriarchy, and moreover women as dominated by men and excluded from any meaningful roles in society. However, having a closer look at some of the epochs it becomes evident that development of Confucianism is not linear throughout history, geography and social classes.
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Thus, taking Song Dynasty as an example, several features of Confucianism can be traced. Taking place in the historical period between 960–1279, it is characterized by supremacy of rural culture. So, considering women in this context, it would be interesting to explore how class differences determine the place of women within Confucian ideology. Overall, the role of a woman is considered within a unit of the family, which typically consisted of five to seven people during this epoch. One more aspect was that whether a woman was married or not, this fact determined her family belonging. While a single woman was under an authority of her father, after she got married she transferred to her husband’s family. Her role was now a daughter-in-law, and her husband’s parents were now those people whom she had to obey. At the same time, she did not stop caring for her parents’ family, the bond was preserved even after her marriage: “If her natal family is rich and marital family is poor, she would want to take some of the former’s wealth to aid the latter; if her marital family is rich and natal family is poor, she would want to take some of the former’s wealth to aid the latter.” (Zang 128)
There existed a code of instructions for women, which determined their behavior to different members to their families. On the one hand, discipline is the aspect that is commonly cherished in Confucianism, on the other hand, however, it was stressed that the role of a woman in a family is vital. So, the paradox is that Confucian ethics is so demanding to a woman because she is foundation to the whole family and welfare of all its members depends on her. In case a woman does not follow the prescribed rules, harmony of other family members is under threat; she is the one who creates the emotional climate, so that is why her duties should be strictly observed by her. There is one reason why a woman’s role was confined to being a housewife and avoiding work of all kinds, except pleasant pastimes. A woman was believed to be a source of energy for her man, and her task was to grow and preserve this energy to “feed” him. The more powerful a woman was in this sense, that is the happier and more harmonious, the more powerful she was able to make her husband.
Speaking about family, it was definitely true that Confucian society was based on patriarchy. This means that being a man was a privilege, and it was also important to give birth to a boy. So, a woman’s role was to help the male part of the family live on thanks to a newborn man. “. The earlier the marriage, the earlier the birth; the more births there were, the more productive labor there would be: these were the necessary conditions of the survival and growth of a family. Therefore, it is natural that a woman who gave birth to many sons would be valued by her family”. (Zang 131) There were several reasons that allowed men to divorce their wives, including that of giving birth to girls only. However, the researchers note that in reality this reason was seldom used by men. Confucian society did not approve of divorce, so many men preferred to stay married while having a lover. Their wives closed their eyes to this fact, as being divorced would be a much greater shame for them.
At the same time, getting married after divorce or death of a husband was very common and not condemned by society. In most cases the second marriage was necessary because women did not work, so it was essential for them from the economical viewpoint. In this case she could even bring a husband to her own house and then he was considered as an official successor of her first husband. It is worth saying that there was a certain breach between the formal prescriptions of Confucianism and the real situation. While the rules were quite strict about women’s behavior, their application was based on practicality, so in fact the contrast between femininity and masculinity was not as drastic as might seem.
Confucianism in Korea
Like in China, Confucianism played an important role in Korea when dealing with the issue of a woman in society. Throughout history, emphasis was laid on several virtues of a woman that were considered to be outstanding. One of them was self-sacrifice in the name of a husband, there existed stories which were meant for women to teach them some good features of a real woman. During Chos%u014Fn dynasty (1392–1910) there occurred a significant transformation in the culture of Korean society. While in previous epochs women had enough freedom and were equal to men in different aspects, this new epoch brought some feature of Confucian ethics into life. One of the key changes was difference between primary and secondary wives: “secondary wives, usually originating from commoner or slave backgrounds, lacked social prestige and thus had little or no significance for their husbands’ patrilines. Secondary wives could challenge primary wives as sexual partners of their husbands but not as mothers of male offspring. Secondary sons were restricted, often completely excluded, from domestic rituals and (until the latter part of the dynasty) from public life and thus could not rival primary sons. (Deuchler 144) Another aspect was related to the theme of morality in relationships, which belonged to a female domain. While a man was responsible for all external matters, it was a woman’s duty to keep order inside the family. In Korea this obligation was ascribed to the primary wife, who was an authoritative person for all household. She was obliged to show her respect to her parents-in-law, and serve them, which was a criterion of a good wife.
To sum up, Confucianism had a significant impact on the roles and functions of women in society and family. On the one hand, they were dependent on their husbands and had to obey many rules and restrictions. On the other hand, such strict demands to women were determined by understanding of their power and influence on their family. For this reason responsibility was so high for them.