Gender and sexuality are just a few topics in conflict with the dichotomy of the past and the present. Confucian values center around order and hierarchy, particularly in the home. The husband and father is the most well-respected at the top of the hierarchy, and even in the event of his death, the eldest son would become the head of the family, before the wife and mother. Even the Chinese language persists the conception of male dominance. In phrases involving man and woman, such as “男女平等“ or “夫妻”, the character for man is always placed first.
Yet the hierarchy is not the only aspect of society in which women were placed below men. Women were expected to maintain the household and prepare meals. From the tenth through the twentieth centuries, women were also expected to bind their feet, an excruciating process to make women daintier and more feminine. Not only was this incredibly painful and dangerous to the physical health of women, but it also made it very difficult to move without the aid of others – presumably, men. While foot binding is no longer a widespread practice, it was still a cultural phenomenon throughout much of China’s revolutionizing and modernity. At some point, it became imperative to let go of harmful tradition, and allow women to become members of society.
The early to mid twentieth century was also marked by the “New Woman” movement, which in conjunction with the May Fourth Movement and a revolutionary fever that infected many of China’s youth paved the way for a shift in gender roles. Women were encouraged to pursue their academic goals and embrace their sexuality. This was a particularly evident movement in literature and the arts. Authors such as Ding Ling exposed the inner-workings of a woman’s mind at the time, specifically in works such as “Miss Sophia’s Diary” that was published in the 1920s and explored a woman’s love triangle. Other literary works represent somewhat of a splice between the old and the new – where women are pursuing their own passions and education while men still often have lingering expectations and thoughts of past gender roles.
The aforementioned examples represent ways Confucianism has permeated gender roles in China. With the advent of the “New Woman” in the mid-twentieth century, Chinese society began to pave the way for more gender equality – however, Confucian values still cast a shadow on modern day gender roles.