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Confucianism and Gender Roles in Dynastic China and South Korea

Confucius (Kong Qiu) lived at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period 551 BC to 479 BC under the rule of the Zhou dynasty (1045-221 BC). After working as a granary keeper and district officer, Confucius joined the Lu government as the minister of works and minister of crime.[1] When he was a government official, the three great clans attempted to remove the duke from power. Confucius tried to remedy the situation through diplomacy, but he could not convince the last clan to unarm and lower their defenses.[2] Consequently, he left the court to wander around Wei, Song, Chen, and Cai for fourteen years. He met with other rulers to propose methods of establishing a virtuous government. None of the leaders were interested in his ideas due to their greed.[3] Confucius returned to Lu after Duke Huan passed away.[4] While Confucius is known for Confucianism, old traditions inspired him. He wrote, "I transmit but do not innovate. I love antiquity and have faith in it" (Analects, 7:1).[5] One example is ancestor worship, which began during the Neolithic era.[6] The Classical Confucian texts are Yijing (Classic of Changes), Shujing (Classic of History), Shijing (Classic of Poetry), Liji (Record of Rites), and Chunqui (Spring and Autumn Annals).[7] 

The Duke of Zhou, Zhougong, inspired Confucius because the former royal valued political stability and social harmony. Confucius valued filial piety, rites, virtue, and education. He pondered humaneness and cultivation.[8] Confucius advised his disciples, "Guide them with virtue and align them with li, and the people will have a sense of shame and fulfill their roles" and "Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.”[9] Kong Qiu only mentions women once: "17.25 The Master said, Women and small men are difficult to nurture. If you get too close to them, they become uncompliant, and if you stay too distant, they become resentful.” [10] Some people claim Confucius was sexist, while others do not. Emperor Wudi adopted Confucianism during the Han dynasty.[11] 

During the Warring States period, Mencius (371-289 BC) studied Confucius's teachings and focused on moral judgment. He believed that humans are born good.[12] Mencius discusses the Five Cardinal Relationships (Mencius): "Between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness.[13]

According to the Book of Rites, sisters could not dine with their brothers. Women had to observe the Three Obediences (obey father, husband, and son) and Four Virtues (morality, modest manner, diligent work, and proper speech) during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-219 AD).[14] Parents arranged marriages in dynastic China. However, both sexes were required to live in separate quarters, and rarely interacted with the opposite gender. Once a woman was married, she had to live with her husband's family and obey her in-laws. Women with male children increased their influence. They were responsible for raising and educating their sons, who could not disrespect them due to filial piety.[15]

Zhu Xi (1130-1200) constructed neo-Confucianism. His father taught him about Confucianism, and he passed the civil service examination when he was eighteen. Li Tong, a Song Confucianism scholar, continued to teach Zhu Xi.[16] During the 1000s, philosophers discussed Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and metaphysics. Zhu Xi quit politics because he did not like current government policies and wanted to be a scholar. Zhu Xi treasured reading. His teachings were influenced by Cheng Hao (1032-1085), Shao Yong (1011-1077), Cheng Yi (1033-1107), Zhou Dunyi (1017-73) and Zhang Zai (1020-77). Zhu Xi also commented on the Analects and Mencius in 1177. Zhu Xi's Lunyu (The Analects), Daxue (The Great Learning), Zhongyong (The Doctrine of the Mean), and Mengzi (The Mencius) became orthodox until the late 1800s.[17]

Under (neo)Confucianism, a woman (represented by nei) can only be a daughter, wife, and mother. They cannot be a friend (you), ruler (jun), scholarly knight (shi), or minister (chen). Women lacked opportunities to make friends or travel outside their homes. Girls learned basic reading skills, manners, and domestic duties, such as preparing meals, cooking, and embroidery. On the other hand, boys had a “classical” education. Women leaders and scholars were rare in dynastic China. Some exceptions were Ban Zhao (106 AD), Song Ruoxin (820/825 AD), Song Ruozhao (820/825 AD), Empress Renxiaowen (1405 AD), and Woman Liu (1580 AD). These five women wrote about womanly conduct (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).[18] 

Marriage (jiaqu) had a different definition for men and women. Jia means to find completion/a good home for women, and qu means to have a bride for men. A woman relinquishes her home, and a man gains a bride. Marriages served to continue ancestral rites and continue a man’s bloodline. The ideal woman was loyal, chaste, and bore a male son. The law forbade wives from leaving their spouses. If a woman became a widow, she could not remarry.[19] Women's rights improved under the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Women could remarry, learn, and work (Orozco 2017, 10).[20] During the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1643) dynasties, women had to obey the emperor, their father, and their husband. During the period, "losing morals was viewed much worse than starving to death".[21] A widow was expected to commit suicide after her husband died to show loyalty.[22] 

Men in the Republican Period (1911-1949) could tolerate women working, if they stayed away from politics. Some men believed that women were less educated, and their presence in politics "would bring crisis to family life".[23] Women gained some freedom during the Cultural Revolution, but their problems were overlooked. They held some political offices, but women had no real power.[24] China shifted to a market economy during the 1990s, and society believed that women should work at home again. During the 21st century, Chinese women use "feminity-related" instead of "feminism" because the latter is associated with the West and capitalism.[25]

South Korea

Confucianism, along with Buddhism and Daoism, entered Korea before 500 AD. Confucianism/Ruism is Yuhak, or Yugyo in Korean.[26] Before the Joseon dynasty, women had rights and freedoms. In Silla (57 BC-935 AD), women could work, learn trades, pay taxes, and influence politics.[27] Silla had three Queens: Seondeok (632-647), Jindeok, and Jinseong.[28] During the Koryŏ dynasty (918 AD-1392 AD), women could interact with men and inherit property. Neo-Confucianism spread during the Koryŏ/Goryeo (고려) dynasty (918-1392), partly due to Han Yu (768-824), a Chinese scholar (Korean Confucianism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The rise of Confucianism in Korea can also be attributed to An Hyang (1243-1306) and Paek I-jong (1247-1323).[29] The philosophy became more popular during the Joseon/Chosŏn (조선) dynasty (1392-1897).[30]

Between 1400 and 1900, women were seen as frail, troublesome, and dependent. The government restricted women from going to outdoor events and riding horses. Society called girls "robber women" (todungnyo). Like Chinese women, Korean women lost their identity after they were married. People called them "wife of..." and "mother of ..." Men could divorce women for seven reasons: disobedience, jealousy, disease, talkativeness, theft, adultery, and failure to have a son. A widowed woman had with two options: live in poverty or commit suicide.[31] Kisaengs, or entertainers, were an exception. They were supposed to be intelligent, charming, and promiscuous.[32]

Rituals became extremely important during the late 1400s. According to the Grand Code for State Administration (Kyŏngguk taejŏn 經國大典) If a man did not complete rituals, they could be beaten, jailed, or put to death. This led to the torture and death of at least 8,000 Catholics between 1866 and 1871. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, Koreans blamed Confucianism for losing sovereignty.[33]

During the 1900s, Japanese soldiers took Korean women as comfort women, or sex slaves due to their perceived naivety. (Thomas 2012, 4).[34] Several Korean fathers sold their daughters to make money. An estimated 90,000 to 200,000 Koreans were comfort women (Thomas 2012, 5).[35] Thomas (2012) compares the degradation of Korean women to the fall of Korea (Thomas 2012, 5).[36] They were berated by Japanese men for being Korean and inferior. When the war ended, Korean society shunned them because they were impure and a disgrace. As a result, most women kept their stories to themselves for fear of being ostracized (Thomas 2012, 10-14).[37]

South Korean women still face discrimination today. According to the Economist's "Glass Ceiling Index" magazine, South Korea was the least women-friendly OECD country in 2023 (HRW 570).[38] The company measured educational progress, maternity leave, and female managerial positions (HRW 570). Between 2019 and 2021, more children were victims of digital sex crimes (HRW 571).[39] Women also face sexual harassment at work. Victims rarely come forward due to stigmas and the possibility of getting fired. South Korean law states that employers should pay men and women equally. However, this is not the case. South Korea’s gender pay gap was 31.5% in 2020. Half of women work, whereas 70% of men work. This is partially due to maternity leave (US Department of State 2023).[40] 

Discussing feminism is taboo in South Korea, as the line between feminism, radical feminism, and misandry is blurred. Young men despise feminism partly due to their definitions of meritocracy, unemployment, and misogyny. Unlike their ancestors, young Korean men believe they are victims of gender (in)equality. Men in their 20s and 30s are against equal pay, hiring more female CEOs, and appointing women to the executive branch.[41]



[1] Encyclopedia Britannica ‘Confucius” n.d. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.

[2] Homer H. Dubs. ‘The Political Career of Confucius’ Journal of the American Oriental Society (1946) Vol. 66 No. 4 p. 273-282.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica n.d. (n 1)

[4] Dubs (n 2)

[5] Confucius ‘Analects’ 7:1

[6] Mark Cartwright ‘Ancestor Worship in Ancient China’ (17 October 2017).

[7] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ‘Korean Confucianism’ 24 November 2021.

[8] Encyclopedia Britannica (n 1)

[9] Robert Eno. ‘The Analects of Confucius’ (2015) Indiana University Bloomington ; Dina Orozco, ‘Confucius vs. The Women of China: A Feminine Struggle’ (Fall 2017) California State University Long Beach. 9.

[10] Eno (n 9); Orozco (n 9, 17)

[11] Dull, Jack L. “Wudi” (3 Aug 2022) Encyclopedia Britannica

[12] Encyclopedia Britannica (n 1)

[13] 3A:4 Mencius, translated SB-Chan 69-70; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (n 7)

[14] Xiongya Gao. ‘Women Existing for Men: Confucianism and Social Injustice Against Women in China’ (2003). Race, Gender, & Class 10(3), 114.

[15] Gao (n 14)

[16] Encyclopedia Britannica ‘Zhu Xi’ (14 Oct. 2023) Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.

[17] Encyclopedia Britannica (n 16)

[18] LH Rosenlee ‘Gender in Confucian Philosophy’ (2023) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[19] Rosenlee (n 18)

[20] Orozco (n 9), 10

[21] Ibid, 12

[22] Gao (n 14)

[23] Shen Yifei ‘Feminism in China: An Analysis of Advocates, Debates, and Strategies’ ; Orozco (n 9), 21

[24] Orozco (n 9), 14

[25] Ibid, 22

[26] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (n 7)

[27] Katrina Maynes ‘Korean Perceptions of Chastity, Gender Roles, and Libido; From Kisaengs to Twenty First Century’ (Feb 2012) Grand Valley Journal of History Vol. 1 Iss. 1, Article 2.

[28] Maynes (n 27)

[29] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (n 7)

[30] Ibid.

[31] Maynes (n 27)

[32] Ibid.

[33] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (n 7)

[34] Rebekah Thomas ‘The Evolution of the Status of Women in Colonial Times to the Present’ (Spring 2012) Coastal Carolina University.  4

[35] Thomas (n 34)

[36] Ibid, 5

[37] Ibid, 10-14

[38] Human Rights Watch ‘World Report 2024’ (2023), 570

[39] Human Rights Watch (n 38)

[40] United States Department of State ‘2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: South Korea (March 2023)

[41] S. Nathan Park ‘Why So Many Young Men in South Korea Hate Feminism’ (2021) Foreign Policy.


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