Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation
Confucianism and Women argues that Confucian philosophy—often criticized as misogynistic and patriarchal—is not inherently sexist. Although historically bound up with oppressive practices, Confucianism contains much that can promote an ethic of gender parity. Attacks on Confucianism for gender oppression have marked China’s modern period, beginning with the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and reaching prominence during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The West has also readily characterized Confucianism as a foundation of Chinese women’s oppression. Author Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee challenges readers to consider the culture within which Confucianism has functioned and to explore what Confucian thought might mean for women and feminism.
She begins the work by clarifying the intellectual tradition of Confucianism and discussing the importance of the Confucian cultural categories yin-yang and nei-wai (inner-outer) for gender ethics. In addition, the Chinese tradition of biographies of virtuous women and books of instruction by and for women is shown to provide a Confucian construction of gender. Practices such as widow chastity, footbinding, and concubinage are discussed in light of Confucian ethics and Chinese history. Ultimately, Rosenlee lays a foundation for a future construction of Confucian feminism as an alternative ethical ground for women’s liberation.
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Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee. Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006, 200 pp. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 0-7914-6749-X
Many conceive of Confucianism as a thoroughly sexist ideology that has enabled the oppression of Chinese women throughout the centuries. However, in her perceptive and well-defined book Rosenlee sets out to challenge that commonly held assumption. Noting the lack of investigation by either sinologists or feminists in to the, “viability of Confucianism as a feminist theory,” Rosenlee asks the seemingly simple yet deceptively complex question, “Why not Confucianism?”(p. 2). She then spends the next 160 pages artfully exploring the variety of multifaceted answers to that question. Her ultimate goal is to form the beginnings of a foundation for a conception of Confucian feminism.
Rosenlee begins her book with a very informative and useful introduction in which she briefly and clearly lays out the objectives of her project. Her first objective is to explain the history and intellectual tradition of Confucianism. She then aims to clarify some of the different cultural conceptions formed and affected by Confucianism, such as yin-yang and nei-wai. Her third objective, “is to postulate possible interconnections between the Chinese gender system and Confucianism” (p. 3). Her final objective is to provide a launching point for a truly 21st century conception of Confucianism. After expressly listing these objectives she offers a detailed preview of the arguments she will develop in each of the six remaining chapters.
In Chapter 2, Rosenlee set out to address her first objective of clarifying the intellectual tradition of Confucianism. She starts by setting aside previously held assumptions many feminist have about Confucianism, which allows for a contemplative examination of its nebulous and obscure beginnings in Ru learning. Rosenlee is careful to stress, “That despite its intimate connection with the state, Ru learning was not identical to nor dependent on state power” (p. 5).
In Chapters 3 & 4, she directly tackles her second objective. By graciously devoting two entire chapters, one for the cultural concept of yin-yang and the other for that of nei-wai, Rosenlee has provided more than enough room to adequately and effectively explore the important and complex affects these two Confucian cultural categories have had on Chinese women.
Most of Chapter 5 is dedicated to an analysis of different primary sources written for and by women. These texts, called the Four Books for Women, are considered to be the female equivalent of the Confucian Four Books. Much like its male counterpart, these books define the proper place for women within relationships and therefore society. The analysis is deep and intriguing, but it is not the only example of the varied resources she employs for her book. She readily relies on other primary sources such as the Five Classics and the Mozi. Rosenlee also builds upon a solid foundation of previous scholar’s work, which she expertly employs. For example in Chapter 3 she utilizes Raphals’s analysis on the complementarily of the yin-yang nan-nu correlation found in the Mozi.
Chapter 6 directly confronts the complicated issue of Chinese Sexism and Confucianism. Rosenlee addresses the perplexing issues of female infanticide, concubinage, widowhood, and footbinding and how they are tied to Confucianism through, “the virtue of filial piety, the continuity of the family name, and ancestor worship – which require male decedents” (p. 9)., Rosenlee clearly views her project in opposition to the “conventional assumptions about third world women made in feminist scholarship” because she sees women as active in shaping and perpetuating sexist practices (p. 4).
In chapter 7, she does a superb job of seeking a compromise between feminism and Confucianism by proposing a hybrid ethical theory in which both schools give a little and in the end achieve a great deal. She also reimagines the
2 CONFUCIANISM CHINESENESS AND REN VIRTUOUS PERSONHOOD
3 YINYANG GENDER ATTRIBUTES AND COMPLEMENTARITY
4 NEIWAI GENDER DISTINCTIONS AND RITUAL PROPRIETY
5 DIDACTIC TEXTS FOR WOMEN AND THE WOMANLY SPHERE OF NEI
6 CHINESE SEXISM AND CONFUCIANISM