| ]

This paper discusses the role of women in the Han dynasty based on the primary and secondary literature of the course. As has been the case for prior dynasties, family constituted the fundamental unit of society in Han dynasty. This resulted in the formation of patriarchal hierarchy. Legalism was extreme and the imperative nature of filial piety made the hierarchy to be codified in law. More over the needs of the group were above the needs of the individual and society was categorized into classes. Women are one of the class and enjoyed reverence however, women were not allowed to enjoy individual lives and were forced to assume the roles determined by the system.

The Primordial Filial Piety
 Influenced by the teachings of Confucius and other thinkers, Filial piety was given more consideration by the Han dynasty than its predecessors did. Filial piety implied a well run family where parents looked after the children and in turn children were expected to take care of their parents and support them in their old age. The importance of the Filial Piety is suggested by the fact that the brief classic of filial piety is considered to be written in the early Han dynasty. Filial Piety was defined as the whole hearted devotion to parents however the connotations are extended to accommodate for the devotion to superiors. (Ebrey) “Filial piety is the root of virtue and source of civilization.” (Ebrey) If man exhibited paramount filial piety, he could be exalted to the status of official in the society. The importance of filial piety enabled the family to be the central focus of allegiance for most Chinese. The important goal of each individual Chinese life was to serve his ancestors through sacrifices and safeguarding the lineage of the family. (Lockard)

Family was given prime consideration by the Chinese individual as it provided for psychological and economic security to him. However, it was led by a senior male and lineage was only traced through male line. In family, mother and father enjoyed apparently equal status and were revered by children equally. Given the ascendancy of filial piety and patriarchic nature of family life being driven by senior males, Women felt to be at a relative disadvantage compared to men. At childhood, daughter was expected to revere her father, when married she was expected to be faithful and loyal to her husband and finally as mother to be caring to her children.

Given the ascendancy of family, Chinese society has to a large extent, especially in Han dynasty, been a proponent of patriarch Confucianism. (Lockard) The ideals for women were selfless behavior, loyalty and faithfulness. However this didn’t override the importance of the female. Alluding to the different social positions she assumes, the importance of respect for women has been stressed. “They serve their mothers as they serve their fathers; the love shown them is the same.” (Ebrey) “The rulers didn’t dare insult the widows and widowers- not to mention the upper class or the common people.” (Ebrey) Some of the important female figures of the Han dynasty are Lu Zhi (wife of the founder of Han Dynasty), Yu Ji, Zhuo Wenjun, Huan Shaojun. (Peterson)

Men exercised the essential political power and had the right to control the property. Women had no ownership of property and were not inducted by the institutions holding political power. However, the hierarchy of powers was not flat. Rather, women of different classes enjoyed different status. For e.g. the female relatives of Han emperor had greater influence than most but few of male officials. One such example is the ascendancy of the grandmother of emperor. Given the importance of elders, she had the responsibility to choose the spouse of her grand children and even the future heirs of the throne. (Hughes and Hughes)

In Han dynasty, gender roles became stricter. However, Women were allowed to indulge in small scale trade. In addition to doing the household work and taking care of their children, they worked in farms and marketplace for long hours to meet the family needs. The social status enjoyed by women was different depending upon the social class and local patterns. Women enjoyed greater freedom in lower class given the needs of the family. However in the elite classes the freedom was more restricted. Women who worked in the fields and in market place exercised greater influence in their families in contrast to their counterparts in the rich families.

In addition to this, Han cities and societies were organized around categories. These included the rich class, women, lower class and scholar-gentry. Having assumed legalistic approach, the stability came at a cost of strict law and punishment for the poor. To curb the tendencies for criminal offenses, groups were responsible for individual actions. Though the judicial system was considered to be equal to everyone, the strict categorization and organization structure enforce the lower class to bear the brunt of strict legalistic approach. Since family was the unit of society, family bore the responsibility for individual actions. More ever, Polygamy was not allowed. Once widowed, a virtuous woman was not expected to remarry even if forced. She was expected to remain loyal to her husband memory and family.

Furthermore, One very unlikely trend in the Han dynasty was the beginning of biographies of virtuous women and stories about filial piety. (Rainey) One such example is the tribute to extraordinary women like Mencius’ mother. The basis of selection for the “extraordinary” was the respect for parents and husbands and care for children and family. Admonition of Women written by Ban Zhao is a manifestation of auspicious nature of these ideals. (Rainey) It inspires the women to be chaste in all ways and develop themselves as moral beings through education in morality. More over filial piety was glorified by admiration of sons and daughters embodying respect for parents and elders. Filial piety was put in perspective through the yin-yang opposite extremes. Obedience and loyalty on the part of children were rationalized as natural trends ordained by the Heaven. This notion ordained the primacy of male authority over children. Relationships hierarchy in family in specific and society in general were thus actively as well as passively based on generation, age and gender. (Rainey)

Family was the fundamental social unity in Han dynasty. This resulted in the formation of patriarchal hierarchy. Rulers in the Han dynasty adopted strict legalism and gave prime consideration to filial piety.  This meant that importance of family and hence patriarchal hierarchy was codified in law. Rulers and officials were proponent of patriarchic Confucianism. The codification of precedence of family over individuals in law, both in literal terms and in spirit resulted in increased restrictions for all individuals. Given the patriarchal nature, women were worse off. Respect for women was restricted to traditional roles. The respect directly emanated from the status of the family in the whole society. Given the aristocratic nature of governance in the Chinese society, poor families were bound to bear the brunt of the social injustice generally prevalent in aristocratic societies. This affected the relative rights of women in different classes too. For upper classes, women were bound to remain indoors, restricted by the filial piety for their husbands and children. In poor families, restrictions were loosened by the economic forces and women were allowed to work in markets. Women enjoyed greater freedom in lower class given the needs of the family.  However the double standards regarding polygamy were uniform in the whole Han society. Men were allowed to remarry for procreation whereas women were expected to remain loyal to her husband even in the case of his death.

Moreover, women were not allowed to enjoy non-traditional individual lives and were forced to assume the roles determined by the system. Leadership chances were restricted for women. Even in the case of women being a regent, men exercised greater control of the decision making.  The patriarchal Confucianism portended that women exhibit faithfulness, loyalty and this implied that women were considered subjects more or less equivalent to the role of domesticated animals.

About The AuthorHamid Khan is a alumni of Lahore University Of Management Sciences. He has done his masters in Economics from LUMS.His areas of interest includes Economics and Social Sciences. He can be reached at 2hmdkhn(at-the-rate)gmail.com

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...