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Knowing ancient views on women via classics

Author  :  CHEN QITAI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-01-06

Gender Studies on the Book of Rites, Book of Changes and Book of Songs

Author: Jiao Jie 

Publisher: China Social Sciences Press

The Book of Changes, the Book of Rites and the Book of Songs are arguably the three most classical works of literature in ancient China. Their rich materials offer insight into ancient lifestyles. However, most research on the three classics concentrate on their ideology, value systems, customs and rites, and cultural influence, while few examined what they reveal about gender issues and women. Jiao Jie, author of Gender Studies on the Book of Rites, the Book of Changes and the Book of Songs, examined the three classical works from a gender perspective and analyzed views on women in them in more than 200,000 words.

Combining theoretical research and literature review as a whole, the book is both a unique work of gender studies, and also a historical book of great academic value. Despite the special angle and methodology it adopted, the book came up with bold explanation on conventional annotations by examining ideas from rites, customs, value systems, ways of thinking and aesthetic preferences.

Chapter two focuses on the Book of Changes. In the original meaning of the Book of Changes, the images of Qian, meaning the heaven, and Kun, meaning the earth, were not related to the sexes of man and woman. But because the interpreters had a biased gender position, the Book of Changes also reflected the idea of the supremacy of man in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). Jiao investigated the relationship between the virtue of “heaven and earth” and gender awareness, views on family and marriage, several aspects of sexism that developed since the Warring States period (475-221 BC), and the traditional gender concept of male representing Yang and female representing Yin.

Chapter three discusses the Book of Rites. It analyzed the establishment of the traditional gender hierarchy in which man is superior to woman in the following aspects: the initiation rite that prefers boys to girls, marital rites that literary intelligentsia should abide by that also emphasize family ethics, a dress code during mourning that extremely prioritizes patriarchy over matriarchy, and the consolidation of the authority of the husband since the Warring States period.

Chapter four concentrated on the Book of Songs. It elaborated on the formation of the traditional view of females characterized by “fair maidens” and “good wives” through examining the original intention of “a quiet and modest maiden,” a literary image that won popularity among literati, views on beauty and women in pre-Qin times, and the code of conduct of the empress and the wives of feudal nobles recorded in the Mao Chuanzheng Proverb.

Jiao also analyzed the changes in the view of women throughout the three classical works with her profound knowledge of philology. She pointed out differences between these views and brought forth the ultimate reasons for the different interpretation in different times. In general, the classic view of women emphasizes either woman’s relationship with a large family, or their obedience to their husband. This actually explored cultural evolution from the rites and music system in the Zhou Dynasty to the centralized feudal culture in the Qin and Han dynasties from a unique angle.

Editor: Yu Hui

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