Gender Roles in Traditional East Asia Essay

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Confucianism is one of the major factors that influenced gender views and perception in traditional East Asia, particularly in relation to the treatment of women in these societies. Confucianism is primarily a teaching that was brought by Confucius, a philosopher, political figure, and educator. The teachings of Confucius formed the foundation of education in the traditional societies in East Asia, especially in China, Korea, and Japan. Confucius teachings affected many things in these societies including fixing gender roles between women and men. Based on these teachings, which influenced nearly every facet of life in the conventional Korean, Japanese and Chinese societies, placed women at a disadvantaged position. The teachings contributed to the development of a patriarchal environment in these societies, which worked to the disadvantaged of women. This paper examines how women exerted power and influence in a patriarchal environment in these three societies and what it teaches us about gender in the traditional East Asia.

Patriarchal Environment in Traditional East Asia

Family organization in the traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese societies was primarily patriarchal. The patriarchal family organization in traditional East Asia is evident in the fact that men dominated public aspects of life while women were given private aspects of societal life, which was centered on taking care of the households. For instance, the traditional Chinese society was characterized by male-centered marriage and patterns of inheritance while women played relatively no role in these vital aspects of life (“Connections: Western Imperialism”, p.296). The emergence of the patriarchal environment in traditional East Asia is attributable to the teachings of Confucius, a philosopher, political figure, and educator who fixed gender roles in these societies.

Confucius teachings on how people should interact with others in the society has significant impacts on family organization and societal structures in traditional East Asia. Through these teachings, Confucius provided instructions on the perfect range of human interaction including relations between husband and wife, father and son, the elderly and the young, leaders and their subjects, and between friends. These teachings became the definitive features for determining individual roles in the traditional societies in East Asia. Additionally, the teachings provided the premise for defining and fixing gender roles as part of determining family organization and social structure.

Confucianism privileged the male over the female in traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean societies. Through differentiating gender roles between men and women in the society, Confucius seemingly placed women at a disadvantaged position in the society, while promoting male dominance, which contributed to the emergence of the patriarchal environment in traditional East Asia. Women were required to obey their fathers, husbands, and sons as well as demonstrate the virtues of diligent work, demeanor, behavior, and speech. Based on Confucianism, women were required to obey male figures in the society because women’s roles were centered around the home whereas men’s roles were centered outside the home (Clunas, p.141). For example, in the traditional Korean society, women’s duties at home included carrying meals and alcohol on top of their heads (E-Wha, p.180).

Since women’s roles in the traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese societies were centered at home, medieval documents have very little information regarding women at work or in public spaces (Yasuko, p.99).
Actually, there is very limited literature or documentation of female commoners at work in comparison to documentation on aristocratic women who worked in palaces in traditional East Asia. In cases where women had public roles in villages, such roles were restricted in some considerable ways. For example, women’s names did not appear in the payment rosters for shrine land, which was the collective land for the community (Yasuko, p.115). In cases where women contributed financially to the accumulation of shrine land, their contributions were not formally acknowledged on paper. This is an example of women’s exclusion from public obligations, which were male-centered and male dominated. In light of the fixed gender roles by Confucianism (i.e. Confucius’ teachings), the traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean societies gradually delegitimized the capacities of women through excluding them from public obligations and significant public activities. This contributed to the emergence and development of patriarchal environment in traditional East Asia. The devaluation of women in public and restriction of their roles to the home had significant effects on the structure of household relationships and contributed to the emergence of a society where men were the dominant members.

Women’s Power and Influence in a Patriarchal Environment

As shown in the analysis of the development of a patriarchal environment in traditional East Asia, its clear that gender roles brought by Confucianism devalued and disadvantaged women while promoting male dominance. Men’s roles at home and in the public sphere evolved to an extent that male figures were the dominant members in the traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese societies. The male-centered and male dominated structure of these societies not only disadvantaged women, but also raised significant concerns among women. These concerns emerged because of the impact of male-centeredness on the structure of relationships at home and in the society (Yasuko, p.115). In light of the male dominance in these traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese societies, women started to negotiate the patriarchal environment as a means of confronting male dominance and dealing with the disadvantaged position they were placed by Confucianism. Women exerted their power and influence in a patriarchal environment in various ways including the following:

Using the Domestic Realm to Generate Social Transformation

One of the ways women in traditional East Asia exerted their power and influence in a patriarchal environment was through using the domestic realm to generate social transformation. The domestic realm provided a suitable environment for women to exert their power and influence in the patriarchal environment through playing a critical role in defining the structure of relationships in the household and the society. Women utilized the domestic realm to bring social transformation in these societies because no women resided inside the city since they resided in suburbs or villages (Polo, 1). Within the domestic realm, women were involved in the administration of the household because….....

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Works Cited

Clunas, Craig. Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. University Of Hawaii Press, 2016.
“Connections: Western Imperialism (1800-1900).” pp. 296–303.

Deuchler, Martina. “Confucian Legislation: the Consequences for Women.” The Confucian Transformation of Korea: a Study of Society and Ideology, Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1992, pp. 231–282.

Haboush, JaHyun Kim. “Female Rulers: Queen Dowager's Edicts and Letters.” Epistolary Korea: Letters in the Communicative Space of the Choson, 1392-1910, Columbia University Press, 2009, pp. 29–312.

Lee, E-Wha. “11. Farmers' Co-Ops (Dure) Bring Peasants Together.” Korea's Pastimes and Customs: a Social History, Homa & Sekey, 2006, pp. 174–210.

Pettid, Michael J. “Ritual and Seasonal Foods.” Korean Cuisine an Illustrated History, Reaktion Books, 2008, pp. 68–209.
Polo, Ser Marco. “CONCERNING THE CITY OF CAMBALUC, AND ITS GREAT TRAFFIC AND POPULATION.” The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, vol. 1, John Murray, 1903, pp. 1–2.

Pomeranz, Kenneth, and Steven Topik. The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present. 2nd ed., M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 2006.

Tonomura, Hitomi. “The So Village.” Community and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan: the Corporate Villages of Tokuchin-Ho, Stanford University Press, 1992, pp. 37–187.

Vaporis, Constantine Nomikos. “Obtaining a Divorce: An Appeal for Assistance (1850) and Letters of Divorce (1857, Undated).” Voices of Early Modern Japan: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life during the Age of the Shoguns, Westview Press, 2014, pp. 6–216.

Yasuko, Tabata. “Women's Work and Status in the Changing Medieval Economy.” Women and Class in Japanese History, Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1999, pp. 99–118.

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