Women's Virtue in Ancient Times

Tian Dandan

PureInsight | August 18, 2003

[PureInsight.org] I have spent a lot of time reading Confucian classics, commentaries on Confucianism, and even the twenty-four classic works of history. I soon discovered that modern people know very little about China before the Song Dynasty. Another interesting topic I came across in my studies is in regards to how virtue was defined for women throughout history.

The Song Dynasty appears to be a turning point regarding the definition of "women of virtue" in Chinese history. The claim to fame for most virtuous women before the Song dynasty was that they made significant contributions to the country and its people, were outstandingly talented and took courageous actions, were wise enough to differentiate right from wrong in morally depraved times, or because they were highly devoted to their parents and husband, and on the like.

After the Song Dynasty, the model for a most virtuous woman became someone who safeguarded her chastity under trying circumstances. As for those women who safeguarded their chastity, many of them decided to refrain from seeking a second marriage until the country was no longer under attack from the northern barbarian tribes, or until they had taken their personal vengeance against the enemy who had murdered their husbands. Some of them were not really interested in a second marriage, because they were either not interested in marital relations, or because they were too attached to their deceased husbands. The women of virtue has again taken on a new meaning since the Song Dynasty as a tragic result of a historical figure, Zhu Xi's, extreme advocation of abstinence. In other words, prior to the Song Dynasty, women were in control of their own decisions and completely indifferent to social propaganda. No one could pressure a woman into comforming to any particular stereotypic definition.

Plus, there is a misconception that the extreme acts of chastity were widely lauded. Actually many ancient historians did not record many such acts because they did not want to honor such behavior. For example, the commonly shared responses among Chinese historians toward widows who refused second marriage were characterized by such phrases as "her strange behavior," "what pitiful behavior," or " I feel sorry for her decision," and so on. Some widows disfigured themselves to prevent a second marriage because of an attachment or a promise to a deceased husband. Women who took this path were considered as lacking rationality and self-esteem. Naturally, no historian in their right mind would praise such behavior, as this kind of behavior cannot be further from a virtuous act.

When it comes to the virtue of a woman, "femininity is the foundation of benvolence; safeguarding one's chastity with one's life is an endowment of righteousness." (From the 79th Biography of Virtuous Women in Bei Shi, a Chinese history book). In other words, genuine virtue in a woman rises from benevolence and righteousness. Self-disfigurement is hardly an act of righteousness. These are acts of an extremist, and very far from Confucianism's Golden Mean.

Can one conclude, therefore, that a woman's genuine virtue is reflected by a woman's conformity to benevolence and righteousness? Not exactly. When a woman had no other way to safeguard her chastity but with her life, it was a sign of a depraved society. When acts of benevolence and righteousness were praised, it was a sign that such acts had become rare in a morally degenerate society. According to the theory of mutual generation and mutual inhibition, the advocacy of benevolence and righteousness actually indicates the loss of benevolence and righteousness. On the flip side of the coin, if everybody valued virtue and upgraded their mind and soul, the standard for evaluating benevolence and righteousness would also be upgraded.

I wanted to briefly share my understanding on the subject of women's virtue because I feel it is one of the obstacles in our truth clarification efforts. Modern people might like many aspects of the ancient society, but think certain things done in the ancient time were backwards. Our perception of what actually went on in the ancient times is actually based on a twisted, wrong understanding of ancient times, so we have been removed from the truth. Such understanding of ancient times becomes a barrier for everyday people to understand the truth about China. Moreover, because most of us are not historians by profession, we know little about ancient times. Besides, we used to be those everyday people.

Translated from http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2003/7/16/22480.html

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