Episode 2

The Subordination of Women: Ideology versus reality

Professor Yi Shaoyin, Shanghai Normal University:

"Han gender ideology can be summed up in three points.  One is how women related to men.  In strict description it was that the male is superior and the female is inferior. Second was the social space for women. They were supposed to remain in the interior of the household… while the exterior of the public space belonged to men. Women were excluded from public life.

Thirdly, how should women behave? There is the famous doctrine of the Three Obediences.  As a young girl and a young married woman at home, women should be obedient to the father. Once married the wife should be obedient to the husband. And what if your husband dies? You should be obedient to your son”

Professor Yi Shaoyin's students holding the Lienu Zhuan Scroll

Professor Yi Shaoyin's students holding the Lienu Zhuan Scroll

“But in reality,  particularly in the Former Han Dynasty, this is not at all the case. In fact for the entire Han dynasty,  it was not the case. First, in politics women exerted great influence; two or three most powerful women in the court ruled for years behind young or even child emperors. Further down in a society you see women did not remain in the household, but participated in agriculture, in economy particularly the production of textiles.  Because all these contributions to the society, women were equal, or almost nearly equal, participants of economic life. Women actually paid tax, when the tax was collected based on the population, women paid equally.  

Women were also drafted into building the  Great Wall. For projects like this you know much later on you only see drafting of males, but in the Han women were drafted too.  Moreover, widowed mothers actually had great influence in household affairs. Inheritance laws gave them certain rights to their husband’s wealth and property. In that era, it didn’t all go to the sons.

So you see the ideology and the reality of the Han Dynasty did not match.  The subordination of women was meant to be descriptive of the social reality – and that is  as later people tend to read them -  but in fact it was prescriptive and meant to change reality.”

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Jakucho Setouchi, Novelist:

"Until the Meiji period, women were not supposed to study. Men could study, but there was no need for women to study. The only purpose for women was to get married. That was a way of thinking in Japan. When Raicho Hiratsuka started the Seito movement, it was a wake-up call. It was the beginning of Women's Liberation in Japan. And now, 100 years later…

Jakucho Setouchi with Amanda Foreman

Jakucho Setouchi with Amanda Foreman

This is the age of women. There are not many female politicians yet. Maybe the world still sees  Japan as a male-dominated society. But women have become stronger compared to the past. The number of working women has increased. Japanese men are falling down. There are young men called grass eaters. They are like plants.They have no sexual desire. So this is the age of women in Japan."