Social Roles and Statuses of Women in Imperial China: Confucianism as Opposition to Neoliberalism

Original article

Konstantin S. Sharov,                            

PhD, Senior Lecturer, Moscow State University, Russia

Address: Leninkie Gory 12 bld 1, Moscow, 119234, Russia



Meifeng Ng,                            

PhD (Religious studies), PhD (Gender studies), Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Address: 21 Lower Kent Ridge Rd, Singapore 119077


Henry Chen Lim,                            

Intern, DBS Bank, Singapore

Address: 22 Malacca St, RB Capital Building, Singapore 048980 

Article ID: 020310207

Published online: 12 December 2018




Quoting (Chicago style): Sharov, Konstantin S., Ng, Meifeng, and Henry Chen Lim. 2018. “Social Roles and Statuses of Women in Imperial China: Confucianism as Opposition to Neoliberalism.” Beacon J Stud Ideol Ment Dimens 1, 020310207.

Language: German

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The paper considers the social statuses and roles of women in Imperial China since the Zhou era. The portrait of a woman proposed by Confucian thinkers is compared with the real social situation of women in China. It is proved that despite serious and sometimes just criticising the Confucianism by modern liberal researchers, the doctrine of Confucius in most cases considered a woman as a legally emancipated creature equal to a man. Confucianism legitimised the high social statuses of widows and mothers, and gave women the right to perform a wide range of social roles outside the scope of family: from a midwife to a military general. The treatment of women in Imperial China is compared in the paper with the gender equality development in Europe.

Key words: gender, female social roles, Confucianism, imperial China, social statuses, feminism, Confucian ideology

Extended summary in English


Our time is characterised by multiple attempts to spread the modern European neoliberal ideology to different countries and different cultures. This may be a not-so-promising approach, if we wish to study non-European cultures and development of non-European societies properly.


In the article, we discuss the female social statuses and issues in gender equality in imperial China. We demonstrate that we cannot regard the situation of women in imperial China as a direct abuse by men. The situation is more complex. There was no gender equality in China of Han to Qing dynasties, if we understand it on the basis of what we imply by gender equality now. However, there was also no direct abasement of women in Han-Qing China, if we speak of abasement in terms of slavery or strong social dependence. As well, in the article we compare the modern European ideology of gender equality with the Chinese ideology of Confucianism. We show that in Confucian imperial China, the social roles of women in the family were much more prestigious than in Europe of those times.


We analyse female social roles and statuses in the Confucian culture of Chinese Empire since Zhou dynasty to the end of the Empire in 1912 in the context of developing the Chinese society. The Confucian tradition is commonly accused in legitimating the suppression of women. The renowned Confucian social thinkers of the 20th century Xiong Shili, Mou Zongsan and Liang Shuming remain silent on Confucian gender social attitudes. So, we undertook this research to enlighten the Confucian understanding of place and role of women in the Chinese imperial society as well.


In the writings of Confucius himself and renowned Confucian scholars Mengzi, Xunzi, Dong Zhongshu, Zhu Xi, Cheng Yi, a woman is considered as an equal human being with a man, but with a predisposition to highly emotional reactions to her surroundings. It led many Confucian masters of later historical epochs to deny female ability to occupy political offices in imperial China. This notwithstanding, classical and late Confucianism is a doctrine that defends gender equality. In the writings of classical Confucian authorities and later Confucians, we can find almost nowhere the patriarchal and sexist claims against women, nor the legitimisation of women suppression by men. The Confucian culture treated a woman as a noble human being equal to a man. But in Confucian culture, a woman may have been easily socially discriminated by another women, e.g. if they belonged to one kin, and the woman in question was the youngest in the family. Many Confucian norms fixed in Li Ji and other classical writings, protected the right of elder women to manipulate younger women’s social roles.


Women in China were often oppressed by their husbands, and this behaviour was severely criticised by Confucian culture. But much more often they could be very strongly oppressed by other older or more authoritative women (mainly by their mothers-in-law, sometimes other elder female relatives), and this was not regarded as a social crime in Confucian culture but a proper social tradition. Separate living for young families has never been typical in imperial China, because Chinese families were traditional. In these families, the head was the eldest widow. Therefore, it is easy to imagine the social difficulties faced by young daughters-in-law. The highest social statuses were occupied by widows, who could treat younger women with utmost cruelty and prescribe lower and less honourable social roles for younger women; it was a common thing in the Confucian society.


However, women were not outside the Confucian society as some authors argue, but on the contrary, equally to men they were keepers of this cultural tradition, passing it on to the future generations through child education. E.g. female Confucian master Ban Zhao during her lifetime enjoyed popularity comparable to such outstanding and authoritative Confucian male masters as, e.g. Xunzi. Most women in imperial China did not claim higher social statuses that they normally had since they were the transmitters of Confucian ideology. However, in comparison with medieval European women, Chinese women enjoyed an access to a wider circle of social roles. They could be writers, actresses, warriors, chief military commanders (including highest ranks of generals), philosophers, musicians, historians, poetesses, Confucian professors without any loss of social reputation.

© 2018 Konstantin S. Sharov; Meifeng Ng; Henry Chen Lim.
Licensee The Beacon: Journal for Studying Ideologies and Mental Dimensions.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( that permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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