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A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity

Kelly James Clark and Robin R. Wang

The oppression of Chinese women is typically blamed on Confucianism. We present a version of Confucianism that relies on the metaphysics of the I Ching, one of the canonical Confucian texts, and on more characteristic Confucian doctrines. These metaphysical, anthropological, and ethical beliefs would, if fully implemented, replace the early Confucian hierarchy based partly on gender with a hierarchy based on virtue. This would in turn legitimate the full participation of women in society. Through the canonical Confucian texts we reconstruct the philosophical grounds for a Confucian vision of gender equity as grounded in a Confucian view of human nature and human excellence.

HE MISERY OF CHINESE WOMEN throughout history is well known: the binding of feet, female infanticide, loveless marriages, second wives, the widows obedience to the eldest son, widow suicide, and concubinage. This often horrific oppression of Chinese women is typically blamed on Confucianism and not without some justification. Confucius, who wrote very little about women, seems to have an unsavory view of them: The Master said: Only women and small men seem difficult to look after. If you keep them close, they become insubordinate; but if you keep them at a distance, they become resentful (Analects 17:23). Mencius, Confuciuss most important follower and interpreter, writes: When a daughter
Kelly James Clark is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49546. Robin R. Wang is an assistant professor of philosophy and the director of Asia and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA 90045. We are grateful for the helpful comments and criticisms of sinologists Philip Ivanhoe, Bryan Van Noorden, Daniel Bays, and Paul Goldin. The Calvin College Philosophy Department offered invaluable criticisms and suggestions. In addition, an anonymous reader offered helpful comments and criticisms aimed at clarifying positions and sharpening our argument. Journal of the American Academy of Religion June 2004, Vol. 72, No. 2, pp. 395422 DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/lfh035 2004 The American Academy of Religion


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marries, her mother instructs her. Sending her off at the gate, she cautions her, saying, When you go to your family, you must be respectful, and you must be cautious. Do not disobey your husband. To regard obedience as proper is the Way of a wife or concubine (2001: 3B2). And the Book of Rites speaks of the womans subservience to the man: Woman is a follower (cong). When she is young, she follows her father, when she gets married, she follows her husband, when her husband dies she follows her son (Chen: 531). These passages provided inspiration for the so-called Three Obediences of woman, progressively, to father, husband, and son. The attribution of the misery of women in China to Confucianism is representatively expressed by the contemporary scholar Julia Ching:
Confucius might have been revolutionary in some respects, but in others, he was too much of a traditionalist, keeping the ways of the Chou and rejecting those of earlier periods. An area in which Confucian humanism shows its limitations regards the role of women. The process for subjugating women to men began before Confucius, with the development of the patriarchal kinship system associated with the ancestral cult of the Chou period, together with confirmation of the hereditary male principle in the successions to the throne. The ritual texts speak of the Three Obediences, subjecting women to their fathers, then to husbands, and then to sons during widowhood. Doubtless, Confucius supported the patriarchal character of society in general. (94)

The common opinion is that the denigration and abuse of women in ancient China are a direct result of Confucianism. In this article we shall not try to explain away Confuciuss (and, therefore, early Confucianisms) belief in patriarchy (although we shall argue briefly that Confucius would not have supported, for example, foot binding and infanticide). Instead, a Confucian defense of gender equity is developed within the context of a Confucian understanding of human nature and human excellence.1 This view of women will be developed primarily from the I Ching (the Classic of Changes), one of the canonical texts of Confucianism; we also draw on the Analects and the Mencius.2 The

1 There is a tremendous variety of Confucianisms throughout Chinese history; there is no single, universal Confucianism. Even among the early Confucians there were vehement debates about, for example, human nature. Our view on gender equity is one of many possible views that might be held by a Confucian. It is not the view of any early Confucian. 2 The Confucian canon, developed after the time of Confucius, includes the Five Classics and the Four Books. The Five Classics are the I Ching, the Book of Documents (Shangshu), the Book of Rites (Liji), the Book of Songs (Shijing), and the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chun Qiu). The Four Books are the Analects, the Mencius, The Great Learning (Daxue), and the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong). There were various historical attempts to ascribe Confuciuss authorship (i.e., authority) to each of these texts.

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


Confucian view that we develop is a Confucian view that was admittedly held neither by Confucius nor by Mencius (or any other early Confucian). One might argue that our thesis is historically problematic because the metaphysical (yinyang) speculation of the I Ching is not essentially Confucian.3 Confucius himself offered little by way of metaphysical speculation in the Analects. And, although Confucius was historically considered the author/compiler/editor of the I Ching, it is not clear that he had much, if anything, to do with the creation of the text. In addition, none of the early Confucians discussed yin and yang philosophy systematically; the first Confucian to do so was Dong Zhongshu, who lived 400 years after Confucius.4 We concede this historical point, wishing to make clear that our argument is philosophical not historical. We simply accept the traditional assignment of the I Ching to the Confucian canon and seek its implications, whether recognized by any early Confucians or not, for gender equity.5 In so doing, we follow the spirit of the Sung Neoconfucians who made the I Ching central to their understanding and development of Confucianism (see Smith et al.). So we concede the existence of countertexts and simply accept the I Ching as authoritative for Confucianism at the outset.6 Hence, our view of Confucianism will be at odds with much of early Confucianism. Just as Confucius himself was clearly not a mere transmitter of the tradition (although he claimed he was in Analects 7.1), so, too, we are not mere transmitters of the early Confucian tradition.7 Sandra A. Wawrytkos nonstandard but not unjustified translation of Analects 2.11 allows for reform: [One who] re-warms the past and knows [how to] freshen it, may be regarded as a teacher (174). Likewise, Mencius (2001: 4B6) invites reform when he suggests that the spirit of the rites and of laws is more important than the rites and laws themselves.8 In a sense, we are suggesting what Confuciuss followers could have said about the roles of
We are grateful to Paul Goldin for raising this important point. Yinyang finds fuller discussions in such anti-Confucian texts as the Laozi and the Zhuangzi. 5 Much later some Confucians, such as Li Zhi, Yuan Mei, and Kang Youwei, defended the complete equality of men and women. For a discussion of Li Zhis (15271602) views, see Lee: 113129. 6 Dai Zhen of the Qing dynasty also believed that Confuciuss teachings on human nature and the Way of Heaven were found in the I Ching. He writes: In my youth, I read in the Analects the words of Duanmu (Zigong): One can hear of our masters cultural ornamentation, but one cannot hear of our masters teachings on human nature and the Way of Heaven. Only after I had read the Yijing did I realize that there is where his teachings on human nature and the Way of Heaven can be found (in Ivanhoe 2002: 125). 7 Most important, Confuciuss defense of meritocracy was a dramatic departure from the practice of hereditary kinship during the time of the Zhou. 8 In addition, Confucius contended that yi (righteousness) has the power and right to transform li (ritual). This issue is discussed in Ivanhoe 1990.
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women if they had more carefully attended to views about the nature of persons as found in I Ching, and the moral foundations of society as found in Confucius and Mencius.


A Confucian conception of woman is integrally related to a Confucian understanding of the cosmos. The genders female and male are placed within a cosmic harmony (he) that includes two opposite yet complementary forces, powers, or energies, namely, yin and yang. The most systematic discussion of the Confucian cosmogony is the I Ching; the remaining sources of canonical Confucianism are largely devoid of metaphysical speculation.9 As Benjamin Schwartz comments: The very fact that the book became canonical lends all its statements on ontological matters a peculiar weight for those in later ages who felt impelled to scrutinize the classics in search of an ontological foundation for Confucian values (395). The I Ching contains a series of sixty-four hexagrams that were used primarily for divination. When used for divination, the hexagrams were formed through a highly structured process of selecting sticks or, later, by the tossing of coins. The hexagrams are followed (or sometimes preceded) by appendixes (also called commentary or wings) that explain the metaphysical grounding of the hexagrams. The hexagrams, made of broken (--) and unbroken () lines, are constructed out of two, vertically arranged trigrams of three lines that combine into eight forms, each of which is gendered male or female. The eight primary trigrams are

The most fundamental hexagrams are qian and kun, which represent Heaven and Earth, respectively, the forces operating in the cosmos. They are the mechanisms of creation: all events and existences are the products of these two elements or forces.

9 All I Ching references are from Lynn. Lynns translation is based on the commentary of Wang Bi (226249 C.E.). In order to assist the reader to grasp better the meanings of the Chinese characters and the problems of translation, we will also include references to Wilhelm. Wilhelms translation is based on the commentaries of the Neoconfucians Cheng Yi (10331107) and Zhu Xi (11301200). Just as there is no single, universal Confucianism, there is no single, universal canonical Confucian text. And although most sources of canonical Confucianism are largely devoid of metaphysical speculation, Confucius did say that if he could add more years to his life, he would study the I Ching, thus freeing himself from serious mistakes. See Analects 7.17.

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


The first hexagram, qian, contains two masculine trigrams . Qian is Heaven, pure yang, and male: Qian consists of fundamentality [yuan], prevalence [heng], fitness [li], and constancy [zhen]. The action of Heaven is strong and dynamic. In the same manner, the noble man never ceases to strengthen himself (Lynn: 129130).10 Qian is the fundamental creative power, the dynamic, primal force of creation; it is the great beginning initiating action and, like brute or motive force, propelling itself forward; its potency becomes act. And the power of qian is persistent (zhen). The superior person, who is thus aligned with qian, heaven, has the inner strength to persevere to great moral success. The second hexagram, kun, contains two feminine trigrams . Kun is Earth, pure yin, and female: Kun consists of fundamentality, and prevalence, and its fitness is that of the constancy of the mare. Here is the basic disposition of the Earth: this constitutes the image of Kun. In the same manner, the noble man with his generous virtue carries everything (Lynn: 142144).11 The superior person is also guided by kun, the female, which is yielding, receptive, and directive of power and, like qian, productive of good. Qian initiates, whereas kun completes. Richard Wilhelm comments: It is the perfect complement of THE CREATIVE [qian] the complement, not the opposite, for the Receptive [kun] does not combat the Creative but completes it. . . . Strictly speaking there is no dualism here, because there is a clearly defined hierarchic relationship between the two principles. In itself of course the Receptive is just as important as the Creative (910). And he might have added, vice versa for qian: it is the complement of kun and does not combat it but, rather, completes it; qian is just as important as kun. Qian provides the seed and kun provides the womb from which all of the cosmos springs. The I Ching is based on these two fundamental principles, and the remaining hexagrams are built up out of these elements. In the hexagrams there is waxing and waning (i.e., change) as the Dao is constantly transforming things. Neither qian nor kun should be sought in itself; each stands in need of the other. Ni Hua-Ching describes the essential interrelatedness of yin and yang: When yang moves, yin becomes apparent. Like an object and its shadow, these two energies cannot exist separately. Although yang is the initiator, it is not correct to think that it precedes yin, for at their deepest levels the creative and

10 THE CREATIVE works sublime success, / Furthering though perseverance. / The movement of heaven is full of power. / Thus the superior man makes himself strong and untiring (Wilhelm: 1). 11 THE RECEPTIVE brings about sublime success, / Furthering through the perseverance of a mare. / If the superior man undertakes something and tries to lead, / He goes astray; / But if he follows, he finds guidance (Wilhelm: 2).


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receptive beget one another, the progressive and the regressive exist in one another (217). When qian is in ascendancy, kun becomes necessary and restrains qian. When kun is in ascendancy, qian is called for. Qian unbridled is wild, domineering, and arrogant. Kun unmotivated is timid and inactive. When qian triumphs, the person of qian becomes presumptuous, vain, and boastful and requires kun (and the person of kun likewise requires qian). For example, the last line of the first hexagram qian is said to represent a dragon (symbol for the male) with an excess of qian; this suggests a person who is filled with presumption: A dragon that overreaches should have cause for regret (Lynn: 138).12 In hexagram 9 (Xiaoxu, which Wilhelm names the taming power of the small) the female trigram sun (gentle, wind) is above the trigram qian. The Creative needs direction and restraint; it is wild and needs to be tamed. The corresponding image is of dense clouds being blown by the gentle wind to rain on the land (at the right time, in the right place). As the changes cycle, qian, for example, may be in ascendancy but stand in need of kun for harmony, whereby kun quietly gains ascendancy but stands in need of qian for harmony, whereby qian once again asserts itself and gains ascendancy, and so on. Qian and kun are equally powerful but differently powered; both cycle through superiority and inferiority, ascendancy and descendancy; both are equally vital to the process of the Dao; both are good. Qian and kun are not the ideals, as there is imbalance and disharmony with the excess of yang and yin, respectively. Ideal states of affairs are found in hexagrams 11 and 63. In hexagram 11 (Tai [Peace]) the trigrams qian and kun are complementary coequals . In this ideal state the female is in ascendancy: kun is above, and qian is below. In this hexagram, heaven and earth embrace; heaven is on earth: Heaven and Earth perfectly interact: this constitutes the image of Peace (Lynn: 205). Tai symbolizes springtime, a time of harmony when the forces of nature unite to bring forth abundance. Curiously, for a patriarchal society, when qian, the masculine, is above and kun, the feminine, is below as in hexagram 12 (Pi [Obstruction]), there is disorder and decline . Heaven has retreated from the earth, which is falling below. Qian and kun are disordered (Heaven and Earth do not interact: this is the image of Obstruction), and their improper relation produces stagnation and decay, which is described in the image and lines that follow. The other most significant state of affairs is found in hexagram 63 (Jiji [Ferrying Complete]), with its alternating lines of yin and yang . Yin and yang are in harmonious balance, no more yin than yang.


Arrogant dragon will have cause to repent (Wilhelm: 8).

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


According to the cosmology of the I Ching, everything arises from and is transformed by the Dao (the Way) that is One but manifested in yin and yang: Heaven and Earth mesh together, and the myriad things develop and reach maturity; male and female blend essences together, and the myriad creatures are formed and come to life (Lynn: 85). Yin (female) and yang (male) embrace each other and blend into a state of harmonious balance. Success is attained through the creative interplay (gan) of yin and yang. Transformation is the result of the balanced yin yang unity of the One. For the ancient Chinese, what is true of the cosmos is true of human affairs. The unity and order of the cosmos, Heaven (tian), model the unity and order of the civitas. This is typically called correlative cosmology. This reflects the firm commitment of the ancient Chinese that Heaven and Earth or Heaven and humanity are one (tian ren he yi). In chapter 4 of The Great Appendix of the I Ching, the connection between Heaven and Earth is made. The I Ching considers itself an image of the cosmos that provides the Dao of the macrocosm (Heaven) and the microcosm (Earth): The Changes is a paradigm of Heaven and Earth, and so it shows how one can fill in and pull together the Dao of Heaven and Earth. It can help us discern the way of Heaven, which in turn is the way of Earth: Looking up, we use it [the Changes] to observe configurations of Heaven, and, looking down, we use it to examine the patterns of earth. This passage goes on to describe the yinyang processes of both Heaven and Earth; the pattern of Heaven is the pattern of Earth. It then applies the way of Heaven and Earth to the way of human beings. By adapting ones life to the way of Heaven and Earthby uniting ones virtue with Heaven and Earthone operates in accord with ones nature and with reality itself:
As [a sage] resembles Heaven and Earth, he does not go against them. As his knowledge is complete in respect to the myriad things and as his Dao brings help to all under Heaven, he commits no transgression. Such a one extends himself in all directions yet does not allow himself to be swept away. As he rejoices in Heaven and understands Its decrees, he will be free from anxiety. As he is content in his land and is genuine about benevolence, he can be loving. He perfectly emulates the transformations of Heaven and Earth, and so does not transgress them. (Lynn: 5152)

The I Ching images the Dao of Heaven and Earth. By following the procedures of the Book of Changes one is thereby aligning oneself with the processes of Heaven (the Dao). The nature of reality is also mirrored in the nature of humanity. Just as the cosmos is at its highest state when yin


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and yang are in harmonious complementarity and balance, so a fully flourishing human being is both Heaven (qian) and Earth (kun), each complementing the other, bringing unity to disintegration.13 The superior person resembles and is in harmony with heaven and earth. So the properly ordered person aligns him- or herself with the Dao: He who naturally and easily aligns with the dao is the sage (Legge 1971: xxx). And the Rites locates ritual (li), which shapes human character, in the Dao: Li must be rooted in the great Oneness, which divided to form Heaven and Earth, and revolved to make the yin and the yang, and changed to four seasons (Chen: 518). Ritual ceremonies and practices imitate the Dao and effect cultured patterns of behavior. The patterns of music and dance reflect the pattern of Heaven and Earth. External ritual practices were intended to produce internal transformationsto bring the Dao inside, so to speak. One could create the order of Heaven and Earth inside oneself by properly performing the endaoed (pun intended) music and dance. One yin and one yang compose the Dao (yi yin yi yang wei zhi dao), which is One; ultimate reality is an integrated whole: The reciprocal process of yin and yang is called the Dao. That which allows the Dao to continue to operate is human goodness, and that which allows it to bring things to completion is human nature [xing] (Lynn: 53). A flourishing nature (of any kind) includes yinyang in harmonious unity. The Dao is both good and the source of good. Because yin and yang are equally good, men and women are equally good. Womans ontological status, therefore, is equivalent to mans. The equality of yin and yang is widely disputed. Chenyang Li, for example, writes: Between yin and yang, yang is the superior and dominant principle, and yin is the inferior and subservient and subordinate principle (2000: 3435). There is some textual support for this interpretation of yin and yang in The Great Appendix of the I Ching: As Heaven is high and noble and Earth is low and humble, so it is that Qian and Kun are defined. The high and the low being thereby set out, the exalted and the mean have their places accordingly (Lynn: 47). Wilhelms translation is more explicitly valuational: Heaven is high, the earth is low; thus the Creative and Receptive are determined. In correspondence
13 The yinyang nature of persons, taking Dao as their model, is best expressed in Yeh Y: One must have that whereby one may know the eternal laws of Heaven and Earth, in order to enjoy Heaven and Earths complete usefulness. . . . One must make use of the regularities of the yin and the yang, and comply with the regularities of Heaven and Earth; be soft yet not yielding, strong yet not hard. . . . Heaven lets man have his course, and the Sage accords himself with Heaven. Man is his own propagator; Heaven and Earth give him form; the Sage lets him develop and completes him (Fung: 33).

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


with this difference between low and high, inferior and superior places are established (301). Of this passage, Wilhelm remarks: With this differentiation of above and below, there is posited, in one way or another, a difference in value, so that one principle, heaven, is the more exalted and honored, while the other, earth, is regarded as lesser and lower (303). James Legges translation of this passage is likewise valuational: Heaven is lofty and honourable; earth is low. (Their symbols) Qian and Kun (with their respective meanings) were determined (in accordance with this) (1996: 348). Many interpreters, following this sort of translation of the I Ching, make the hasty inference that men are valuationally superior to women.14 But this inference is unjustified. Earth, though different and below, is not inferior to Heaven (the sun, moon, and stars). Although they are different, there is no valuational hierarchy in yin and yang, none better or worse. This may be seen more clearly by attending to a discussion of polarity. The idea of polarity is central to understanding yin and yang. Dao, recall, is a unity that cycles through processes as yin and yang. Although there is a difference between yin and yang, they are not distinct things. They are components of the One thingthe Dao. Under one aspect, the Dao is yin, and under another the Dao is yang. Although different, yin and yang are not ontologically separable. Eva Kit Wah Man writes of the yin and the yang:
These general polarities are also exemplified by coldhot, hardsoft, restmovement, highlow, but they do not exhibit any real opposition or antagonism; they are only opposite insofar as they are complementary. There is neither tension nor hostility between these terms. According to I-Ching, the world is a process of change and development, moving toward unity and a state of holistic harmonization. The appearance of discrepancy, imperfection, conflict, contradiction, or struggle is seen as incomplete subprocesses of interaction of polarities. (167)

Polarity is perhaps best understood in terms of a globe that is one but may be divided into hemispheres. This division could occur in an infinite number of places; so there is no essential distinction between, say, the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere. The hemisphere that
14 Sexist interpretations of the yin/yang relationship came into prominence during the Han dynasty when Dong Zhongshu (179104 B.C.E.) claimed that yang is superior to yin. Following the pattern of arguing from the nature of the cosmos to the nature of human beings, he concluded that women are inferior to men. Dongs integration of Confucianism with yin/yang philosophy ignores the essential mutuality and equality of yin/yang. Dong (296306) denies the valuational equality of women based on a rigid understanding of yinyang cosmology when he declares that good can be traced to yang and evil, to yin.


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is arbitrarily rotated to the top may be called north, and that on the bottom, south; but it would be mistaken to believe that making such a difference entailed any kind of superiority of one half of the globe (say, the north) over the other half of the globe (say, the south). Once a distinction is made, there is difference, but the difference contradicts neither the fundamental unity of the globe nor the valuational equality of the two halves. Great numbers of polarities reveal, like south and north, two things: (a) the interdependence of one on the other and (b) an essential underlying unity. Hot and cold are understood in terms of each other, and both are measures of one thing (quantity of heat). Short and tall only make sense in contrast to each other, and they are measures of a single thing (height). Consider the yinyang symbol that, while indicating polarities, has as its underlying unity the Dao:

In this graphic, yin is in the superior position. However, as the Dao cycles through the changes, the positions of superiority and inferiority shift. Imagine the yinyang symbol as a wheel that is set rolling with alternating positions of superiority and inferiority. This provides a graphic representation of the relative and mutable priority of yang over yin (and vice versa). Even though yang is typically in the superior position in graphics of yinyang, it should be noted that yin shades over or moves into yang and vice versa. There is no sharp dividing line between yin and yang as they seem to transform into one another. In addition, if one has not already grasped that yin and yang are not wholly distinct, there is a circle of yin in the very heart of yang and a circle of yang inside of yin. There is interpenetration between yin and yang. Hall and Ames explain the polarity of yin and yang as follows: Yin does not transcend yang, nor vice versa. Yin is always becoming yang and yang is always becoming yin, night is always becoming day and day is always becoming night (17).

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


Alison Black, in her fascinating study of gender relations in China, has pointed out the folly of sharply distinguishing yin and yang given the dynamism of changes. In The Great Appendix, chapter 4, wisdom (zhi) is associated with Heaven, and benevolence (ren), with Earth; but in chapter 5 wisdom is associated with yin, and benevolence, with yang. This has tormented commentators who try to reconcile these two passages in a dualistic manner. But these passages may indicate the nonduality of yin and yang, with yin always transforming into yang and vice versa. Black (179184) points out many other fascinating reversals in the I Ching, with its typical alignment of feminine traits such as love, feeling, benevolence, spirit, intuition, and harmony with yang and masculine traits such as order, righteousness, diversity, action, and rationality with yin. She states: It must be remembered that yinyang terminology is always relational. Yang and yin themselves have no fixed meaning. . . . Metaphysically, they permit a highly flexible organization of the world in overlapping polarities (175). The Confucian yinyang doctrine sharply contrasts with some influential western claims that different powers or forces are valued more highly than others. This is especially grievous when used to justify the superiority of men over women. Nancy Tuana contends that there are five major beliefs about womans nature generally accepted by western philosophers, theologians, and scientists from the classical period to the nineteenth century: Woman is less perfect than man; woman possesses inferior rational capacities; woman has a defective moral sense; man is the primary creative force; woman is in need of control (xi). These understandings of woman have justified the exclusion of women from full participation in society, restricted women to the private realm, and prevented women from leading flourishing lives: The belief that woman is less than manless perfect, less evolved, less divine, less rational, less moral, less healthyis more than simple bias, easily amenable to revision. It is part of our inherited metaphysics (Tuana: xi). The belief that women are inferior to men rests on the Greek dualism of reason and appetite. For example, in the Timaeus Plato posited an original world without women. In their primordial state all humans are male. Men who are unable to control their emotions and unable to overcome the desires of the body through the power of the soul are reincarnated as women. Woman results from mans weakness, his punishment for being tied to the world of sensation. Woman exists as a consequence of evil and the rule of passion. Various dualismsrationality and emotion, reason and desire, and soul and bodyare alleged to form the metaphysical basis adequate to justify the sexual division of labor in both the economy and the family and to validate the subordination and inferiority of


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women to men. But dualism itself is not the culprit. There are many dualisms that are valuationally benign. These dualisms are pernicious when the powers of women are denigrated relative to the powers of men. And this is precisely what we find in some thinkers in the western tradition. Aristotle, for example, discusses the characteristic powers or faculties of male and female. The males powers permit the actualization of becoming a human being, whereas the woman resists actualization as a full human being. Being more material than spiritual, the womans powers are obstacles to becoming a fully flourishing human being. In On the Generation of Animals Aristotle differentiates the male, which has the power to generate in another, from the female, which is that which can generate in itself. Aristotle concludes:
Again, as the first efficient or moving cause, to which belong the definition and the form, is better and more divine in its nature than the materials on which it works, it is better that the superior principle should be separated from the inferior. Therefore, wherever it is possible and so far as it is possible, the male is separated from the female. For the first principle of the movement, whereby that which comes into being is male, is better and more divine, and female is the matter. (book 2, 732a1)

The male is not just better than the female, its characteristic power is intellective, the divine part of the human being. The alleged superiority of mens powers over womens marks the essential difference between, for example, the Aristotelian view and yin yang theory. While yinyang theory recognizes difference, it sees the two as equally good.15 Early Confucianism maintains that the female is wise, maternal, creative, gentle, and compassionate and that the affective, emotional, and transcendent realms are necessary for the fulfillment of her nature. The preponderance of yin is not evidence of a womans weakness or disvalue but, rather, a source of special strength as manifested in the feminine virtues (strengths of character). The value of the feminine is reflected in the early Confucian emphasis on caring and empathy in moral discourse; one aspires above all to acquire the virtue of ren (humaneness), which signifies love, benevolence, and kindness. In spite of this talk of difference, yin and yang cannot be separated: they come into being together, and both are required for a person to be a person. The Confucian views everything, including women, as an admixture of yin
15 Yinyang theory also claims that ultimate reality is a unity not a duality. But it is not clear that Aristotles doctrine of hylomorphic unity, with its corresponding denial that form can exist apart from matter, does not also entail that reality is ultimately a unity.

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


and yang; men and women are both yin and yang in varying proportions striving for the ideal harmonious balance of yin and yang. Yang alone without yin is an incomplete human being, that is, not a human being at all. The Chinese term for person (renp) is ungendered. An ideal person is yin, feminine, as well as yang, masculine, in harmonious balance; such a person is not divided between yin and yang but, rather, a self that is unified like the Dao. The I Ching maintains that the sage resembles both Heaven (male) and Earth (female). Mencius (1970: 7A13) holds that the morally perfected person flows along with Heaven above and Earth below. A fully flourishing human being is a harmonious balance of qian and kun. Historically, yin/yang theory cast a shadow on women and light on men. This is because of the disparity between the I Ching cosmology and how people, led by Dong Zhongshu, understood and applied it. The inequality of women became government policy beginning in the Han period (206 B.C.E220 C.E.), when Confucianism as filtered through Dong became the imperial philosophy. However, as we have argued, Confucianism (if the I Ching is taken as canonical) has foundational beliefs that support the valuational equality of men and women. Henry Rosemont Jr. argues: If the sexism revealed in classical Confucian writings was characteristic only of gender structure (patterns of social organization), not of gender symbolism or gender identity, then it is at least possible that Confucian philosophy can be reconstructed to be relevant today, in ways that a great many feminist thinkers might endorse (68). The characteristic Confucian concern for hierarchy is aimed at the harmony in society and nature. Although early Confucianism found historical expression as a patriarchal culture that esteemed men and denigrated women, it need not have done so. I Ching metaphysics clearly endorses the yin/yang nature of reality and its desired manifestation in persons and societies. So far all we have been able to establish from the I Ching is that men and women are equal but different. Perhaps the kinds of differences between men and women preclude the functioning of women outside the home. Maybe the Dao finds expression in the relatively interminable and complementary opposition of male and female. Complementarity is no guarantee of gender equity, especially if men are better suited to rule and women complement men by staying in the home. Yu Cheng-hsieh (17751840) argued for the better treatment of women from the principle of yin/yang: When the female sex is weakened, then the harmony which comes from the complementing of the male and female principles will be imperfect . . . and when you lower the position of women, by implication you lower the position of men also (in Li Yu-ning: 41). But it does not follow from complementarity that women should be allowed


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meaningful opportunities outside of the home. Even if we have established that women are valuationally equal, by virtue of complementarity they may nonetheless be socially unequal.16 In the next section we will offer a Confucian defense of gender equity.


In the preceding section we argued that the paradigm human being is not man (generic) but, in fact, human (ren, nongeneric). The ideal state for human beings, as it is for the cosmos, is one with yin and yang in harmonious unity. In addition, as we shall show, becoming a morally superior person ( junzi) is possible for every person. Each person, male and female alike, is endowed with the capacities for becoming fully virtuous, that is, fully human. Finally, we shall argue that given the Confucian commitment to meritocracy, women should, therefore, be granted access to all roles in society. Let us first differentiate the Confucian view from some prominent western views. In the West, historically, the paradigm human being is often the man with his purportedly distinctive capacities and virtues. Woman, lacking mans capacities, cannot attain full status as a human being. Women are viewed as deficient or handicapped and can, therefore, only attain an impoverished sense of personhood. The womans lack (and what men have and can, thus, become) diminishes the woman as a person. Aristotle, for example, says that the female, lacking the divine element, is inferior to the male; he concludes: The female is, as it were, a mutilated male (book 2, 737a 25). Women are deficient in intellect and are, therefore, incapable of attaining full virtue (i.e., that of a man). Women are conceived as symbols of passion, emotion, and irrationality that are obstacles to human flourishing, which involves intellection. Another notable example is Kant, who states that because women are defective in rationality they should aspire to be beautiful. Men, on the other hand, are
16 The fact that yin and yang are equal and interrelated aspects of the cosmos does not imply that males and females must be treated equally. Indeed, those later writers who did apply yinyang thought to the problem of gender relations typically did not do so benignly. Ban Zhao (45114 C.E.), a highly educated female scholar of the later Han dynasty, expresses this view in her influential Confucian work, Precepts for Women (Nu Jie): The Way of the husband and wife is intimately connected with yin and yang. . . . Truly it confirms the great principle of Heaven and Earth and the great rule of human relationships. . . . As yin and yang are not of the same nature, so man and woman differ in behavior. The virtue of yang is firmness; yin is manifested in yielding. Man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness (in De Bary and Bloom: 822823). Bans advice to women involves yielding and respect primarily from within the sphere of the family.

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


endowed with the rationality necessary for the attainment of virtue; men, therefore, should aspire to be noble. Kant denies the womans capacity for duty-based action and autonomous choice, which are the foundation of personhood. Women are ill suited, indeed constitutionally prevented, from becoming full human beings (Kant 1994). Unlike these influential western views, early Confucianism claims that all people have all of the capacities necessary for flourishing as full human beings. Recall that the Chinese term for person (renp) is ungendered and that its graph [ ] resembles a person. The highest virtue for persons is benevolence or humaneness (renv), and its graph [ ] includes the graph for renp (person) with two lines connected to it, symbolizing two persons in harmonious relation. Mencius creatively unites the two: Benevolence [ ] is being a person [ ] (2001: 7B16). The highest virtue, therefore, is ungendered. Before discussing renv as the central Confucian virtue, let us turn to the Confucian belief that all humans are adequately equipped to attain virtue. Mencius, of all the Confucian writers, most clearly and systematically defends the view that human nature is adequately equipped for the attainment of virtue. Most famous for propounding the belief that humans are by nature good, Mencius discusses the natural moral capacities of human beings. Three interrelated Mencian doctrines most relevant to this discussion are xin (the heart-mind), duan (the four sprouts), and compassion. In a single remarkable passage he brings together these doctrines:
As for their qing, what they genuinely are, they can become good. This is what I mean by calling their natures good. . . . Humans all have the heart of compassion. Humans all have the heart of disdain. Humans all have the heart of respect. Humans all have the heart of approval and disapproval. The heart of compassion is benevolence. The heart of disdain is righteousness. The heart of respect is propriety. The heart of approval and disapproval is wisdom. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom are not welded to us externally. We inherently have them. (2001: 6A6)

Mencius locates the central moral faculty of persons in the heart (xin), which integrates the affective and intellectual sides of human nature. All people (renp), men and women alike, are equipped with xin, which is productive of virtue unless impeded by ones environment or ones desires.17 The seeds of virtue are planted within all people. That all


Mencius (1970: 6A7) discusses some of the hindrances to fully developing virtue.


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human beings have xin implies that all humans are alike: In general, things of the same kind are all similar. Why should one have doubt about this when it comes to humans alone? We and the sage are of the same kind (Mencius 2001: 6A7). The nature of persons includes xin, which, if properly nourished, will be productive of virtue.18 In another passage Mencius writes that all human beings are endowed in their xin with the so-called Four Beginnings (duan). Duan is best translated sprout, suggesting partially developed natural human potencies for the cultivation of virtue: The heart of compassion is the sprout of benevolence [ren]. The heart of disdain is the sprout of righteousness [yi]. The heart of deference is the sprout of propriety [li]. The heart of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom [zhi] (Mencius 2001: 2A6). By saying that human nature is good, Mencius means that all people possess the sprouts of renv, yi, li, and zhi. He contends that a being that lacks these sprouts is not a human. Wickedness does not come from human nature that is opposed to goodness; it comes because a person has not allowed these four sprouts to develop. Such a person, according to Mencius, is crippled, not fully human. The person of virtue is more fully human (renp), more humane (renv). According to Mencius (2001: 6A8), the person who lacks virtue (by letting go of her or his true heart) is little more than an animal. While affirming humanitys essential equality, Mencius divides people into categories based on virtuethe more virtuous one is, the more one fully possesses of humanity:
Gongduzi asked, We are the same in being humans. Yet some become great humans and some become petty humans. Why? Mencius said, Those who follow their greater part become great humans. Those who follow their petty part become petty humans. . . . If one first takes ones stand on what is greater, then what is lesser will not be able to snatch it away. This is how to become a great human. (2001: 6A15)

Menciuss advice is simple: one should cling to ones noble parts while not allowing oneself to be distracted by ones ignoble parts. The person of virtue is a junzi, a superior person. Although junzi is gender neutral, it is typically translated gentleman or superior man.19 This superiority is not attributed to kinship, wealth, social status, or occupation. A person
18 Mencius (1970: 4B33) makes clear that some women, at least, have a more developed moral sense than their husbands. 19 Although zi can mean either son or daughter, practically speaking, writers always assume that a junzi is a man. A similar point applies to renp. It could mean man or woman, but in context the translator usually assumes that it is a man. This is important because it means that sexism is often

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becomes junzi by becoming wise and virtuous, by becoming more fully human. The great person is the morally superior person. The goal for the Confucian is the moral transformation of rulers into sageliness and kingliness. In the Zhou period kings were called Sons of Heaven because of their special relation and access to the deity as mediators between the earthly and the human realms, on the one hand, and the supreme deity, Heaven, on the other. The Sons of Heaven ruled by the Mandate of Heaven, which could be revoked if they were unjust. Although few Chinese kings of this era staked explicit claim to being deities, they were considered uniquely related to the divine. The ideal ruler is the sage-king who aligns himself and his ways with Heaven and Heavens ways. Confucius endorsed the sage-king model and then extended it as the model for all human beings. Confucius and Mencius believed that human perfectibility, modeled in the sacred sage-king, was attainable not only by rulers but by everyone. Every person is fully equipped with the proper dispositions to become a sage-king: The sage and I are of the same kind. Everyonepeasant and ruler, man and womancan, in virtue of possessing xin, become a sage.20 For the Confucian, possessing xin is not a sufficient condition for becoming virtuous. Self-cultivation is the central focus in personal development for both men and women. Virtue requires cultivation through education and ritual: the self-cultivation necessary to the attainment of virtue involves rigorous understanding of and practice of ritual. The early Confucian philosophy of education was primarily moral; education enabled one to become a good person and a good citizen.21 Education should not be taken as synonymous with what happens in a school. In Confuciuss time there were no formal schools; the kind of education he was writing about occurred primarily in the home, initially (and most importantly) with children. Home is where the child learns respect, obedience, patience, kindness, compassion, work, play, and so forth from his or her parents. The centrality of the home for learning is not surprising, as the early Confucians viewed society as the family writ large. Although women and men are valuationally equal and equally equipped to become virtuous, the early Confucians accepted the traditional role assignations of women to the home and men to the state.
assumed rather than argued for in Chinese texts. For this reason, we prefer Ivanhoe and Van Noordens translation of Mencius as they use gender-neutral language when the Chinese character is gender neutral. 20 Mencius is more clearly committed to this than Confucius, who seems rather elitist. 21 This reveals one of the most fundamental Confucian teachings: virtue is valued even more highly than intellectual knowledge. The renv human being as an embodiment of goodness is valued more highly than the wise human being.


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However, a more consistent Confucian theory of man and woman should require that capable women be permitted access to ruling roles in society. Even supposing a difference between men and women, the harmonious functioning of society requires ruling with both yin and yang forms of power (while yin forms are vastly preferable). If men are given to excesses of yang and women are given to excesses of yin, then harmony would be best achieved by a combination of rulers, some of whom are more yin and some of whom are more yang. This would clearly follow from the doctrine of correlative cosmology. Consider the following passage from the I Ching: The Master said: Qian and Kun, do they not constitute the two-leaved gate into the Changes? Qian is purely a yang thing and Kun is purely a yin thing. The hard and the soft exist as hexagrams only after yin and yang have combined their virtues, for it is in this way that the numbers of Heaven and Earth become embodied in them and so realize their numinous, bright virtues (Lynn: 86). By the doctrine of correlative cosmology, a civil society in its ruling functions should unite yin and yang and their virtues, thus bringing the principles of heaven (tian) to earth. Uniting the characteristic strengths of justice and compassion will produce the most harmonious and virtuous leadership. But the Confucian case for gender equity need not and, we believe should not, depend on gender differences. The Confucian case for gender equity depends most essentially on the rejection of rule by heredity in favor of rule by virtue. According to Confucianism, kings must rule wisely and justly or the Mandate of Heaven will be revoked. Ones right to rule is determined, therefore, not by ones heredity but by ones moral rectitude. The hope of the just person is that one of her or his descendants might become king (Mencius 1970: 1B14). Confucianism envisions a division of labor according to virtue and ability (Mencius 1970: 3A4, 4A7), with those of high virtue as rulers and the person with the most wisdom and virtue as emperor. The problematic result of appointing ministers on the basis of heredity is that they may be unfit to rule. Mencius commends the appointment of good and wise people, which implies that people of low position may be appointed over people of exalted rank and distant relatives over near ones; he concludes: If the person turns out to be good and wise, then and only then should that person be given office (1970: 1B7). This revolutionary doctrine defies the traditional stratification of social roles based on kinship and wealth. In its place, social roles should be assigned according to moral merit and competence. And the justifying principlemerit trumps kinshipis easily extended to women. Women are not morally or intellectually defective and so are equal to men in their capacity to achieve renv. Women,

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


therefore, should be permitted access to those social roles that they merit and for which they are competent. Let us make clear the argument of this section. We are not claiming that any Confucian stated that women could achieve as much virtue as men (indeed, many of the authors seem to assume the contrary). We are claiming that the traditional Confucian texts offer no plausible account of why women cannot achieve as much virtue as men. Mencius, for example, does not state that women could be sages and does not even consider the possibility that women could be sages, but given what Mencius says about the goodness of human nature, why couldnt women be sages? There is no principled reason to claim that women, if granted access to the means of moral and intellectual self-cultivation, could not become sages. And if women can become sages, then women should become rulers (or hold positions in society commensurate with their virtue and wisdom). The main argument of the article has been made. The essential nature of persons, as discussed in the I Ching as Heaven and Earth (yinyang), grounds the valuational equality of men and women. In addition, the presence of the Four Sprouts in men and women alike, when conjoined with the Confucian commitment to meritocracy, justifies the social equality of women and the equal participation of men and women in all social roles based on wisdom and virtue. In the next section we will discuss a book that Confucius or a Confucian should have written for women. And in the following section we offer a highly speculative account of the decline of Confucianism and the hope for reform.


Although the title of this section is facetious, the form of Confucianism rooted in I Ching metaphysics that we have presented suggests a book that Confucius should have written. Suppose, as the early Confucians believed, that there are initial differences between men and women. And suppose that the I Ching does provide the metaphysical foundations for Confucianism, that the ideal human being is a harmonious unity of yin and yang. Granting these two suppositions, Confucius should have written two books. The first book is on how people with initial yang tendencies (men) can cultivate yin dispositions. The second book is on how people with initial yin tendencies (women) can cultivate yang dispositions. The first book, entitled the Analects, was written and offers moral instruction for rulers (men). The second book was either unwritten or, perhaps, lost! If there are initial differences between men and women, then it seems clear, given our two suppositions, that fixing the differences would be


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anti-Confucian. The I Ching ideal state of affairs is yin and yang in harmonious unity. By the doctrine of correlative cosmology, each person should strive to achieve this harmony within the context of a person and a life. One must strive to overcome ones lacks: if ones primal powers are more yang-like, then one must strive to supplement them with yinlike capacities, and vice versa. The early Confucians, advising men as possible rulers, offered instruction to that half of the human race that has an excess of yang. The Confucians provided a series of role-specific moral practices designed to complement the tendency toward yang with the acquisition of yin powers. If one supposes that men are, by nature, disposed to hastiness, impulsiveness, intuition, creativity, and conquest, then they require very little encouragement in yang powers. So there are very few passages in the Analects that involve yang forms of power such as the fighting of battles (see, e.g. 13.2930). Men do not need any more encouragement to exercise their yang tendencies. Because men are tempted to excesses of yang, they need to cultivate the acquisition of yin (as counterbalance to their tendencies to yang). So the focus of early Confucian moral instruction is on the cultivation in men of yin-like powers such as renv. Recall that kun is yielding, submissive, quiet, and not initiating. The kind of action emanating from kun is more precisely described as nonaction (wu wei). A minimum of energy is successfully expended in response to an active power. Confucius commends the mythic ruler Shun for wu wei: The Master said, Surely Shun was one who governed by non-action. For what action did he take? He merely adopted a courteous position and faced due south (Analects 15.5). Shuns manifestation of the characteristic power of kun, the female, is commended. He was yielding but persuasive. He transformed society not by incessant activity but by moral suasion. The virtuous ruler effortlessly exerts attractive moral power on both citizens and enemies: The Duke of She asked about government. The Master said: When those who are close by are pleased and those who are far off are attracted (Analects 13.16). The ruler leads by moral example and through character transforms the nation. Eschewing death and punishment for those who lack the Way, Confucius advises rulers to focus within: If you desire good, the people will be good. The nature of the gentleman is as the wind, and the nature of the small man is as the grass. When the wind blows over the grass it always bends (Analects 12.19). The rulers self-cultivation will transform his or her character and radiate out into the state; self-cultivation is the grounds of civil reform. The Confucian ruler exercises the gentle power of the wind. Mencius, who offers considerably more advice to rulers than Confucius, commends the rule of benevolence over rule by force. Mencius

Clark and Wang: A Confucian Defense of Gender Equity


and Confucius alike commend, it is worth noting, not the absence of power but the development of a power different from brute force. The strength of benevolence will transform the nation: Mencius said, One who puts benevolence into effect through the transforming influence of morality will become a true King. . . . When people submit to force they do not do so willingly but because they are not strong enough. When people submit to the transforming influence of morality they do so sincerely, with admiration in their hearts (1970: 2A3). For the Confucian society exists to create a stable environment for the pursuit of virtue. To attain the ends of stability and virtue rulers are instructed to harmoniously complement their natural yang with their cultivation of yin.22 What follows for women, therefore, is that women with a natural preponderance of yin should have their own moral manuals that prescribe rituals for the cultivation of yang. Women, with a predominance of yin, are more disposed toward peace, patience, benevolence, sympathy, submissiveness, listening, and so on. Women should be granted access to role-specific activities designed for the cultivation of yang capacities. The Confucian Analects for women would include instruction in war, leading, initiating, and dominating. Imagine the contrary of the Analects (the one Confucius actually wrote for men), and you will have imagined the lost book of Confucius. Perhaps this book would include a great deal about the cultivation of the will to power! This moral instruction would take place, as it did for men, within the context of corresponding roles throughout society. If the harmonious balance of yin and yang is the goal, then the worst place for women would be to restrict them to roles in the home where their natural yin tendencies would be nurtured at the expense of cultivating any complementary yang capacities.23 Attaining a harmony of yin and yang within the context of their person and society will require womens involvement in roles that enable
22 There is some indication (e.g., in the Zuozhuan) that outsiders considered Confucians to be weak and effeminate. 23 Song Ruzhao of the Tang dynasty did write Analects for Women. She assumed the traditional role-specific duties of women as submissive, deferential, and respectful. Undue attention is paid to womens behavior and appearance with relatively little concern for character. For example, Song writes: Your father-in-law and mother-in-law are the heads of your husbands family. . . . You must care for them as your own father and mother. Respectfully serve your father-in-law. Do not look at him directly [when he speaks to you], do not follow him around, and do not engage him in conversation. If he has an order for you, listen and obey. When your mother-in-law is sitting, you should stand. When she gives an order, you should carry it out right away. Rise early in the morning and open up the household, but dont make any noise that would disturb your mother-in-laws sleep. Sweep and mop the floors, wash and rinse the clothes. When your mother-in-law wakes up, present her with her toiletry articles, withdraw while she bathes until she beckons you. Songs advice on marital relations hardens the yinyang categories in ways that irrevocably determine the separate spheres of men and women: Women leave their families to marry, and the husband is the master of


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the cultivation of yang dispositions. Fixing the differences between men and women is decidedly at odds with the yin/yang nature of ultimate and human reality.


Fixing the initial differences between men and womenat the expense of womenis precisely what the Confucians did. Indeed, although men may have been encouraged to become more fully human (yin and yang), women were relegated to roles that prohibited the cultivation of yang dispositions and therefore prevented them from becoming fully human. If early Confucianism contains the metaphysical and moral resources for the valuational and social equality of women, then how could later Confucians and, for that matter, Confucius himself have failed to recognize them? Or, perhaps more important, how could Confucianism foster practices so detrimental to the flourishing of women?24 A system that prescribes detailed ritual propriety for the cultivation of character is liable to degenerate into legalism: what becomes valued as an end in itself is the external activity and not the internal transformation that such activities were intended to effect. And a system that countenances difference is liable to come to value one of the differences above the others; this transvalued difference will achieve cultural ascendancy through the exercise of power. And a system in which the will of the sovereign determines the law of the land is likely to degenerate into a culture where power is wielded without restraint. If these three degenerations focus on the external, arbitrary elevation of differences, and unrestrained powerare combined, a culture will likely become oppressive, even viciously so. This is precisely the combustible cultural situation of early Confucianism. Over the next millennium and a half, as the succeeding imperial culture increasingly conceived of men as ontologically superior to women, the internal nurturing of character through ritual was

the household [they marry into]. . . . The husband is to be firm, the wife soft; conjugal affections follow from this. Interestingly, Song contends that women have the primary responsibility for the moral instruction of their children. See De Bary and Bloom: 827831. 24 As Confucianism became orthodoxy, the feminine character traits of early times, possessed by so-called virtuous woman, narrowed and developed into strong social and legal restrictions. Female capacities and virtues were construed as limitations and became enforced by role restrictions. In the classical Confucian texts no virtue is singled out as more important than the others. Yet in the Sui and Tang dynasties female chastity emerged as the most crucial of all womanly virtues, with harsh punishments meted out to those judged unchaste. Ever more horrific practices were justified in the name of Confucianism during the Song dynasty.

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replaced by the external shaping of the body through violence, of which foot binding is but the most visible manifestation.25 A second suggestion is that the Confucians were sociohistorically conditioned to accept the traditional gender hierarchies. Because of their conditioning, they could not grasp all of the consequences of their doctrines. Consider an analogy to St. Paul. St. Paul, who wrote that in Christ there is no slave nor free, neither male nor female, also wrote that wives should submit themselves to their husbands and that a slave should return to work for his master. It is well known that Pauls teachings were used as part of a biblical case for both the subordination of women and the justification of slavery. Only later did Christians come to realize what Paul may not have, that one of his central teachings, that in Christ all are equal, militates against the subordination of women and slavery. Pauls advice to a slave and to women are not central teachings of Christianity. He was so acculturated that some of his teachings reflect his sociohistorical conditioning, not his most considered theological understanding of the Christian gospel (it would be surprising if this were not so). He surely did not realize the radical egalitarianism of his in Christ . . . proclamation. Unfortunately, it would take many centuries of Christian reflection to realize the significance of the in Christ . . . proclamation before work could begin for the liberation of slaves and women. Yet, and here is the key point, the central teachings of Christianity contain within themselves the essential doctrines that undermine the subordination of women and slavery.26 Early Confucians, like the early Christians, were unable to grasp the revolutionary nature of their doctrines because of their sociohistorical situation. Although this does not excuse the early Confucians, it helps us understand them. At the time of Confucius rigid hierarchies were believed to be necessary because of the deeply felt need for social harmony. Life in ancient China was often nasty, brutish, and short because of, for example, geography, weather, natural disasters, and war. The Confucians sought to
25 Confucius and Mencius would surely oppose the vicious expressions of womens subjugation. A great deal of the oppression of women is in clear violation of the Confucian golden rule: Do not do unto others what you would not wish done to yourself (Analects 15:24). And the systematically dehumanizing practices are violations of the humanizing powers of benevolence (renv). Although Confucius and Mencius endorsed hierarchies, their philosophies of compassion and care seem to preclude the disfigurement of body and soul. 26 A similar point may be made regarding Kant. Above we wrote that Kant believed that women were constitutionally incapable of becoming fully human. This claim is clearly inconsistent with Kants insistence on the dignity of all human beings. Kant grounds his claim to dignity in his view of persons: Autonomy is therefore the ground of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature (1998: 103). If what Kant says is true of every rational nature, then he ought not to have made his disparaging remarks about the moral status of women.


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reestablish the harmony, peace, and stability of the golden age of the Zhou that viewed role hierarchy as necessary to harmony. This subordination limited human autonomy, especially that of women.27 But, if one were to accept a) the metaphysics of the yinyang doctrine as found in the I Ching and the Mencian ideas that b) people, men and women alike, are equipped to attain virtue and that c) leaders should rule by merit as central to a well-developed Confucianism, one could develop an adequate Confucian grounding of full gender equity. What is essential for a Confucian society to achieve its end of moral transformation is a ruler who nurtures his or her subjects like a mother nurtures her child, a system that encourages moral instruction and proper ritual conduct, and an effective economic infrastructure that adequately provides the material needs of the people. Any harmoniously functioning social order will likely be hierarchical; however, the hierarchy need not be based on class, race, gender, social status, kinship, or wealth. Confucius himself reformed the Zhou model by claiming that merit not kinship ought to determine who rules and administers the state. The ruler stands under the authority of tian (heaven) and tianming (the Mandate of Heaven); rulers merit their position on the basis of moral authority and benevolence, not on the whims of power or kinship. If virtue is the criterion for leadership, then, given that all people can attain virtue, the Confucians ought to have extended leadership roles to women as they did (at least in principle) to peasants. Women, according to early Confucianism, are adequately equipped with the intellectual and affective powers (xin) for attaining virtue and wisdom. Virtue and wisdom, once attained, fit them for the role of ruler or administrator. Confucianism, robbed of its reliance on the domineering model of yang over yin, has no principled reason for excluding women from obtaining leadership roles. Patriarchy is merely one of many means to the end of social harmony. And, after a couple of thousand years of experimentation and reflection, we know that oppressive patriarchies that systematically dehumanize women and others (slaves, for example, or peasants) are not the best means to the end of social harmony.

Is there anything in early Confucianism for the contemporary feminist to admire? Confucianism locates human flourishing within a rich and deep context involving an understanding of the interrelatedness of


It is worth noting that it limited autonomy for nearly all men as well.

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the cosmos and human nature. These cosmogonic and correlative views provide an understanding of human nature and the moral life within a metaphysical view of the world, which is conducive to human flourishing. The metaphysical grounding of human nature in the yin/yang unity provides an excellent conceptual foundation for the equal value of men and women. The conception of the ideal human as equal parts yin and yang harmoniously united brings so-called female capacities and virtues into the ideal human being. And women, like men, are affectionally and intellectually equipped to become virtuous, that is, fully human. Indeed, perhaps some sort of metaphysical grounding of gender equality is more intellectually satisfying than the antiessentialist views that have attained near universal acceptance among contemporary feminists.28 According to the early Confucian view we have developed, when Chinese society oppressed women, it was violating both the nature of women and ultimate reality as well. In conclusion, ignoring Confuciuss revolutionary concept of meritocracy and attending to the more conservative elements in Confucianism gave inspiration to many despotic emperors. The history of imperial China is littered with emperors and bureaucrats who abused their power under the name of Confucianism but who clearly violated the Mandate of Heaven; these rulers were but legalists in Confucian clothing. But Confucianism ought not be blamed for its deliberate misuse. Nor should Confucianism be blamed for the oppressive patriarchy that later thinkers and leaders mistakenly believed it entailed. It is commonplace and ethnocentric to believe that Chinese women will be saved from oppression by ideas from the West. If the argument of our article is correct, then the Chinese have ample philosophical resources for the valuational and social equality of women within their own tradition.

Aristotle 1984 On the Generation of Animals. In The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1: 11111218. Ed. by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

28 We are not suggesting that essentialism be gendered. Following the Confucian view of persons developed in this article, we suggest that there might be an essential human nature common to both men and women.


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Black, Alison Harley 1986

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