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Doctrine of Confucius and Mencius —
The Shackle That Keeps Women In Bondage

by Fu Wen

[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, #10, March 8, 1974, pp. 16-18.]

THE school of thought represented by Confucius and Mencius has strong contempt for women. It asserts male superiority and female inferiority and holds that women are subordinate to men. Confucius ranted: “Women and inferior men [meaning slaves] are hard to get along with, they get out of hand when befriended and they resent it when kept at a distance.” His loyal successor Mencius said: “Do not disobey your husband, because to look upon compliance as their correct course is the rule for women.” This means that women must do as men say and the wife must in no way act against the wishes of her husband.

Reactionary Class Nature

Confucius and Mencius were the spokesmen of the reactionary forces of their time, forces that were obstinately trying to preserve the collapsing slave system and opposing social progress. Their reactionary viewpoint on women’s status was part of their whole outlook on interpersonal relations and the positions of different persons in slave society. It, therefore, must be examined in connection with the sum total of the politics and ethics of Confucius and Mencius and in the light of the historical conditions and the class struggle of that time.

The slave-owning class in the slave society of the Yin and Chou Dynasties all belonged to one single kinship group and it exercised class rule through he blood ties of the group. In fact, the patriarchal system in the class society had been transformed from the patrilineal [sic] gentile order existing at the end of primitive society. In the circumstances, the fact whether or not the interpersonal relations and the social status of different persons conformed to the strict patriarchal hierarchy was, as far as the slave-owning class was concerned, a matter of primary importance, a matter of life and death.

The politics and ethics of Confucius were aimed exactly at saving and restoring the patriarchal hierarchy which had already been seriously impaired in his time and at bringing back the “millennium” of the slave society of the Western Chou Dynasty. Under patriarchal sway where the king’s authority and paternal authority ruled supreme and where everything was male slave-owner orientated, women’s place was one of complete subordination to men. So it was only natural that Confucius should go all out to preach male superiority and female inferiority.

The Confucian ethics including the concept of “male superiority and female inferiority,” played an extremely reactionary role in the course of the change from the slave system to the feudal system in Chinese society. But when the former had been completely destroyed and the latter firmly established, the landlord class inherited the whole lot of Confucian ethics out of its need to consolidate feudal autocratic rule. So feudal society remained a society with a patriarchal hierarchy. Promoted with might and main by the successive feudal dynasties and energetically trumpeted by the followers of Confucius, the reactionary Confucian viewpoint advocating the oppression of women became more concrete and more systematized than ever.

Tung Chung-shu (179-104 B.C.), an exponent of the Confucian school in the Western Han Dynasty, induced and developed the reactionary ethical thinking of Confucius and Mencius into the so-called “Three Cardinal Guides,” to wit, “the sovereign guides the ministers; the father guides the son; the husband guides the wife.” According to Tung Chung-shu, it conforms to the “guides” and the “will of Heaven” that the son should take orders from the father, the humble ministers from the sovereign and the wife from the husband, and any violation of this is “lese-majesty” “not to be tolerated by Divine Rule.” To keep women in shackles, the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius also created what is known as “The Three Obediences and Four Virtues.” The “three obediences” are “obedience to the father and the elder brothers when young, obedience to the husband when married and obedience to the sons when widowed.” Thus a female was placed under the control of the male sex from the cradle to the grave. The “four virtues” are firstly “women’s virtue,” meaning a woman must know her place under the sun and behave herself and act in every way in compliance with the old ethical code; secondly, “women’s speech,” meaning a woman must not talk too much and take care not to bore people; thirdly, “women’s appearance,” meaning a woman must pay attention to adorning herself with a view to pleasing the opposite sex; and fourthly, “women’s chore,” meaning a woman must willingly do all the household chores.

From this it can be seen that the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius deprived women of their personal freedom and their right to live like human beings; it served as a spiritual shackle to keep the masses of the working women in bondage. For more than 2,000 years, countless women were made the victims of the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius, victims of the old ethical code, and subject to torment and persecution.

Can “male superiority and female inferiority” really be the “will of Heaven”? Certainly not. This concept has always been a common feature of society under the rule of exploiting classes, a component part of the ideology of the exploiting classes. It is common to slave society, feudal society and capitalist society as well.

Early in 1927, in his work Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, Chairman Mao already had profoundly noted that of the four ropes—political authority, clan authority, religious authority and the masculine authority of the husband—that kept Chinese women in bondage, the political authority of the landlords was the backbone of all the other systems of authority. Warmly praising the revolutionary spirit of the peasant women, Chairman Mao wrote: “With the rise of the peasant movement, the women in many places have now begun to organize rural women’s associations; the opportunity has come for them to lift up their heads, and the authority of the husband is getting shakier every day.” “The old rule barring women and poor people from the banquets in the ancestral temples has also been broken. The women of Paikuo in Hengshan County gathered in force and swarmed into their ancestral temple, firmly planted their backsides in the seats and joined in the eating and drinking, while the venerable clan bigwigs had willy-nilly to let them do as they pleased.” This is a graphic illustration of the fact that the status of women can be radically changed once the reactionary exploiting class rule is toppled.

Acute Struggle Between the Two Lines

Under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party of China, our country has completely buried the evil system oppressing women and has fundamentally eliminated the root cause—the rule of the exploiting classes—that subjected the masses of working women to oppression and exploitation. The establishment of the socialist system in our country has opened up a broad avenue for the emancipation of women. Today, women’s position in the political, economic and cultural fields as well as in family life has been raised to an unprecedented degree.

But the acute struggle between the two classes and the two lines on the question of women’s emancipation is still there. Following in the footsteps of the monarchs of the old feudal dynasties, Liu Shao-chi and Lin Piao, representatives of the landlord and capitalist classes who had wormed their way into the Party, tried to peddle the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius under the signboard of Marxism-Leninism. They talked such nonsense as “the female sex is backward,” “a woman cannot be expected to have a bright future,” “a woman’s future is determined by that of her husband,” “a woman must devote herself to her husband” and so on. They discriminated against women, belittled the role of women and tried to prevent them from taking part in the three great revolutionary movements—class struggle, the struggle for production and scientific experiment. Their attempt was to make women docile tools and philistines paying no attention to the politics of the proletariat and showing no interest in the affairs of the state and the world. And they tried to drive women who constitute half the nation’s population back into the small courtyards of their respective homes, barring them from taking part in the socialist revolution and construction. All this was meant to serve their needs in trying to subvert the proletarian dictatorship and restore capitalism. Such was the criminal design of Lin Piao and his gang. But the course of history is always opposite to the wishes of the reactionaries: The fond dream of a handful of opportunists who were against the historical current has been shattered and nothing can stem the torrent of the women’s liberation movement.

The influence of the ideas of contempt for women caused by feudal rule in our country for more than 2,000 years still lingers on to this day. As Lenin said: “When the old society perishes, its corpse cannot be nailed up in a coffin and lowered into the grave. It disintegrates in our midst; the corpse rots and infects us.”

“The Communist Revolution,” solemnly declared Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, “is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.” The class basis of the concept of “male superiority and female inferiority” is the exploiting classes, and it is the masses of people, especially the masses of the working women, who are the victims. This ideology of the exploiting classes is completely incompatible with the socialist economic base and socialist political institutions. The mass movement to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius is forcefully sweeping away the old ideas of looking down on women and the ideology of the exploiting classes as a whole. This movement will surely create still more favourable conditions for the thorough emancipation of the women of China.

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