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On women's virtue in the Song Dynasty
Tian Dandan
8/22/2003



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I have spent much time reading Confucian classics, articles on Confucianism, and even the 24 History Volumes. I soon discovered that modern people seem to know little about China before the Song Dynasty. One interesting issue I came across in my reading is how virtue has been defined for women throughout Chinese history.

The Song Dynasty appears to be a turning point in terms of defining “women of virtue” in China. The claim to fame for most virtuous women before the Song Dynasty was that they made significant contributions to state 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 the like.

After the Song Dynasty, the model for a most virtuous woman became someone who safeguarded her chastity under trying circumstances. Many of these women decided to refrain from seeking a second marriage until the country was no longer under attack from northern barbarian tribes, or until they had taken their personal vengeance against the enemy who murdered their husbands. Some of them were not really interested in a second marriage, either because they were not interested in marital relations, or because they were too attached to their dead husbands. The woman 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 endorsement for abstinence. In other words, prior to the Song Dynasty, women were in control of their own decisions and completely indifferent to social propaganda. Few could pressure a woman into conforming to any particular stereotypic definition.

In addition, there is a misconception that the extreme acts of chastity were widely lauded. Actually most 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 “strange behavior,” “pitiful behavior,” or “ I deplore decision,” and so on. Some widows disfigured themselves to prevent a second marriage because of an attachment or a promise to their dead husbands. Women who took this path were considered lacking rationality and self-esteem. Accordingly, few historians would embrace such conduct, 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 benevolence; 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 somewhat too far from Confucian’s principle of the Golden Mean.

Can one conclude, therefore, that a woman’s true virtue is reflected by a woman’s conformity to benevolence and righteousness? Not quite. 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 endorsed, it was a sign that such acts had become rare in a morally degenerate society. According to the theory of inter-generation and inter-inhibition, the advocacy of benevolence and righteousness actually indicates the loss of benevolence and righteousness. On the flip side of the coin, if everybody values virtue and improves their mind and soul, the standard for evaluating benevolence and righteousness would also be upgraded.

Modern people might like many aspects of ancient society, but they might consider how certain things were done in ancient times “backwards”. Our perception of what actually went on in ancient times might often be based on a twisted, misunderstanding of ancient culture, so it is likely that we could be removed from the truth. Such misunderstanding of ancient times could become a barrier for everyday people to understand the truth about China. After all, most of us are not historians by profession, we ought to take a balanced approach toward the value system in the past.

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