The Confucianism-Feminism Conflict: Why a New Understanding is Necessary

August 29, 2017

Schwarzman Scholars worked together to create an academic journal, reflecting their ability to think critically about the Middle Kingdom and the implications of its rise. These collections of thoughts come together to form “Xinmin Pinglun,” our Journal dedicated to the publication of the informative and analytical essays of our scholars. As the application deadline for the class of 2019 is approaching and the start of the 2017-2018 academic year is on its way, we are sharing pieces from the second issue of Ximin Pinglun to give insight into the critical thinking and scholarship taking place at Schwarzman College. Here, Juliana Batista, (Class of 2017) discusses the intersection of Confucian and Feminist ideals. 

Deeply rooted in Chinese tradition and culture is the notion that male children are more desirable because they possess the capability to care for the elderly, work toilsome jobs, and perform critical ancestral practices. Female infanticide, where a family aborts a pregnancy of a female child to have a (first-born) male child, is connected with the assertions of practitioners, based on Confucian texts. A family would be disappointed birthing a female child, because the child is considered an economic burden. If a rural family birthed no sons, the community would regard that as a tragedy. Confucianism is often associated with oppressing women, whether that be subjugating women to their fathers during childhood, husbands during marriage, or sons during widowhood. Oppressive acts associated with Confucian principles also include foot binding, concubinage, and widow suicide.

The history is undeniable that Confucian principles contributed to the suppression of women, even if the suppression of women was not the primary intent of Confucianism. There is an inherent conflict between Confucianism and feminism. Confucianism and sexism have become inextricably linked, because sexism is crucial to how Confucianism was taught. However, Confucianism philosophy has the potential to detach from the sexist undertones and reshape the perception of women. Rather than pursuing a backward-looking endeavor or defending Confucianism’s past, a revised philosophical outlook can be proposed. Present-day Confucian philosophers are not taking this challenge seriously nor producing enough new literature to fulfill the need.

By neglecting to define the role of women, Confucius (Kongzi, 孔子) allows those interpreting the texts to belittle women. One of the only direct references to women in the Analects is “Women and servants are hard to deal with” (Analects 17.25). The passage continues on to say that one loses their reserve being near women and servants, and one is resentful being far. The categorization of women with those clearly in a lower social class implies that women are of equal status with the lower social class. Some translations of 17.25 interpret it as only referring to concubines and young women, not all women. Despite the alternative translations, it is clear that Confucius considered women, in any form, as a part of a different social class than men. Observers of the philosophy could regard women as inferior because the texts do not specifically state that women and men are a part of the same social class.

In another reference, Confucius neglects to acknowledge a woman, therefore perpetuating social classes and a strict hierarchy. Confucius tells the king that there were only nine ministers, when there was clearly ten people, (one of them was a woman). “[Sage King] Shun had five ministers and all under Heaven was well governed, and King Wu [of Zhou] said: I have ten ministers who are skilled in government. Master Kong commented ‘Is it not true that talent is hard to find? At the time of Shun’s accession things are thought to have flourished, and with a woman among King Wu’s ministers, there were in fact only nine men.”

Most academics would argue that Confucius only wanted to highlight that out of the ten ministers, one was a woman. However, some academics argue that the passage implies that Confucius was highlighting that a woman does not normally engage in the external affairs required for minister’s, while a few argue that women are unfit for the role of ministers. At best, the quote shows Confucius distinguishing between men and women. More likely, the quote shows Confucius dismissing the power and intellect of a woman minister. The sparse references to women in the Analects do not make a compelling argument for the equality of women. The lack of definitive positive messaging in the Analects created space for subsequent philosophers to freely interpret the role of women, oftentimes in an unfavorable way. Certain terminology, like junzi (君子) and yin-yang (陰陽), is inherent to the culture and excludes female participation. This therefore instigates the conflict between Confucianism and feminism. Junzi is commonly translated to “superior man” or “gentleman.” Superiority is embodying wisdom and virtue, by becoming more fully human. Moral transformation to sageliness is the ultimate achievement. Although not used historically, a potential translation could be the gender neutral version, “superior person.” Without defining junzi as “superior person,” it allows those interpreting the texts to exclude women from achieving virtue and defining junzi as only males. Women and men may be equally capable of becoming virtuous, but the gender normative restriction prevents women.

Yin-yang restricts women from wielding significant influence outside the household domain. In My Country and My People, Lin Yutang, a Chinese philosopher, parallels the concept of yin-yang to marriages. Yang, the superior, is associated with the husband, regardless of whether or not he comes from a noble family. Lin maintains that “The home is the throne from which she makes appointment for mayors or decides professions of her grandsons.” Women had power inside the home, but women did not have the option to wield legitimate power outside of the home. Neo-Confucian thinker, Dong Zhongshu, from the Han dynasty expanded into his own version that women are the opposite of men: subservient, weak, and envious. These traits were encapsulated in yin. The virtues for women were vastly different, including chastity and compliance, that perpetuated oppressive acts. Dong pursues the belief that there is a natural ordering of men and women and rationalizes it through yin-yang. Confucian teachings about the status and role of women is reinforced by the relationship of yin and yang.

It can be interpreted that when Confucius proposed the yin-yang marriage concept, he intended for the husband’s external affairs to complement the wife’s internal affairs. Tu Wei-Ming, an ethicist and New Confucian, maintains that the underlying aspect is not superiority, but rather mutualism and division of labor. Roger Ames and David Hall similarly argue that yin and yang show a “difference in emphasis rather than a difference in kind”. When viewed this way, yin-yang divides labor, but constrains both genders to their respective domains. Although Confucius’ concept may have been proposed with the best of intentions, its reinforces a gender dichotomy. According to Alice Hu in Half the Sky, But Not Yet Equal: China’s Feminist Movement, women were “socially and physically bounded by the gender norms” of femininity and masculinity. Each gender is associated with normative traits and restrictive roles within a predetermined hierarchy.

When the core values of Confucianism and feminism are adjacently examined, there is no mutual incompatibility.

Feminism at its core advocates for suspending the concept of separate but equal implied by yin-yang. This provides optionality, the ability and freedom to choose career and professional paths, of the modern women. Anne Marie Slaughter posted a famous article in The Atlantic stating women “can’t have it all”, referencing the implausibility that women can combine career and family without significant compromise (greater than that of their male counterparts). Modern feminism pushed back, stating women can “have their all”, whether that entails being a successful mother, businesswoman, or both. Modern feminism advocates for gender equality and the potential for females to excel in the home and/or in the workplace. The movement also liberates the male counterpart to become the primary decision maker at home, contrary to historical gender norms. Rather than restricting the husband and wife to a defined domain, modern feminism provides the opportunity to choose the domain of superiority.

When the core values of Confucianism and feminism are adjacently examined, there is no mutual incompatibility. The incompatibility lies between feminism and how Confucianism has been historically practiced, as stated above. For example, the concept of ren (仁) itself actually may not be sexist. Confucius never provides a clear definition of ren in the Analects except using the term to illustrate the ideal quality of a virtuous person and the ultimate goal of moral development. Mencius, one of the most important philosophers in the Confucian school of thought, believed that humans by nature are good. All people, regardless if they are men or women are equipped with xin (心, heart-mind) which is virtuous unless it is hampered by one’s environment or desires. Mencius states that all humans have xin and can achieve ren (humaneness) because, “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.” All human beings are born “good” and possess the potential to become a sage. Beings that do not have this potential are in fact, not human. These beings are wicked and do not allow ren, yi (义), li (礼), and zhi (智) to develop. Therefore, all beings, regardless if they are men or women, possess the potential to exhibit humaneness.

Confucianism has the potential to reconcile discrepancies with feminism based on the way it has historically been taught. There is potential for this mode of thought to evolve into “a viable, universal doctrine of enduring philosophical significance, able to inform and shape humankind, transcending temporal and cultural differences,” according to the San Diego State University professor Sandra Wawrytko. Such an evolution may seem problematic on the surface; after all, Confucianism is rooted in tradition, whereas feminism opts to reform tradition. Although the tradition is often associated with hierarchy and gender norms, the essential insights of Confucianism, like ren, do not have to be interpreted to suppress women. Both philosophies are associated with social roles, rituals, and the formation or revision of self. These intersections of thought provide a solid base to reconcile them.

The common ground between Confucianism and feminism lies in the concepts of care ethics (a moral theory that promotes the wellbeing of care-givers and care-receivers in a given social network), self-cultivation, and situational moral judgement. When creating a new Confucian philosophy, it is important to acknowledge these concepts as the foundation. The care ethics of Confucianism and feminism are aligned through creating ethical systems where ren and care are the highest moral ideals that rely on moral judgement over rules. Contrasted with legalism and other rights based moral theories, Confucians and feminists advocate for human beings as socially-connected individuals. The hierarchy detailing how each individual relates to one another is socially constructed within a community. The social relationships incite responsibility to family and closely connected individuals.

Confucian text expresses feminist ideas through self-cultivation. Self-cultivation is a gradual process from youth to old age that transforms from mere intention, zhi, to learning, xue (学), to doing what is desired, yu (欲), and what is right, yi (义). Li Zhi, a Chinese philosopher often recognized under the pseudonym Zhuowu, suggests self-cultivation as the most effective means to address the oppressive patriarchy associated with Confucianism. Confucian scholar, Lady Ban Zhao, in Instructions for Women or Women’s Precepts suggests self-cultivation for women through education. Lady Ban believed that gentlemen teaching their sons but neglecting to teach their daughters as “unreasonable discrimination”. By equally guiding sons and daughters through self-cultivation, women have access to sageliness. Both schools of thought also emphasize situational moral judgement and development, instead of adherence to rules and regulations. Mencius purports the rule of benevolence over the rule of force. Tu Wei-ming emphasizes that situational choices that are “far from simply performing a function in the social hierarchy,” but are rather about realizing moral principles in spite of the hierarchy. Carol Gilligan echoes the comments by Wei-ming, noting feminism is derived from the flow of interpersonal relationships. Feminism denies rigid rules, and is rather the iterative process of balancing morals.

A more consistent Confucian theory should not only allow women to access the ruling class, but should actively encourage their ascension. Societies should engage in a meritocracy, where individuals are promoted on a basis of their ability and potential. Meritocratic governance is deeply rooted in Confucian political tradition, which allowed China to develop the Keju system for public service examination and the current cadre evaluation system for officials’ promotion. If Confucianism aligns with meritocracy, it does not automatically imply that Confucianism aligns with feminism. A concerted effort to align Confucianism and feminism through the mutual belief in meritocracy must be established. In 1992, historian Li Yuning proposed that some Confucian ideas can improve women’s position in society. Confucius believed that “everyone could improve through education and self-cultivation” regardless of one’s upbringing and socio-economic status. Through appropriate learning and development, women could rise up through the meritocracy.

The promotion of meritocracy trumping kinship can be extended to women. Confucius and Mencius in traditional texts do not explicitly consider women as morally or intellectually defective in the literature. New philosophical thought should promote women as equal to men in their capacity to become ren. Confucian society assigns roles based on virtue and wisdom, not heredity, wealth, and now gender. Similar to the prior commitments to disregard heredity and wealth, the society would be stable, prosperous, and permit moral cultivation by also disregarding gender. Despite the sparse literature available promoting women through Confucianism, women are assuming an increasingly central role in modern Confucianism which indicates a willingness to evolve. More female scholars are studying Confucianism; however, that does not have a direct correlation with scholars engaging in topics related to feminist issues or women’s rights. Women are now active ritual participants during formal ceremonies. In 2004, Anna Sun researched visitors to the Confucius Temple in Qufu participating in the ritual, beyond the expected court officials and Confucius literati. There has also been a revival of Confucian education, after-school classes, and business strategies.

Confucianism and feminism have been inherently at odds. It is commonly held belief that the suppression and abuse of women in China has been associated with Confucianism. The absence of powerful and supportive literature by early Confucian philosophers, including Confucius himself, produced a vacuum that could be filled with negative interpretations of women. In a reformed philosophy, Confucian philosophy should reconcile widening differences with feminism. The two schools of thought can capitalize on the shared concepts of care ethics, self-cultivation, and situational moral judgement. Confucian philosophers should also encourage the ascension of women through the meritocracy. Although present-day Confucian philosophers have not honed into these issues, in the future it will become increasingly important to make Confucianism accessible to all.


Juliana Batista (Class of 2017) is from the United States of America, and graduated from Cornell University.