Women’s Status in Medieval China

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What was the status of women in Medieval China? Is it possible that footbinding was considered a desirable form of status by women themselves?

The status and role in society of women in Medieval China varied enormously according to location, time and, above all, social class. After all, women living on rural farms had to work at least as hard as the men in order to make ends meet in a country which was no stranger to famine and war. It is interesting that the Chinese character used for ‘woman’ shows a person inside a house, while the character for ‘man’ shows a person in a rice field (it is more interesting that a character for ‘trouble’ shows two women living in the same house). This shows that work was divided along gender lines from a very early period. While men were involved in agriculture, hunting and other outside activities, women were involved with domestic work, food preparation and care of the young, the elderly and the unwell. In some cases, women could have roles as shamans or priestesses but this varied and usually was only possible in areas remote from state capitals, which had officials willing and able to ensure that the male-dominated social order was maintained.

However, women in urban areas and those in well-off families might have had quite different and sometimes better lives. As fashions changed, women were subject to more or less shielding from outsiders, to the extent that, during the Sung Dynasty, wealthy women were more or less sequestered in their homes and forbidden to take part in any kind of social activity. On other occasions, women could participate in activities outside of the house as long as they were properly attired and attended by servants or guardians. Of course, there have always been tales of women who dared to break the rules.

The notion of beauty and the suitability of different types of clothes were also affected by fashion and by society as a whole. In western societies, the notion of women’s beauty has followed on the idea of wealth and the fact that the woman did not have to work: when fat women were considered beautiful, it was because it showed they had more than enough to eat and did not have to work. In very many countries, the possession of a white complexion has also been considered beautiful, because it showed the woman was from a wealthy enough family that she did not have to work in the fields. It is possible that one of the cruelest of Chinese customs, footbinding, came about for the same reason. After all, a woman who could scarcely walk could not be expected to work and so she must have a family with sufficient resources to support her. Despite the discomfort of the practice, there are stories of women whose feet were not bound complaining bitterly that they had to go through life with ‘big, clown’s feet’ and had to earn their own rice through working.