Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Confucianism and Sexism

Van Norden discusses sexism very briefly (pp. 330-31) in his book. I realize, and he does too, there are whole volumes dedicated to the topic. But I wanted to discuss an interesting issue that Van Norden raises–not to critique his book but because I stumbled across the issue there this morning while coffeeing up. Van Norden writes:

“There is nothing, I think, essentially sexist about Ruism. Ruism emphasizes the importance of acting in accordance with our roles. But it is not a requirement of Ruism in itself that these roles be static or attached to specific genders.”

(For those who are unfamiliar, “Ruism” is another–maybe clearer, maybe somewhat problematic–way to refer to Confucianism.)

I think Van Norden’s view here is probably like that of a lot of contemporary defenders of Confucianism. But it raises a question: Is there something essential to Confucianism that transcends, or would allow it to transcend, its actual socio-historical role in sexist practices and institutions? Or maybe that’s too broad; more pointedly, how could a role-based ethical view remain identifiably Confucian if we divorced it from its actual substantive views about role-appropriateness based on sex? Or am I assuming too much in the latter about Confucianism’s actual substantive views about sex-based role-appropriateness?

Lots of questions; any answers?

February 15th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Feminism, Sexism | 17 comments

17 Responses to Confucianism and Sexism

  1. Chris says:

    Fast quick reply (have to run to class):

    What’s the relationship between jen and li? Is the point of Ruism to mirror exactly the Zhou li? Some have argued “yes” but I would tend not to go the route of the “definitionalist” (as Kwong Loi-Shun calls them, if I remember) and link the Zhou li and jen too closely.

    I don’t think you lose anything about “Confucianism” (as a _system_) if you divorce it from the specific cultural framework that it uses to “fill out” its own content (necessarily, for the Confucian, I believe, to some degree cultural differences are relevant to how that content is filled out). Clearly there are structural aspects that could not be altered and still maintain any coherent Confucianism. For instance: could you do away with hierarchical relationships entirely and still have a recognizable Confucian framework? An entirely egalitarian societal framework? I doubt it. Could you transcend the traditionally hierarchical gendered framework? I think you could. One question that would remain might be: given the emphasis on the foundational importance of the family structure on jen, would altering gender assignments necessarily disrupt what the Confucian thinks it is essential that the child “pick up” within that relationship? My guess is that you need to answer that question to satisfactorily answer the more general issue at hand about the relationship between ru and gender sexism. It may be that inter-parental hierarchy is necessary (maybe not), but that those hierarchies not be gender-based.

  2. Manyul Im says:


    Interesting observations. Your comments lead to the question of whether there could be a conception of hierarchic relationships that was purely formal and at the same time recognizably Confucian. If not, the substantive issues of which “Confucian” relationships are hierarchically structured might lead us back to the sexism issue–is the husband-wife relationship one that has to be hierarchical in Confucianism?

    In a related case, it seems like autocracy is something that Confucian political theory entails (this is related because of the use of the father-centered family model throughout Confucian literature as the one for thinking about benevolent government). So much for Confucian democracy?

  3. Boram Lee says:


    Veering slightly off-topic to the related case of Confucian political theory: my impression is that at its heart Confucianism is neither autocratic nor authoritarian, as some modern Asian regimes like to claim.

    It seems to me that one of the main defining features of Confucianism, at least on its political and economic dimensions, is its commitment to decentralization. Its ideal society is one consisting of small communities, each small community composed of persons governing themselves with ritual. The ideal government is not a centralized bureacracy, but self-government by each over themselves, where no coercion is involved, only voluntary control and participation in social activities, and leadership based on rational and emotional persuasion, not the use of laws and punishments. A centralized bureacracy following paternalistic policies towards uneducated peasants is only a second-best option.

    In Confucius’s times and even much later, this commitment to decentralization expresses itself as a longing for the feudal system of the Zhou period. Mencius elaborates on this with his nostalgic description of the well-field system, and later Confucian statesmen pushed for the revival of the system, even when aware that it was a highly idealized picture and not likely to be perfectly implemented.

    The commitment to decentralization is also expressed in the opposition towards state control of salt and iron by Confucian officials, during the Han dynasty, as recorded in the famous Salt and Iron debate. It is also expressed in the various community experiments that de Bary describes in his book, ASIAN VALUES AND HUMAN RIGHTS: A CONFUCIAN
    COMMUNITARIAN PERSPECTIVE. The most famous of these experiments is the community compact (xiang yue). Think of community compacts as constitutions written for moral communities. The community compact failed to have the intended effect on the large scale social level, mainly because the state co-opted it for the purpose of indoctrination.

    Perhaps I’m overly influenced by my teachers, de Bary and Len Krimerman…. But I do think that Confucians now should prefer decentralized, participatory forms of democracy.

  4. Chris says:


    “Participatory democracy”…I’ll tell you that sure did spring up a flashback in my mind of Len Krimmerman’s voice saying those exact words. Oh, the number of brown bags (and classes) I sat through, listening to Len wax poetic on the beauty of anarchy and participatory democracy!

    I don’t doubt that to some degree you’re right, in that smaller decentralized units or local communities would be more in the spirit of Confucianism (not surprisingly, if you think it is a virtue ethic, for obvious reasons). At the same time, however, there’s a limit I think to how far a Confucian would push participatory democracy. At some point, Len and Confucius would surely part ways. Len’s notion of participatory democracy (as far as I remember it, it’s been a few years) is decidedly anti-hierarchical ideologically, whereas Confucianism, at least insofar as I see it, cannot survive without hierarchy at some fundamental level. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing — hierarchy is not intrinsically distasteful.

  5. Boram Lee says:


    Prof. Krimerman retired a few years back, but he still gives those brown bags on anarchy and participatory democracy, and I doubt he’s ever going to stop! 🙂 Len’s version of participatory democracy is what he calls “education-shaped democracy”, where leaders play a significant role in facilitating the development of others in the community. To this extent there seems to be a hierarchical dimension to Len’s version of democracy, but then again, the power that the leaders exercise is (to put it quickly but suggestively) not “power over”, but “power with”, and the status of leaders as leaders seems provisional, leading by example and providing an environment where the weak and the powerless (e.g., oppressed women) are rehabilitated and empowered.

    I agree with you that certain types of hierarchy are not intrinsically distasteful. And what types of hierarchy does Confucianism require, at some fundamental level? I can think of two types. One is the moral leadership of the junzi over those who fall short of that status. But the junzi’s leadership, the power s/he exercises in the minds and hearts of the people, is in some sense consensual, and I think the Analects is unequivocal about this. The people follow the junzi willingly, and not because they are coerced. So the junzi’s power is consensual. Also, in another, related sense, the junzi’s influence is not “power over”, but “power with”. The junzi cannot exert moral influence if the people have no innate capacity for appreciating moral conduct. So the junzi’s virtue is like the standup comedian’s superior ability to tell good jokes. The comedian cannot use this ability to make people laugh unless the people have a sense of humor, and can appreciate a good joke. In the same way, the junzi cannot use their virtue to influence the people unless the people have a sense of virtue, and can appreciate the junzi’s virtuous conduct. And the junzi’s role, it seems to me, is to nurture the moral development of the people by personal example, and by providing the right kind of nourishing environment.

    Another source of hierarchy, as you noted earlier, is the familial hierarchy between parent and child. But does this have to construed in the hierarchical sense? All that matters, it seems to me, is that there be love between parent and child, and this provides a natural motivational resource that forms the basis of morality, a pool of motivational energy, so to speak, that can be channeled from the near and dear to the strange and remote. This is shu, which I take to be a horizontal rather than vertically hierarchical.

    A third type of hierarchy, the only true hierarchy which I recognize in Confucianism, is provided by the emphasis on loyalty (zhong). But I like to interpret this the way Zhu Xi did (if I correctly recall his interpretation): zhong is conscientiousness, doing one’s utmost for the sake of some higher cause or principle. So zhong is not loyalty to a ruler or to a person higher up in the social hierarchy: Confucian ministers saw it as an important duty to remonstrate with the ruler if he went against moral principle.

    p.s. To be fair to Len, he prefers Daodejing to Confucius, I guess for the reasons you point out (the worry that Confucianism is incorrigibly hierarchical). I tried to convince him that Daodejing is anti-education, and has unsavory connections to legalism (Han Fei admired it and wrote the first commentary), but I don’t think I’ve succeeded in converting him to Confucianism.

  6. Dan Robins says:

    Weren’t, or aren’t, the ru the wrong sort of thing to have an essence?

    I can see how someone for whom texts from the ru tradition have been formative would want to rethink some of their commitments (for example, to the subordination of women), and to do so in a way that is somehow faithful to the texts. And there are contexts in which I think that sort of work can be very important.

    What I don’t see is what this can tell us about the texts, or how it could ever amount to a defense of what they actually say. (In case it needs saying, I don’t think Van Norden implies it does either of these things.)

  7. Bill Haines says:

    Perhaps the essence is partly socially constructed, like the essence of knives. I take Van Norden’s point and Manyul’s question to be shorthands for talking about how much about Confucianism or Ruism would have to change to make it compatible with gender equality (or even the abandonment of distinct gender roles).

    Insofar as Confucianism has an essence today, it would seem to be tied to canonical texts. Even if we distinguish sharply between Confucianism and Neoconfucianism, we might think the Neocons were successful in fixing the basic canon for what counts today as “Confucianism,” if not “Ruism.” Anyway, Confucius says almost nothing about gender, and he doesn’t tie what he says about it to what he says about other things. Mencius says almost nothing about gender; and as one might expect, he commonly spoke of the good ruler as “father and mother to the people.” I don’t know about Xunzi.

    I think part of defending what the texts actually say is to show that the sexism in the texts is easily separable from the rest of what they say. Separable from the part one wants to defend. Hu Shi attacked Neoconfucianism on the grounds that in 800 years it was unable to see the wrong of footbinding. That strikes me as a powerful prima facie attack on the whole kit & caboodle.

    If patriarchy fits an Upstairs Downstairs view – a view of an individual’s public life as a full-time enterprise that has to be supported by an invisible back-room staff – then it seems a strikingly poor fit with the Confucian idea that virtue for public life is rooted in virtue for family relations.

    But I tend to think the latter idea came in to the tradition from Youzi, not Confucius, for whatever that’s worth regarding essence.

  8. Chris says:


    Well put — thanks for laying that out, it clarifies some of the terminology we’re using and also shows me what Len is thinking nowadays. I actually agree with much of what you’re saying. I don’t think of “hierarchy” as necessarily “coercive structure” but rather a structure in which superiority and inferiority is recognized, facilitated, maintained, institutionally cultivated in society, and so on. You might think of the opposite as Nietzsche’s (or Kierkegaard) “leveled society” in which meaningful distinctions are collapsed. When I think of an entirely egalitarian society, that’s usually what I think of. When I say “necessarily hierarchical” I’m thinking in terms of Confucius moral psychology: we strive to emulate what we see as higher than ourselves. Without those distinctions, Confucianism collapses.

    I think it is helpful to think in terms that Henry Rosemont uses: the “benefactor” and the “beneficiary”. This removes much of the “offensive” connotation from the relationships you and I are talking about. Still, some relationships are naturally, or developmentally, hierarchical. The family is one. Although the parent can be wrong (giving the child room for _some_ remonstration — notice that Confucius stresses that the child should not push the disagreement too far), the relationship is (at least for many years) very tilted to one side.

    Back to gender, and to Bill Haines: I think part of the essence is socially constructed (that’s what I was getting at originally). It seems odd to me for someone to claim that women must be seen as subordinate in the family structure for the family structure itself to function in the way that Confucius seems to want it to, which is primarily to serve as the ground floor for the cultivation of a certain kind of relationship and for virtue, or moral sensibilities. To put it in a very simple form, it could be that Confucius thinks it important that someone in the family always stand, on any given occasion, as “the exemplar” or as “the standard bearer of what is right” to provide for the necessity in the development of children of the importance of the proper attitude towards exemplars.

    But if so, it would seem odd to suggest that this role cannot shift between mother and father (or mother-mother, or father-father) as the situations shift (contextuality is, after all, a central part of Confucianism). This aspect (the fact that the father is always at the head, and the woman subordinate), seems to me a mere time-specific cultural add-on that is unnecessary.

    By the way, the footbinding issue baffles me, and always has, though I don’t understand enough of the history to say much of anything about it. All I’ll say is I have to strain my eyes (unsuccessfully, I’d add) to find anything in the Analects that might recommend or even support such a procedure.

  9. Manyul Im says:


    Regarding footbinding, there’s usually two reasons that historians tend to cite for regarding the practice as “Confucian”–neither has to do with any texts: 1) Ming Dynasty’s support of the practice in asserting Han ethnic superiority (including allegiance to Confucianism); 2) legend of Zhu Xi’s support for the practice. I’m just going to cut and paste now from a small piece I wrote about this in Alan Soble’s *Sex from Plato to Paglia: a Philosophical Encyclopedia* (Don’t ask me how I got that gig…)

    Beginning of quote

    The practice of footbinding reflected more directly on both the status and role of women in a broadly Confucian social order. Footbinding involved regimented binding of each of a young girl’s feet from around three years of age, into womanhood, and for the rest of her life. The method and purpose of binding involved the use of silk bands to bind the toes under toward the heel, so that the foot through breakage of bones, sloughing off of injured flesh, and healing would form into an extended, smaller foot of roughly three inches length. The practice seems to have occurred with varying fashionability from the Tang dynasty (618 – 906; also Romanized “T’ang”) to the late Qing, when it was almost completely abolished. It seems to have reached its height of prestige and popularity in the Ming dynasty, and by then had become a highly eroticized feminine affect.

    Footbinding incorporated multifarious philosophical and political attitudes that contributed to its eroticization. An important set of these attitudes had to do with securing a myth of ethnic Han Chinese cultural superiority through construction of footbinding as an important visible marker of refinement. Ethnically Han Chinese held power in most of the dynasties of Chinese history, with the Mongols (Yuan dynasty; 1271 – 1368) and Manchus (Qing dynasty) as exceptions. Relevant for our purposes is the ethnic Han belief in moral superiority as the originators of Chinese culture, including the moral, social and political aspects of Confucianism. Such elaborate and painstaking “adornment” of women’s feet represented the highly cultivated specialization of women’s role and rank within the complex of Confucian culture. A woman of virtuous refinement did not require large or strong feet for her most important social and ethical contribution: male heirs to the ancestral line. But footbinding seems to have been a particularly Han ethnic expression of Confucianism’s relegation of women’s function and virtue to concerns exclusively interior to domicile. Non-Han dynasties such as the Qing embraced Confucian social norms but ultimately rejected footbinding along with other Ming dynasty appearance-code customs, regarding the latter as merely definitive of Han Chinese ethnic identity, hence discardable without harm to the Confucian manner of rule.

    Though undocumented, legend has it that the famed Song (Sung) dynasty (960 – 1279) neo-Confucian Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi; 1130 – 1200) actively introduced and promoted footbinding as an important facet of Confucian social ordering. By the time of the late Qing, the prominent Confucian poet and writer Gong Zizhen (Kung Tzu-chen, 1792 – 1841) severely criticized the practice along with opium trafficking and sycophantic ministers as damaging the state’s adherence to the Way.

    Footbinding resisted explicit codification even during favorable dynasties, largely because of its status in practice as a woman’s concern conceivable alternately on the model of sartorial adornment or preparation for menstruation, dutiful sex, and childbirth. The practice was passed from women to girls in the spatial and moral interior of the household; overt, public enforcement of the practice was seemingly neither necessary nor desirable. The high social status that Han culture succeeded in placing upon footbinding resisted early Qing attempts to eradicate the practice. Manchu women during the Qing may even have taken to the fashion of platform shoes in order to imitate the appearance of bounded gait. The cultural refinement and “interior” virtue that the binding of feet was meant to indicate must have partially informed its erotic appeal. A woman’s gendered attractiveness depended on her possession, or at the very least the appearance, of feminine virtues.

    End of Quote

    So, as far as I can tell the connection of footbinding to Confucianism takes some doing and even then, is more suggested than demonstrated in any strong sense. I don’t know exactly where the legend of Zhu Xi’s support for it comes from, but more than one historian mentions it. Does anyone know what the origin of this legend is?

    Here are few sources if you’ve always been dying to know a lot about footbinding’s social history. (If anyone has more sources they recommend, let us know.):

    Blake, C. Fred. “Footbinding in Neo-Confucian China and the Appropriation of Female Labor,” Signs, Vol. 19 (Spring 1994).

    Ko, Dorothy. “The Body As Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China,” Journal of Women’s History, Vol.8:4 (Winter 1997).

    Levy, Howard S. The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992.

  10. Dan Robins says:

    Bill, wouldn’t you agree that commitment to particular social and ritual traditions is fundamental to ru thought, and that the subordination of women runs deep in the social and ritual traditions in question? I don’t think we can simply abstract away from this feature of ru particularism (or whatever we want to call it).

    Also, if (as I believe) the term “junzi” was gender-specific, then all these texts relate a great deal of what they say to gender; for example, this implies that their whole conception of virtue is gendered. (But see Joanne Birdwhistell’s Mencius and Masculinities for arguments that things are less straightforward, at least in the Mencius.)

  11. Bill Haines says:

    Dan, everything you say here seems right. But when you say “commitment to particular social and ritual traditions” in the plural, I wonder whether you mean “A Ru is a conservative particularist wherever she happens to be rooted” or that China changed and Korea is different.

    I think it’s not just funny pronouns that make people confuse “people” with “men.” It can be because it’s only the men who are out and about making big society. So there’s room for the possibility that Mencius and Confucius’ group had no considered opinions one way or the other about gender; they weren’t thinking about it. Similarly, it would be easy for someone in the early Ru milieu simply not to think about what view to adopt regarding other sophisticated civilizations in general, just as we don’t think much about extraterrestrial politics. I think the question whether Rawls makes sense for the Martian lizards could be a sensible question, despite the clear human-centeredness of his work.

    There can be institutional systems and bodies of thought that speak mainly about men, such as the original political system of the U.S., that can be translated fairly easily into gender-neutral systems without much grounds for worries about the accuracy or indeterminacy of the translation. The things the Analects and the Mencius say about the junzi aren’t about what to do after you’ve knocked somebody up; on the surface there’s no great difficulty at least on the surface in “translating” those texts into texts addressing both women and men. And then I guess the question becomes whether there are problems below the surface—whether, say, this or that dao loses some of its merit when it is read in a gender-neutral way or when society is organized in a gender-egalitarian way.

    For example, someone (I don’t say me) might suppose that it’s possible to maintain a stable social order with minimal force so long as family life trains people in the ways of harmonious subordination to a single leader, but in the absence of that foundation social order requires more brute force.

    Or someone (I don’t say me) might think that our basic biology — men physically stronger, women burdened with pregnancy — means that we naturally tend toward inequality in the absence of the correction provided by the thinking made possible by liberal institutions radically at odds (someone might think) with the general outlook of the early Ru.

    I think those are interesting sorts of question about Confucianism and sexism.

  12. Dan Robins says:

    Bill, I trust you’d agree that there’s a pretty big difference between women and ETs, namely that the ru actually knew about women and interacted with them and endorsed traditions that subordinated them. Adjusting their dao to make room for gender equality is not at all like extending it to deal with previously unimagined situations.

    The fact that it’s easy to construct a gender-neutral variant of their dao doesn’t really address the issue, I think. The issue is how true or faithful the resulting dao is to the original (or anyway that’s one of the issues). And in thinking about that issue, we should take seriously our best guesses as to what the classical ru would have said about the gender-neutral variant. (I’m pretty sure they would have been against it.)

  13. Bill Haines says:

    Dan, I don’t think there’s any issue about whether the early Ru would have come down for patriarchy over feminism if they had been asked. Of course they would. And I don’t think there’s any issue about whether they would have been against it if they had thought about it for a good long while, because that’s just too counterfactual.

    I think what’s not a fact, what’s under discussion above, is whether it’s easy to construct a gender-neutral version of their dao.

  14. Bill Haines says:

    Here there’s a question that overlaps with the question about whether a dao can include all the whys of its whats. That is, to what extent must a dao be verbal? If the 言 of the master do not address gender, does that mean gender is not addressed in the master’s 道?

    One way to take that question is as a question about ancient words.

  15. Bill Haines says:

    OK, Dan, suppose we construct our gender-neutral variant, and imagine asking Zengzi for his opinion. Suppose, further, to limit the counterfactuality of our thought-experiment, that our variant’s outdoor political institutions look like ideal Zhou feudalism (before you lift the skirts). As we prepare to present this dao to Zengzi for his judgment, we might ask ourselves whether what we are trying to find out is (a) whether or not he happened to think women naturally inferior to men in intelligence, the capacity for trustworthiness, etc., or (b) what his considered opinion would be absent gross factual errors along those lines. As for me, I find (a) uninteresting, especially insofar (sic) as our Ru left no sign of having given significant thought to the matter (I do not say: no sign of a firmly settled opinion). But to pose question (b) we have to include a pamphlet on the abilities of women and men. And that would make our speculation about the resonse to question (b) pretty counterfactual.

  16. Bill Haines says:

    Hi Boram,

    In #5, you say something that strikes me as right and very important:

    “…the familial hierarchy between parent and child…. does this have to construed in the hierarchical sense? All that matters, it seems to me, is that there be love between parent and child, and this provides a natural motivational resource that forms the basis of morality, a pool of motivational energy, so to speak, that can be channeled from the near and dear to the strange and remote.”

    Maybe we can add that family trains us in practices of putting others first, taking others seriously. I think this may actually be what the author of Analects 1.2 meant.

    If he was thinking of filiality and fraternity as the normal easiest beginnings and permanent reminders of care and respect, then even he might be friendly to the idea that if they’re too hierarchical (if, say, there is too much deference to elder siblings, or if one parent is clearly the leader) they will do a worse job of training us toward care & respect for others, as well as a worse job in supporting our energy.

  17. Boram Lee says:

    Bill, thanks. You’ve expressed just what I wanted to, only more compherensively (including not just natural affection in filiality, but also the sense of deference towards one’s older brother–Mencius 4A27 comes to mind). As with natural affection, the sense of yielding or deference need not require hierarchical social status. It comes into play, for instance, when we prop the door open fand wait for someone behind us as we enter a building.


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