Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Is Confucian Feminism So Easy?


My main project while on sabbatical this year has been a book on contemporary Confucian political philosophy (built on the Tang Junyi Lectures I gave a year ago). I am working on one of the final chapters right now, in which I argue that Confucianism must recognize and critique structural forms of injustice. This has led me to revisit some of the literature on Confucianism and feminism, including Lisa Li-Hsiang Rosenlee’s Confucianism and Women (SUNY, 2006). I want to ask, somewhat in the spirit of a devil’s advocate, is it really as easy to articulate a Confucian feminism (or a feminist Confucianism) as Rosenlee says?

One of her goals in the book is to show that Chinese women should not be perceived as mere victims, “unequivocally oppressed by men”; instead,

…women are perceived not just as natural beings but also as cultural beings who, despite the structural limitations imposed on them, also strive to achieve cultural ideals through the means available to them, which are limited in comparison with the cultural resources available to men. (4)

Chinese culture and Confucian philosophy are thus a mixed bag, and a further goal is to show how one can build and justify a robust form of feminism out of domestic Chinese materials, without having to import Western metaphysical assumptions about universal equality.

She does this in two main ways. First, she wants to retain Confucianism’s “basic hierarchical, yet complementary and reciprocal scheme of … human relations in which inequality based on ability or moral authority is the starting point among particulars rather than an absolute equality without qualification” (157). One reason why hierarchy and therefore deference must be retained is that “observing a basic deference toward the socially superior is essential to the continuity of the ritual and intellectual tradition of the past” (158).

On the other hand, second, in order to meet the challenges of feminism, rectification of the hierarchical husband-wife relation and the gender-based neiwai division of labor is required. Her solution is to discard the analogy between husband-wife and ruler-minister (as inapt partly because the latter, but not the former, has a “contractual” nature), and instead to model the husband-wife relationship on a friend-friend pattern. Rosenlee acknowledges that Confucian friendship relations are themselves hierarchical, but this is based on ability and moral authority and is therefore unproblematic. On this basis, one can then expect the division of household labor to be flexibly re-arranged, “depending on the common goal set in that particular relationship by its participants” (159).

I am quite sympathetic to this argument, but I wonder if folks out there see problems lurking. Maybe hierarchy inevitably or necessarily leads to oppression, and so feminists must oppose it? This would probably mean one can’t be a Confucian feminist—and Western feminists do not tend to be very friendly to hierarchy!—but I’m not sure what the argument for the connection between hierarchy and oppression might be. There is another possible problem, one that Rosenlee herself notes. Given the emphasis in her own account on the continuity of tradition, can Confucianism really reinvent itself along the lines she has sketched? Her answer is to emphasize how much Confucianism has changed at different points, proving its adaptability (159). I wonder how much the answer depends on the degree to which the women and men who are coming to find Confucianism attractive again, in China and elsewhere, notice and are bothered by sexism. Certainly the ready availability of an argument like Rosenlee’s can help, as against those who declare that sexism is built into unchanging Confucian metaphysical assumptions (like, alas, the influential contemporary thinker Jiang Qing)….


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