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)….

47 thoughts on “Is Confucian Feminism So Easy?

  1. Hi Steve – great topic. I’ve spent my morning working on related questions as luck would have it (on Gadamer, Confucius and the continuity of tradition).

    Some initial thoughts about the connection between hierarchy and oppression:

    The relationship between hierarchy and oppression seems to have two dimensions. First, if one subscribes to a theory of human nature that sees us as fundamentally corruptible by power, or holds that humans are innately driven by the desire for reputation and status, then finding oneself at the top of a hierarchy (even if one got there by being excellent by the terms of a particular meritocracy) may make one want to stay there at all costs, because they experience the position as personally gratifying. A second more serious issue seems to be simply whether one can evaluate the idea of hierarchy purified of all the “ascriptive baggage” real hierarchies seem always to have embodied (meaning, can you analyze “hierarchy” per se, without acknowledging that one is hard-pressed to come up with a context in which traits that ought to be irrelevant, like race, class and sex, do not come into play in influencing who was positioned where within the hierarchy?). I guess another way of putting this point is this: hierarchies need not, logically, be oppressive. But given that most societies still demonstrate varying degrees of oppression, hierarchies seem prone to affirming/facilitating/reentrenching those dynamics. So, does an unproblematic hierarchy require perfect conditions of fairness? And if so, is it really an interesting idea to try to defend or engage with?

    – Sara

  2. Can Confucianism accommodate or even endorse feminism? That’s a topic only if we have some idea what “Confucianism” is, or some agreement about what ideas (or text, or practices, or individuals) are at its core.

    One question about “Confucianism” occurred to me from Rosenlee’s picture of marital equality, and from the question whether hierarchy might be inherently oppressive. I mean, sure any authority relationship, however brief and narrow, limits the dignity of the lower party to some extent in some respect, but if we take “X is oppressive” to imply “X is, all things considered, unjust,” then what does one have to mean by “hierarchy” for the question of the inherent oppressiveness of hierarchy to be a serious worry?

    Here are some thoughts about that, leading to a question about the core of Confucianism. Consider this observation by Locke (Second Treatise, Ch. 139):

    “…neither the serjeant, that could command a soldier to march up to the mouth of a cannon, or stand in a breach, where he is almost sure to perish, can command that soldier to give him one penny of his money; nor the general, that can condemn him to death for deserting his post, or for not obeying the most desperate orders, can yet, with all his absolute power of life and death, dispose of one farthing of that soldier’s estate, or seize one jot of his goods…”

    That passage opposes a system or practice I’ll call “WHOLE” in which aboveness and belowness and equality are not differentiated as to topic or area in such a way as to allow you to be above me in one area and equal or below in another. WHOLE is suggested, though not assumed, by a claim Steve quotes from Rosenlee above: “observing a basic deference toward the socially superior is essential to the continuity of the ritual and intellectual tradition of the past.”

    WHOLE has four interesting properties: (a) It might be part of what someone means by “hierarchy.” (b) WHOLE is a formal feature of hierarchy, pertaining as it were to the shape of the relationships. (c) it is easy to see how someone might think WHOLE is important for social stability. (For without it, any fuzziness in the definition of topics or areas leaves authority indeterminate.) (d) It is also easy to see how, if by “hierarchy” one means a practice involving WHOLE, the inherent oppressiveness of it is a serious worry.

    Here are three other features that have properties (a)(b)(c)(d):

    DIGITAL: There are no differences in degree of aboveness (which is not to say that there is no equality).

    ORDERING: There is no equality.

    DETERMINATE: Society is organized in such a way that everyone has some determinate vertical relationship (e.g. perhaps equality) to everyone else she is likely to encounter. (Family walls and feudalism help. See for example Mencius 5B2, a passage students are sometimes told is the acme of uninterestingness.)

    Offhand it seems to me that any combination of these four features is possible in principle.

    And of course all four are as one might say, abstract ideals. That is, while they presumably won’t exactly fit actual set of practices, they may still be important at some level in a society’s image of what it is doing.

    All this is toward a question: Is it fair to say that Confucianism tends on the whole, near its core if not in small details, to favor WHOLE and DETERMINATE? I think the Mencius tends to oppose WHOLE on certain points, and there are places where the Analects leans against it, but I simply don’t know about the broad tendency of Confucianism later.

    • 5B2 is interesting to me partly because it sets up determinate vertical-axis relations between any two officials of different states.

      If people in different states simply never came into contact, then a hierarchy could satisfy DETERMINATE without there being any determinate vertical relations between, say, a small minister of Qi and a large minister of Xue.

      But insofar as there are such contacts, ritual concerned with vertical-axis relations needs to know. Further, such cross-state relations put a strain on WHOLE, because a minister of Xue who outranks a minister of Qi cannot therefore command the latter on affairs of Qi. Thus we might want to distinguish two versions of WHOLE: one version says that while aboveness cannot be restricted to a kind of area (e.g. military authority v. authority over property or doctrine), it can be restricted to a particular group of people (Qi v. Xue).

    • That last sentence of mine is confused and untenable. I haven’t worked out what to replace it with.

  3. Thanks Sara and Bill! I’ve been busy with family, but a couple quick points for now. (1) Sara, I like your challenge. It seems to me that answers might include: (i) hierarchies are inevitable parts of human societies, so we should figure out how to make them non-oppressive; (ii) hierarchies are valuable parts of human societies–facilitating learning, perhaps–and so we should figure out how to make them non-oppressive; and/or (iii) perfect fairness may be too high to require, but not being oppressive (need to fil out what this means, of course), which I imagine to be more basic than “perfect fairness,” might be a reasonable criterion of success.

    (2) Bill, I think that WHOLE is one way that hierarchy can be elaborated, but not at all the only one. WHOLE is closely related to what Michael Walzer (in Spheres of Justice) calls the “domination” of one good, rather than different goods and different spheres being autonomous from one another (as they are in the Locke quote, which is very nice!). Walzer’s idea of “complex equality” is precisely the denial of WHOLE, and it seems to allow for hierarchical relations in different spheres, so long as they don’t bleed into one another. (Sara’s comment challenges how well things can be separated from one another, of course.)

    • Steve,

      I didn’t mean that perfect fairness within a hierarchy was the criterion for success. I just meant that if a non-oppressive hierarchy can only come into existence within a system that is free of oppression (so, a system characterized by perfect fairness), then can it ever be counted on to come into existence? (And then my fear is that vestiges of social domination get masked in purportedly neutral hierarchies).

      So, maybe “free of oppression” is not synonymous with “perfect fairness.” And maybe non-oppressive hierarchies can come into existence within oppressive social systems. (Perhaps, for example, hierarchies of learning in higher education can be non-oppressive, even if they exist within deeply oppressive societies – you suggest this, and the educational context makes me think beyond the kinds of hierarchies I usually go to mentally – the political/power/identity ones of race, class, gender…).

      So, that’s kind of a response to your third point. As to your first two points, yes – this is the question. Are hierarchies inevitable, and thus a necessary evil to be worked with (which may even have valuable outcomes at times, but is nonetheless not something itself to be valued)? Or is there something valuable about hierarchies, which makes arguing for the continuity of that tradition reasonable, and then seeking to remove the oppressive dimensions (if possible)? Or is it simply the case that one cannot be a good feminist and endorse hierarchy, and one cannot be a Confucian and do away with it (as a central or core dimension of the tradition), and so….

      I think I have just reiterated the questions here, not added any insights to an answer. But all this makes me wonder if anyone has thought about seeing if the Penn State Press “Feminist Interpretations of…” series wants to do a volume on Confucius!

  4. Thanks, Steve!

    (I wonder if anyone has ever thought WHOLE is the only way hierarchy can be elaborated (I mean, beyond a mere semantic opinion about, or local usage of, the word “hierarchy”)?)

    I completely misunderstood your reply at first, because I read Spheres too long ago. At first I thought you were talking about something like the unity/diversity of goodness. But while unified views of goodness are most familiarly represented by utilitarianism, utilitarianism has no apparent connection with what Walzer calls the “dominance” of one good (nor with WHOLE hierarchy).

    Walzer writes, “I call a good [among the goods of distributive justice] dominant if the individuals who have it, because they have it, can command a wide range of other goods” (10). Thus in a plutocracy, wealth has extra dominance; and one might wish that virtue would become a more dominant good.

    For a normative tradition in which the concepts “distributive justice” and “goods” do not play leading roles, it will be hard to observe a connection between views of hierarchy and views of the goods of distributive justice.

    It seems to me offhand that someone who thinks of society on the model of the patriarchal family might like the idea of WHOLE hierarchy without thinking that authority derives from the rulers’ possession of any good, or any distributed good. They might derive it instead from family relationships and/or appointment (thus deriving mainly from history, like Nozick’s property), perhaps as justified by a view of society’s good.

    (The relative relevant wisdom of a parent is not a distributed good in the family. Aristotle discussed the role of institutions in affecting the distribution of virtue, e.g. by exiling the occasional tall ear of corn.)

    It also seems to me that, theoretical harmonies aside, in the case of actual political dominance by virtue, by money, or by the status of free citizen, the political system would in fact tend to be deeply opposed to WHOLE hierarchy. Virtue would see the absurdity of it, money would be experienced in complex organizations, and free citizens would ground specific vertical relationships in specific agreements.

    (Regarding the unity/diversity of goodness: It does seem plausible offhand that if (not: iff) a leading idea in one’s social thought is that there is a moderate number of profoundly different varieties of goodness, one will tend not to favor WHOLE hierarchy in social organization. I think that point is borne out in Locke and Aristotle (despite EN 1.2). But I think that’s as far as the connection goes between (dis)unity of goodness and (dis)unity of hierarchy, because: (1) Typically, and for obvious reasons, a unified view of goodness is going to be far abstracted from social issues, as is utilitarianism’s view. (2) One might think there are profoundly different goods but that they can’t structure social organization because one thinks they cut across the departments that organizations are responsible for: they might be, for example, such goods as courage and honesty; or they might just be too many and various. Indeed, there is an argument for WHOLE hierarchy from the incommensurability of goods (sketched in my first comment). Briefly: “The shape of value-reality is too messy to decide practical questions; so we need people to decide.” That is, there’s a certain harmony between skepticism and conservatism. (3) One might have views about social organization that are based on entirely different kinds of consideration from goods.)

    Again, I’m curious whether on the whole, “Confucianism” favors hierarchy that is WHOLE and DETERMINATE. Because I think this would make a big difference to how easily it can absorb feminism.

    • Bill, This is extremely helpful and I think I am persuaded that I was wrong when I said that Walzer’s complex equality was the denial of WHOLE: you are right that the connection between *goods* and *hierarch(ies)* is less straight-forward than I was assuming. Thanks.

      Still, I wonder if we can say much the same as I was trying to above, by asserting that an autonomy of spheres of social activity, along the lines that Walzer has in mind, is the denial of WHOLE?

      Another thought. Virtue might be a value/end that is applicable across spheres: a virtuous parent might also be a virtuous ruler. We can all think of apparent counterexamples, and there are tricky issues of “unity of virtues” here. True enough. But if we set that aside for now, doesn’t this seem mighty close to a Walzerian “dominant” good? If so, I may have trouble explaining in what sense the “spheres” are autonomous.

      Finally, I do not think Confucianism favors hierarchy that is WHOLE and DETERMINATE. Too many cross-cutting dimensions that lead to the need for particularistic balancing/judgment. An example: who pays for dinner when a group eats together? This is highly situational. In most circumstances there is a single answer (perhaps I buy for my former teacher when he visits me at my new job), although sometimes the right answer is murky to me!

    • Thanks Steve – you raise very fascinating issues!

      Still, I wonder if we can say much the same as I was trying to above, by asserting that an autonomy of spheres of social activity, along the lines that Walzer has in mind, is the denial of WHOLE?

      Maybe just “denies WHOLE.” That is, I think favoring, or believing in, semi-autonomous spheres, tends to imply not wanting one’s authority relationships to be WHOLE; but I doubt the converse. That is, I suppose that if the idea of autonomous spheres of social activity does not loom large in one’s worldview, it doesn’t follow that one thinks there should be WHOLE hierarchy, nor that if there is to be hierarchy, WHOLE is best.

      If I start out by simple-mindedly favoring WHOLE hierarchy and am then persuaded that there are different spheres of life, I might end up thinking there should be a comprehensive hierarchy for each sphere. There should be a real energy czar, etc. (Did Confucian government involve a panoply of imperial officials with qualitatively distinct portfolios and the power to command?) But I might not start that way.

      I might, for example, start as an egalitarian who tends to imagine practical authority relationships in terms of specifically delegated powers (or wishes actual relationships were that way), or authority specifically reasoned-to by the heeder, in which case the idea that authority relations should be WHOLE might strike me simply as a non-starter and even weird, no matter what my views about autonomous spheres.

      Another thought. Virtue might be a value/end that is applicable across spheres: a virtuous parent might also be a virtuous ruler. We can all think of apparent counterexamples, and there are tricky issues of “unity of virtues” here. True enough. But if we set that aside for now, doesn’t this seem mighty close to a Walzerian “dominant” good?

      Despite my botanically confused remark earlier, I think it’s a little odd to think of virtue as a good distributed by distributive justice; and if virtue isn’t such a good, Walzer might have to say his term “dominant” doesn’t apply. But maybe his own definition is too restrictive for even his purposes. I don’t know. For Aristotle, free-citizenship, wealth, and virtue(equipped) structure different polities not in their capacity as distributed goods, but rather in their capacity as conceptions of merit for distributive justice. But it’s interesting that most of the conceptions of merit he cites are also main distributed goods (at least if we read free citizenship as a species of rule).

      Another worry about the idea that virtue is a “dominant” good is that is that, if I understand Walzer, a good is “dominant” just in those times and places where it actually commands other goods. Maybe virtue ought to be dominant.

      Finally, I do not think Confucianism favors hierarchy that is WHOLE and DETERMINATE. Too many cross-cutting dimensions that lead to the need for particularistic balancing/judgment. An example: who pays for dinner when a group eats together? This is highly situational. In most circumstances there is a single answer (perhaps I buy for my former teacher when he visits me at my new job), although sometimes the right answer is murky to me!

      It almost seems as though you’re arguing, “X is right, therefore X is the Confucian vision.” I agree that there are deep problems in applying the ideal of WHOLE DETERMINATE hierarchy to reality (I foundered over very similar ones above in trying to discuss the Mencius), as there are deep problems in applying the ideal of equality, and one could easily argue from concrete facts that Jefferson was no egalitarian. When Jesus said “Call no man your father on earth,” he was opposing divided hierarchy on the assumption that this world was not long for us; but even weaker assumptions might support a vision that divided hierarchy is a awkward but sadly realistic departure from the straightness that is the vertical ideal (not: DIGITALLY vertical ideal), a compromise that one might dream of overcoming.

      And as I’ve argued, WHOLE can easily seem to be the mechanism par excellence for dealing with the social fact of “too many cross-cutting dimensions that lead to the need for particularistic balancing/judgment.” Institutionalizing distinctions among goods is arguably a departure from full openness to particulars.

      I’ve recently been under the impression that you are inclined to think Confucianism traditionally does not envision value as falling into profoundly distinct species. Wouldn’t that suggest you think Confucianism leans toward WHOLE?

      Separately: some of the worries raised below about using the word ‘hierarchy’ to think about Confucianism seem to me plausible.

  5. Very nice thought, Steve.

    Just a quick thought that “hierarchy”, though a prevalent conception of Chinese society, may not be a perfect word to describe the Confucian society structure. It involves the Western idea of power and divine injunction, which are apparently not endorsed in Confucianism – no direct Chinese equivalent can be found either for the word “hierarchy” actually, because ancient Chinese conceived the organization of family and society (e.g. man and woman) in a rather different manner.

    For the intriguing issue about woman in ancient CHina, I would recommend

    Ku Hongming. 1915. The Spirit of the Chinese People 春秋大義. Peking: The Peking Daily News

    There is a Chapter in the book on Chinese Women. Ku’s book is quite old and his view has been labeled as extremely conservative by some modern radical criticism. But I think he did an excellent job articulating at least the following two important points:

    1) Fundamentally, man and woman were equals in traditional Chinese society, they just took different social and family roles under conscientious contractual relations.
    2) In contrast with the Aristotle’s theory that defines “manhood” as the purpose of “humanity, (thus put woman in a subordinating position)” woman and man in Confucianism had their own paths to achieve their own kinds of personality and dignity by fulfilling their respective roles in a harmonious and reciprocal family and society.

    Hope this helps a little.

  6. I completely agree with comment by H Wang above. In fact, he really beat me to the punch as I was about to say something very similar. And that is, my hunch is that you spend some real time trying to domesticate Chinese philosophy but often seem to get caught up in language issues…the case of hierarchy is a case and point—and i agree completely and want to echo HW above and suggest you go back to your translation… If you do insist that feminism must be mapped on the western philosophical notions of feminism (really wish you had brought in Lee’s words because it is not clear what her project is and therefore it is not clear what aspect you are questioning so I am working in the dark I guess) —-Still even in care ethics, which perhaps could be the closest mapping?—there are inherent 上下関係 relationships that form the basis for which normative theory is based (in this case, a mother’s love for her child). But while this is a kind of 上下関係 relationship, it would not be said that child is less equal than mother? Hierarchal is not the best choice of translation—though it is not “wrong” still it is not helpful totally either, is it?

    I also think it is fair enough to suggest that the husband and wife relationship is contractual and therefore qualitatively different from that of the child parent relationship. I am guessing that a quick look at how some of these relationships are managed in viewed in places like Japan or Korea even today would bear this out quite well too. If, for example, as in care ethics, you feel that “care” is a basic notion upon which normative relationship values are constructed—and then a model for this is the mother-child relationship, I think it follows that while the mother-child relationship would remain foundational in terms of the derivative concept of care, still —“care” is the focus. Filial relationships aside (which seem somehow inviolate as the resovoir of this concept of care), other relationships are far more open for negotiating in terms of 内外 etc etc etc. That is to say, it is not hierarchal in terms of power in the way Marxist or you are suggesting…? Maybe?

    Hi Bill♥

  7. Hi Huaiyu and Peony,

    Thanks for the comments! On the word “hierarchy,” let me first quote slightly more from Rosenlee. She says that:

    Our Confucian feminism asserts the basic hierarchical, yet complementary and reciprocal scheme of Confucian human relations in which inequality based on ability or moral authority is the starting point among particulars rather than an absolute equality without qualification. Parents and children are not socially equal and they should not be equal, nor are teachers and students, or the elderly and the young. The assumption in Confucian ethics is that the socially inferior must observe a basic sense of deference toward the socially superior, so that there is harmony and continuity in the complex web of human relations in which the knowledge of the past is passed on from the elderly to the young…. Observing a basic deference toward the socially superior is essential to the continuity of the ritual and intellectual tradition of the past. (157-8)

    I hope that helps you to see more of her position. I do not believe that “power” is necessarily connected to the *idea* of hierarchy, although it is often connected to the *reality* of hierarchies. I would agree with Rosenlee that a sense of social superiors and inferiors, with attending ideas of deference, is indeed important to Confucian ritual practice and human relations. I have to confess that I did not know of the early meanings of “hierarchy” that connect it to angels and to church authorities. I am not convinced that those connotations are present enough in the current English word “hierarchy” to make it untenable as an analytic category for discussing Confucianism. Certainly the idea that Confucianism involves “reciprocal, hierarchical relationships” is extremely widespread in the secondary literature. This seems to employ “hierarchy” in the only non-religious sense mentioned by the OED: “A body of persons or things ranked in grades, orders, or classes, one above another.” In other words, exactly “上下関係.”

  8. hmmm… again agree with Huaiyu that 上下関係 is not as tied to power, divine injunction and non-egalitarian ideas as compared with the english term. And hence, think Huaiyu’s advice is very good and helpful in looking at the issue…

  9. Thanks for your timely feedback, Steve; Peony – real appreciation for your nice points in support.

    I see Rosenlee’s point on hierarchy, but would argue that her choice of the word “hierarchy” here is unwise as it involved her own position into unnecessary troubles.

    Maybe “order” would be a good word to replace “hierarchy” in these contexts – the latter has too much baggage as it implicates a whole history of authoritative and oftentimes imperialistic Western rulership that has little in common with the Confucian ideal of leadership based more on moral cultivation and appeal than structural authority.

    • 同感、Huaiyu.

      Clearly, while the relationships are hierarchal, because they are not being based on power, class or bloodlines, they do not represent “a hierarchy”–and I suppose this is the main point. And, also is why Rosenlee herself goes through some pains to describe them in terms of being, ” hierarchical, yet complementary and reciprocal scheme of Confucian human relations.” Not being fundamentally based on power (in the way aristotle’s conception of man is, as H explained above, for example), but rather are just hierarchal in terms of verticality, I do think there is way more wiggle room when it comes to negotiating up and down (or in the case here outward or inward, 内外)

      I also really agree with Huaiyu in his extrapolations to rulership. Because 天命 etc is not based on bloodlines or pure power, but rather demands an appeal to moral cultivation, I agree that there is more inherent negotiationg power between ruler and ruled than you would find, say under a japanese system or ancient european concepts of kingship. This below on the problem of translating 革命 as “revolution”

  10. Hi Steve,

    it is good to hear from you and sorry for the late reply; it is the Spring Break in Hawaii, so I didn’t check my email as frequently as I should. Thanks for the info; I didn’t even know the blog existed in the first place and thanks for taking an interest in my humble book.

    I love those blogs and comments, but I am not sure how exactly to respond to such a big question regarding the viability of Confucianism in relation to feminism; I am actually working on a paper addressing exactly the sort of questions that you have brought up in the blog. So briefly, here is my humble two cents: I think the concept of hierarchy, as pointed by Sara as well as yourself, is not necessarily conceptually
    equivalent to oppression, although in practice it often is. But as Plato puts it in the Republic, philosophers are in the business of articulating the ideal, not the actual. However that does not mean that the actual doesn’t matter; it only means that what is possible need not be confined by what is real. And in my mind, Confucianism has as much conceptual resources to offer to feminism as any dominant Western philosophies.

    As for Bill’s comments on the “Whole” hierarchy, I think none of the Confucian texts, as far as I know of, endorses the absolute power of the superior in all areas of life toward the socially inferior. Social
    hierarchy in its basic structure is one of rank, gender and age. But in the Analects as well in the Mencius in particular, virtue often time trumps those socially constructed hierarchies. The emphasis on the primacy of virtue is arguably the biggest contribution of Confucianism to Chinese society as well as political system, that by and large just
    as other societies, is structured by gender and hereditary power; that is a social, historical as well as human reality. Philosophers such as Confucius however offer a different kind of vision, a possibility that instead virtue is the determinate.

    As a philosopher, I am merely articulating what might be possible when feminism intersects with Confucianism beyond a wholesale rejection of the latter by the former. I would love to send you the draft of my paper once it is done to see what you think.

    thanks again for the comments!


  11. What’s at stake? I’ve always wondered what Feminist ideals of equality stand to gain from being wed to Confucianism. Here are some possibilities, I don’t know if anyone’s argued for them so I’m making up what I think are strong versions of them (in other words, not strawman versions, I hope). And I wonder what folks think about them:

    I. Bigger Cultural Footprint in Asia — Feminism could gain better or more widespread cultural hold in Asian societies if it was a particularly Confucian version of Feminism.

    II. More Credibility for Feminism — Feminism, in its current forms, could benefit from the philosophically persuasive framework of Confucianism in diagnosing and suggesting solutions for the good life.

    III. An Improved Version of Feminism — A more plausible and persuasive form of Feminism can be constructed by integrating into it unique aspects of Confucian ethical or social philosophy.

    One response to my comment here might be that we’re only interested in demonstrating consistency between Feminist and Confucian principles — and some of Lisa Rosenlee’s book seems to aim at this. But that seems like it would only be a first step and the “What’s at stake?” question would arise immediately.

    A different “What’s at stake?” question than I’m interested in here is what Confucianism might gain from adapting to Feminist concerns.

    Finally, floating above all this are the questions: “Whose Feminism?” and “Whose Confucianism?”, but I’m not sure we have to answers those immediately.

    So, here are some quick thoughts that occur to me personally about these hypothetical benefits to Feminism, of its pairing with Confucianism. In some ways, I, II, and III might seem to run over into each other, but that depends on how much a form of Feminism wants to evolve into a particularly Confucian version. There may be pursuits of I that are more crassly political than others — that is, one could aim for larger footprint by persuading people to believe in Confucian Feminism without doing any of the hard work in defining and reconciling the two. Likewise, II and III might be separable if the integration of the two slices off more of Confucianism than Feminism — a willingness in pursuit of II, for example, to lop off Confucian hierarchism of roles based on gender (even while retaining hierarchism based on abilities and functional fiat).

    It seems to me like III is the most interesting thing that might be gained from a philosophical view. Looking at the discussion here and in Rosenlee’s book, I’m not sure that Confucian gendering of hierarchies has been defended, even if we accept for the sake of argument that social hierarchy, as a general structure, can be given social utility defenses. But if we’re not defending gendered hierarchies that touch on Confucian versions of ideal society, then I don’t know that we’re courting or flirting with Feminist concerns, much less developing a Confucian version of it. Instead, we’re just defending social hierarchies where gender concerns are incidental or even absent — why would a Feminist in particular be interested in that?

    • These are interesting questions that I’d enjoy thinking more about. I think that for Lisa and me, at least, we’re coming at the intersection of Confucianism and Feminism from the direction of “what Confucianism might gain from adapting to Feminist concerns,” so turning the question around in the way you’re suggesting might be quite illuminating. I think Lisa and I both take the challenge of a feminist critique of both traditional Chinese practices, and the Confucian theory that partly informed them, very seriously. Thus Lisa says she is “merely articulating what might be possible when feminism intersects with Confucianism beyond a wholesale rejection of the latter by the former.” Speaking for myself, I am sympathetic to what Huaiyu and Peony have been saying (roughly, Confucianism is very different from the Western structures critiqued by [Western] feminism, and so the feminist challenge doesn’t have the same bite vs. Confucianism), though I think they are letting Confucianism off too easily.

    • Thanks for your sympathetic comments, Steve.

      My concern is that

      1) the Confucian position on women has been systematically misinterpreted in contemporary philosophy and we certainly need more open-minded approach to discover both the “reality” of ancient Chinese society and its underlying “rationale”. (Rosenlee’s book is certainly a great breakthrough, but we may need more forward moves)

      2) We should not take the feminist approaches for granted and stop being critical on the many problems and paradoxes within the feminism itself. – mainly, I am sympathetic with the feminist move as it resist the authoritative family structure in the west. But I don’t see a clear option laid out by contemporary feminism that would at once promote the dignity of woman “And” a harmonious and productive family and social relations for women without denying some of their natural endowments.

      3) Maybe there is something the feminism can “learn” from the Confucian ideal of women and its way of harmonious management of family and society on the basis of moral cultivation and appeal – this would make the “dialogue” between feminism and COnfucianism more interesting – instead of a self-assertive and one-sided critique of feminism on Confucianism that often reminds us of almost another imperialistic imposition of Western ideologies on the East.

    • Huaiyu, I am not so sure that “the Confucian position on women has been systematically misinterpreted in contemporary philosophy.” What do you have in mind? To the extent that the Confucian position on women has been discussed by contemporary philosophers, I think it has tended to receive subtle and sympathetic treatments (e.g., in Li, ed., The Sage and the Second Sex). To be sure, Chinese thinkers from the New Culture Movement and their heirs were highly uncharitable; is that what you have in mind?

      Second, we won’t find the “reality” of ancient Chinese society by looking in the Analects. While I think there is a lot to what you say about Confucianism, and agree that China’s changing society over the centuries was very different from, e.g., European society, I nonetheless think that: (1) there was considerable oppression of women and other groups in China, and (2) Confucianism is in some ways systematically blind to the presence and harms of oppression.

      Third, even though part of the analysis of oppression that motivates me is derived from Western feminist philosophers, I believe the concept of oppression is flexible enough to be helpful when applied to a non-Western context. The forms of oppression are different. More importantly, the solutions are going to be different. My goal here as elsewhere is dialogue, open-minded mutual learning, etc. So yes, there is at least this sense in which feminism can and must learn from China and from Confucianism: societies, social relations, ethical ideals, etc. are different, and there is not a one-size-fits-all problem of oppression, much less a single solution.

    • This is just the kind of stuff that really raises my blood pressure. I have every faith huaiyu can deal with you better than I can… but it just seems to me that it is plain and simple “bad philosophy” to try and apply modern western concepts onto 3,000 years plus of traditional philosophy and cultural practices in East Asia. Wouldn’t it really help to speak concretely? What precise place and time are you talking about Steve and what particular “traditional practices” are you seeking to undermine using western feminism?? And why?? (because of course there is considerable oppression to women right in your own society here and now and so why not seek to become an exemplar and change from within? the project itself is not clear or sensible? Surely, it is better to utilize the thoughts and practices that exist already within a specific culture—illuminate the progressive ones and then start from there—being specific within that specific culture and time?? Are you suggesting that there is no native strands of thought that you can illuminate or at least speak to in terms of their own tradition?? I am speaking about your points 1) and 2) which tell a lot about your own cultural blindspots.

      I have told this story here before but I once had an argument with a philosopher i worked for in Hiroshima. i was translating a paper of his in which he characterized any imposition of western concepts onto Japanese traditional practices or concepts as a form of “violence”—I told him I thought it was not violence and he was leaving himself open to criticism. He told me he didn’t give a damn and that all over the world people are growing tired of the having western concepts applied as some sort of litmus test of right and wrong. 1) You should be concrete and use real examples from a specific time and place 2) Dilaogue must be two-way. Imperialistic projects are often characterisized by a one-way monologue. You said you wanted to open a mutual and open dialogue but read your words above? And yet why not try and understand what your colleague Wang sensei is trying to teach you? If you step back and re-read, you will see that he was trying to make a very small point about language and for whatever reason you did not want to really acknowledge the point (even though he is a native speaker of one of the languages so would instinctively know the differences I would think) And worse, you have been conflating ancient texts with modern practices with marxist style critiques… You are all over the place.

      I love Hubert Dreyfus. I think he is brilliant—and he always taught his students to be concrete and to use real examples and always keep things focused on specific times and places. Dialogue should really be a two-way? I do think much can be gained from discussing care ethics and certain aspects of Confucian moral philosophy but I wish you would leave it to women? Is that sexist of me? Well… I can’t help it. This is like a boy’s club.

    • Hi Peony; lots of blood pressure here. I’m not sure it’s vented at the right person.

      In any case, I don’t disagree that intra-tradition criticism is often the most effective for addressing and correcting problematic aspects of a tradition like Confucianism. And knowing Steve since graduate school, I’m pretty sure he’s of the same mind (we read and discussed a lot of MacIntyre in those carefree days). Nonetheless, with globalization, the ever-evolving tradition of Confucian practices as well as texts has to be understood as much in encounters with Western paradigms and concepts — and the criticisms that may ensue — as with “internal” critiques. Steve’s book on how the concept of rights came to be understood, and owned in its transformed sense by modern Chinese intellectuals, is a good place to start for unpacking the sort of East-West encounter that Confucianism and Feminism’s clash(?) brings about.

      I don’t think anyone can seriously doubt the existence of oppression in China’s history, whether it involves ethnic or religious minorities or women. You’re right to ask for details, however, since the type and causes of oppression can differ by case — certainly, something as broad-brushed as “Confucianism” can’t really be blamed for all of it!


    • Well, I am not sure about all this, Manyul. Lots of harm has been done by Westerners “bringing the good news” to other cultures, you know? I mean, how often do you read “intra-traditional criticism” that goes the other way?? Like an American academic bringing forth something from China and Japan and holding it up as something exemplary that we can learn from other cultures in terms of our own contemporary social inequalities?? Sam Crane is the only guy who comes to mind. of course, I am working in the dark since absolutely concrete has been said by anyone. But, I absolutely sympathize with Huaiyu’s two worries about the original posting.

      And, are you joking with me with statements like, “no one can seriously doubt the existence of oppression in China’s history?” Really look at what you are saying… does that actually say anything significant? Chinese history is very long so I wouldn’t doubt that. Why are you blaming “confucianism” for anything, anyway? This whole discussion makes no sense and I would strongly urge you to speak concretely when engaged in ‘inter-traditional” criticisms—especially when it is not your tradition you are criticisizing—otherwise it comes across as dictating too… or worse academic colonializing…That is my honest opinion and i think your pal can defend himself. he is a big boy. Nothing I said was that harsh… plus I said it with the utmost respect!! My post was as sweet as anything and you know it. Give me a break.

      Any decent philosopher talking about social issues will be specific in terms of time and place (and not just refer to confucianism or china as some abstract Other). Of course, I am right to ask for details. And, you missed my point about care ethics on two levels…

    • I’m sorry, I think the misunderstandings are going in two directions now. By “intra-tradition” criticism, I meant criticism from within the tradition itself. I didn’t mean “inter-tradition,” where it would come from the outside. So, what I mean, by referencing MacIntyre, is that the bulk of effective and legitimate forms of criticism of Confucianism might come from within itself, NOT from outside. I hope that clears a few things up about my last comment, though I’m sure not all.

      Referring to things in the abstract works — and breaks down — at different levels. It’s not dishonest or indecent to do that. The onus, as you’ve pointed out, is to follow up on generalizations about something, with concrete examples. Take Ming Dynasty footbinding, for example. Is it oppressive? It may seem so from outside the practice, but from within, it’s more complicated — at least according to Dorothy Ko and other scholars. Was it tied in any way to some form of Confucian practices and norms? That’s just as debatable. One way to construe the longevity of footbinding is that it reinforced norms of domestic control perpetrated by Confucian teachings like those of the Daxue and Zhongyong. A very different way would be to provide a kind of Feminist analysis of spatial and bodily control, as Fred Blake does. Would every self-professed proponent of Confucianism in the Ming Dynasty have supported the practice? I’m not sure. But even people outside the tradition should be allowed to peek in and come to judgments about whether footbinding was oppressive or whether Confucian teachings extant in the period colluded with it.

      I’m sorry, twice, about the care ethics misunderstandings.

    • Also, doesn’t care ethics seems to be a particularly Western development, first in its oppositional status against male-pattern Western ethical theory, and second as owing its ideals of feminine care to a largely modern Western conception of femininity — motherhood, more specifically, in the atomic family context? I might be wrong here. Nonetheless, if true, that may be another way of broaching Confucianism from a Western viewpoint, albeit a non-dominant one.

    • You are right, I did not understand at all what you meant by intra-traditional criticism… Thank you!! And yes, we agree—effective or significant criticisms probably do come from inside rather than outside the tradition since those coming from outside will always remain—necessarily– a comparative project. I mean, you know my own background was in continental philosophy (and maybe so was Huaiyu’s?) so we can hardly be faulted for preferring concrete examples—this does NOT rule out all abstract discussions—but indeed, your foot binding example, is a case and point. Americans, in particular, seem fascinated by foot binding. You don’t read about it quite as much or in quite the same way in japanese, for example… I always thought it was a real American fascination, somehow. Some years ago, I was really surprised when the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur put on an exhibition on foot binding. It was extremely well done too…. as it situated the practice within a body of traditions—from Africa to modern day America of women altering their bodies…from neck rings and tattooes to bulemia and food issues, corsets that broke ribs— all the many many ways the female body has been altered across time and locations. the foot binding section had on display diaries of women who wrote very emotionally of their experiences—and what was surprising was that many of the letters (that were on display) contained these loving desriptions of the experience of bonding between a mother and daughter as daughters feet were bound…. it kind of asked more questions than it answered and—indeed—I don’t think the exhibition really sought to draw conclusions. And I don’t have any myself. And, I certainly would not situate foot binding in terms of Confucian philosophy either (guessing that is a mistake). People from outside any tradition can peek in and think whatever they want but then if they make their opinions public, they shouldn’t be surprised if others have different opinions, right? xoxox
      Oh, and I am almost positive it was YOU who first taught me about care ethics in terms of Confucian philosophy–no?

    • Hey Steve,

      So, suppose some forms of gender-neutral social hierarchy can be justified on grounds of social utility or, more aspiringly, on grounds of attaining the good life. Is the next step, then, to justify at least some gendered hierarchies on similar grounds? That would make the Confucian defense interesting to me as a Feminist — interesting, though I’d approach with caution. If gendered social roles and associated hierarchies are not part of the outcome of the new Confucian outlook (after its encounter with Feminism), then it seems like we as Feminists can just declare victory and move on. So, from a philosophical Feminist point of view, it would be interesting to see what a “Confucianized” Feminism would look like. Otherwise, it seems like the two options for us with regard to the encounter — not to sound too imperialistic — are to declare victory and move on or reject Confucianism wholesale and move on.

  12. In my view the English word ‘hierarchy’ carries pretty much no suggestion of sacred or priestly authority, as the Greek origin of the term might suggest (hierarch, literally “official for sacred matters,” someone in charge of ritual service to the gods). I think the first thing the word suggests to today’s ordinary ear is organizational charts for companies and agencies (and that the average casual ear is more likely to hear “hier-” as an allusion to 上下 than to “sacred”). Also I don’t think ‘hierarchy’ differs from Confucian authority relations in suggesting that the relations are ascriptive or permanent – partly because I think ‘hierarchy’ hardly suggests those things. Also I agree with Steve that ‘hierarchy’ tends to suggest authority relations rather than power relations. I think ‘hierarchy’ does suggest chains of vertical relations, as in the military or fedualism or the army. The term ‘hierarchy’ is quite flexible and is very commonly used to refer only very abstractly to formal or structural features of social relations, and thus can extend even to relations among things quite different from people:

    Where the word ‘hierarchy’ as used in social contexts seems to me a poor fit with Confucian ideas is that ‘hierarchy’ tends to focus more narrowly on the giving of orders than do ideal Confucian vertical relationships. I wrote in the 2/12 string, “I don’t agree … that [Confucian] filiality is obedience to fathers. I think it’s a broader complex including, in addition to obedience: respect, emulation, and love; and by love I mean enjoyment, care, and support. … Confucius thought the common view emphasized mainly support. I think Mencius tends to envision filiality as love.”

    When I tried to describe, above, four of the formal features hierarchies might have, and that might be part of what someone means (in a particular context) by ‘hierarchy’, the features I described were, I think, largely neutral as to whether hierarchy is about obedience, support, respect, etc.

    Lisa, I agree with you that “none of the Confucian texts, as far as I know of, endorses the absolute power of the superior in all areas of life toward the socially inferior.” But I don’t think that point shows that Confucianism doesn’t in general favor WHOLE hierarchy – at least if I am right in thinking that it makes sense to speak of DIGITAL as a feature that a hierarchy may or may not have. That is to say: one might hold that while my proper relations to my older sibling and to my parent are both vertical relations, my relation to my parent involves greater vertical distance: more respect, more love, obedience that is greater in degree without being different in kind from the obedience I owe my older sibling. If that makes sense, then “the absolute power of the superior in all areas of life toward the social inferior” would not be an automatic feature of WHOLE hierarchy.

    (Granted, the idea of non-DIGITAL hierarchy strains the metaphor of verticality. We post-Cartesians tend to draw our mental diagrams with two axes. But I wonder whether the metaphor of rightness as straightness is ever, in the Confucian tradition, saliently envisioned otherwise than as vertical straightness.)

    Lisa, I agree that Confucian texts recognize state rank, gender, age, and virtue as independent sources of authority in practice and, to some extent, in the ideal. Similarly, Jefferson no doubt recognized state rank, gender, age, and race as sources of authority relations; and yet at some abstract level he adhered to an abstract ideal of human equality. When you say, “Philosophers such as Confucius however offer a different kind of vision, a possibility that instead virtue is the determinate,” you seem to be suggesting that ideally Confucianism wishes to ground all authority in a single thing, which would suggest that at some level Confucian philosophers favor WHOLE. I wonder whether I have misunderstood you?

  13. Bill, don’t you think it could just be as simple as saying that while the relationships are reciprocal and “hierarchical” that it is not a hierarchy? I think that is what Huaiyu and I were trying to suggest? That while it is hierarchal in terms of verticality of subordinates and superiors (上下)that there is no hierarchy of relationships, or “gendered hierarchies” (at least not in the sense as you would have found in the practices Marx was critcisizing?) And, I wouldn’t agree that confuciuan philosophers favor “whole” but there is more emphasis on an appeal to cultivated virtue (this doesn’t mean power or rank is a non-issue at all !–but this is certainly a question of degree and emphasis)

    Also, that the more contingency or necessity come into the equation, the more negotiating of what is appropriate will become important.

    And is that Lisa’s project to explore “what Confucianism might gain from adapting to Feminist concerns?” Does that mean modern feminism is being imposed on an ancient philosophy? That hardly makes sense… but Huaiyu probably has a point that if you are imposing or applying western concepts to criticize traditional practices of a different culture, it would be a good idea to at least understand what is going on on the level of language and meaning (Huaiyu’s worry of fundamental mis-understanding). It is a slippery slope in any case. Because of course, what traditional practices and in what time period? Best to be concrete otherwise….??

    Bill, you should take a look at how 敬語 works in japanese versus Korean. I think that will illuminate your quetion about absolute and flexible vertical relationships and show that there is no answer and how that is handled differs even by country. anyway, a few last thoughts…

    • don’t you think it could just be as simple as saying that while the relationships are reciprocal and “hierarchical” that it is not a hierarchy?

      If the relationships are symmetrical, then I agree that it’s not hierarchy. But if the reciprocity involves asymmetry – say, one party gives respect and the other reciprocates with care – and one standardly envisions one of these parties as “above” the other, and there are chains of such relationships – then I think that can be called “hierarchy” – so long as any very likely misunderstandings, such as that one is talking primarily about obedience relationships, are explicitly prevented. Which I didn’t do at first because I didn’t think of it.

    • Yes, of course, you are right and yet if one does not acknowledge Huaiyu’s excellent point one would not be able to see where this is different from samurai=Lord or see where the Marxist style critiques of confucian thought done in China in past years could have missed some points. That is just to say that while hierarchy is not wrong, it would be helpful to dis-associate the word from the “baggage” (see Wang’s comment, for example)… I thought his comment was helpful and quite brilliant. 😉

  14. Bill, I don’t have objection to Wikipedia – I like it, but may be we should be cautious between popular versions and scholarly discretion:

    According to OED, the oldest senses of hierarchy include:

    “Rule or dominion” in holy things; priestly rule or government; a system of ecclesiastical rule.

    I understand the modern “abstraction” of the sense of hierarchy to indicate mere “structure” or “order” esp. in some scientific disciplines, but at least in the social and political realm, it is hard to get rid of at least the “tone” of power/authority/divine dominion.

    My two cents 🙂

    • Thank you for the correction, Huaiyu! Indeed I was quite wrong to suggest that the sacred connection of ‘hierarchy’ is about etymology only, not also about the history of the word in English and some specialized current usage. But I don’t think that’s relevant to the question what such claims as “Confucians believe in hierarchy” and “what kind of hierarchy did Confucians believe in?” are likely to suggest today.

      I would like to claim that I was citing Wikipedia as a reminder of what we know, not as a brute authority about a language one doesn’t otherwise know, though I grant that my American ear may be poorly tuned to e.g. British English. 

      My OED doesn’t report on commonness of meaning, and in my view often reports senses used only in highly specialized contexts. The definition “rule or domininion in holy things” is not one I would allowed offhand as possible, though I have to accept the OED’s authority that it is a possible meaning. I think there are more contexts in which people currently use the word to mean “the church organization” or even “God and the angels.”

      Steve’s report above that “the only non-religious sense mentioned by the OED” [for social contexts] is “A body of persons or things ranked in grades, orders, or classes, one above another” shows a problem, I think, with the OED’s story. When egalitarians oppose “hierarchy,” they are opposing a kind of social ordering, not a body of people so organized. As my edition of the OED seems not to recognize, even in secular social contexts ‘hierarchy’ commonly means what the the opening definition in Wikipedia says: a kind of arrangement). I think this is a matter of whether ‘hierarchy’ is being used as an uncountable noun, as it seems to be in our discussion. That is, I think none of the OED definitions is prima facie applicable to the main uses we’ve been making of the word in this discussion.

      Also, I think there’s a question of lexicographical principle about just how current is ‘hierarchy’ in the ecclesiastical sense: in the phrase “church hierarchy,” hierarchy needn’t be taken in an ecclesiastical sense at all, because the modifier “church” takes care of that. And in the context of church, one can easily speak of “the hierarchy” using the term not in any distinctly ecclesiastical sense and yet succeeding in referring unambiguously to the church hierarchy, because the church hierarchy is “the hierarchy around here” or “the hierarchy in the organization we’re talking about” – just as, in a church, one can speak of “the building” and succeed in referring to the church building. It is not clear to me that in describing today’s usage, in abstraction from history, any distinctly ecclesiastical sense of the term need be hypothesized outside of highly specialized contexts. Need it?

  15. (This is mainly a reply to Peony, up there under #12, but I decided that all the indented replying was getting confusing, at least to me, so I’ll start a new comment here.)

    I stand accused of a whole list of things: bad philosophy for applying Western concepts onto 3000 years of traditional philosophy and practices; ignoring oppression in my own society; refusing to give concrete examples; believing that there is no strand of Confucian or other native thought that can illuminate problems in China; imperialist, one-way monologue; failing to understand what Huaiyu is saying, as well as refusing to agree with him; conflating ancient texts with modern practices and Marxist-style critiques. Maybe I missed some. Wow.

    I plead not guilty, except perhaps of not wholly agreeing with Huaiyu’s original concern about the word “hierarchy.” The conversation on that score has been illuminating, though, and I’ve certainly learned a lot.

    The main thing that puzzles me, Peony, is your insistence on seeing me, and what I’m doing, as an external crusading imperialistic threat. I take myself to be writing as a Confucian philosopher, in dialogue with other Confucians (among others). A fair number of my interlocutors are in China or Taiwan or Hong Kong or Singapore, though plenty of others are based in the US. Not all of them identify as a “Confucian philosopher,” but we find we have enough in common to have constructive conversations.

    Like Confucian philosophers in the Warring States, or Song, or Qing, or 20th century, we Confucian philosophers today draw on and are stimulated by non-Confucian concepts and traditions, in some cases concepts and traditions that originate outside of China. The result is the growth of the tradition. And I am far from the first person writing in this vein to suggest that Confucianism’s on-going internal critique needs to respond to issues raised by feminists. Tu Wei-ming and Sin-yee Chan are two other examples, and there are more. Part of making it an internal critique is to interpret/appropriate the critique: to see if it makes sense in Confucian terms.

    An example of a practice (or system of practices, really) that might be considered oppressive–what I mean by this is a social structure that immobilizes or diminishes a group–is the nei/wai distinction as that was embodied in, let’s say, Ming society. I think that Confucians should criticize this rigid institution because it makes it dramatically harder, in Confucian terms, for women to fully develop as virtuous people. The reality of nei/wai differed based on geography and wealth, among other things, and there are certainly some ways in which the limitations were mitigated (as mitigation would be understood in Confucian terms–such as the kind of education that some elite girls were able to receive). Nonetheless, it stands as an oppressive institution whose specific form deserves to be criticized by contemporary Confucians.

    • Are you seriously pleading not guilty to all of those charges, Steve? Well, at least you summed up my complaints quite satisfactorily (笑)I certainly don’t want to hog any more space here and am looking forward to Huaiyu’s response as he is far more knowledgeabe about these matters obviously– but just three quick responses:

      1) Just because I have lots of friends in India that I chat with about religion does not make me a guru (That is, friends from afar can be polite)
      2) When you call yourself a Confucian philosopher, does that mean you are something other than an armchair Confucian? Are you a practioner? I ask as I am interested in your missionary zeal for univeralist principles, which i would think a Confucian would be wary of?
      3) Do you think it is possible that you can refine your concrete example…I mean, it is still not clear. That was an awful long time ago and probably no philosophical worldview anywhere on earth held up even remotely egalitarian education for women—the Ming system, in fact, was probably more progressive than many places of the time for both men and women. The nei/wai distinction goes WAY beyond gender roles—you know that. Nei/wai is a conceptual distinction about being-in-the-world for men and women. No? If I were serious about a project like your’s I would tackle divorce laws in Japan as a quasi-reflection of Confucian traditional values? Or inheritance laws? Korean laws have been Westernized I heard… and I am dubious much survives of the traditional practices in Mainland china?

      And, no, I do not think you are a global threat per se… but I totally and 100% agree with Huaiyu. I hope you didn’t scare him away since I find him seriously smart! His comments about being careful about word nuances as well as his three concerns above I think were useful…and in that way, yes, it was an illuminating discussion. cheers!

  16. I might chime in here, because I would never dare to call myself a “Confucian philosopher.” I’m neither! But I am a feminist political theorist, who finds Confucianism to pose interesting challenges and to offer provocative ethical resources for rethinking the failure of feminist ideals in the purportedly egalitarian United States. I have not seen Steve’s full account of how he’s drawing Confucianism and feminism together, but I can only imagine it is in the spirit of “genuine dialogue,” aimed at using each tradition as a lens through which to critically examine the other.

    As someone only newly versed in dimensions of the Confucian tradition, and thus focusing right now primarily on the Analects, my interest is in how the text is simply largely silent on the issue of women. So if contemporary feminists (in China or elsewhere, because really – policing one’s cultural or gender authenticity before allowing them to speak with, through or even for either tradition seems like an outdated project, no?) want to maintain an engagement with these key cultural traditions or texts, then they must do some reconstruction to show how that engagement works. To be a true engagement, this can’t involve simply critiquing feminism with Confucianism. Boring! Obvious! It has to involve critically and creatively exposing the “latent reservoir of unfulfilled hopes and future promises” (as Fred Dallmayr describes the project of “critical appropriation”) of Confucianism, and of feminism, and putting those into dialogue with each other.

    But of course, this also requires being very explicit about where the dialogue breaks down. To what extent is something like “hierarchy” (in the sense of asymmetrical and relatively stable vertical relationships) susceptible to being stretched or recuperated so as to minimize the threats of oppression? To what extent can we productively revisit American feminism, for example, in light of Huaiyu’s comment that “Maybe there is something the feminism can ‘learn’ from the Confucian ideal of women and its way of harmonious management of family and society on the basis of moral cultivation and appeal”? As someone who finds “cultural feminism” problematic (to the extent that the project has involved embracing and revaluing women’s traditional roles, but not necessarily critiquing or rejecting the essentialist association of women with the home, with care, with birth, etc.), my initial reaction is that there’s nowhere to go in that conversation. But a true engagement, I think, requires me to back up and consider what Confucianism might offer for a refigured consideration of how women embody these traditional roles (i.e. what’s at stake for them there, what justice within these roles looks like, etc. – especially in light of all the contemporary debate about the increasing number of educated women who “opt-out” and decide to stay home and inhabit this role).

    At any rate, I’d hate to think that I put myself at risk of being attacked for my imperialist pillaging of someone else’s tradition, because I dare to “critically appropriate” Confucianism for this consideration.

    • Is that true that you would really hate to put yourself at risk of being attacked for your imperialist pillaging or are you just trying to make a point that nothing of the kind is going on? Well, I would say that it is a slipperly slope, indeed. Is it valid to try and forcibly fit these ancient texts into western analytic constructs? And is it valid to totally runover nuances in the language? Is it valid to criticisize a tradition that spans thousands of years without being specific in any way about what precisely you are talking about…? Or to talk about “oppression in China” with no specifics whatsoever? NOT EVEN TEXTUAL?? Is that kosher? I don’t know…but I do think it is somehow bad philosophy and maybe bad manners too. Why not look to present-day practices? Why don’t you look at tax laws in Japan? Second income tax laws in japan are a very very good example of how 内外 functions… you could illuminate how it re-inforces these concepts and then discuss whether this is even in fact “oppressive” or not… It’s like the exhibition on foot binding I mentioned. Some things come down to trying to remove one’s own cultural blindspots. For example, would a single mother have an easier time or a harder time under japanese laws or American laws? Which protects the motehr and child’s health and ability to flourish better? The answer is not simple, in my opinion. Huaiyu’s comment about, isn’t there something western feminism can learn from Confucian thought speaks to this idea that imperialism is characterisized always by the one-way power relationships. the moment you say, something like you said above: “my initial reaction is that there’s nowhere to go in that conversation,” you are no longer engaged in true dialogue but rather are trying to domesticate anotehr cultural tradition—and really what is the point? Language and nuances of words are so important… and trying to understand things in terms of the cultural context (which is necessarily tied to a specific place and time is as well–i mean was Ming China that un-progressive compared to europe or japan at the same time? I think not… so??) Like i said to Bill, if I even understood Bill, that looking at how practice of 敬語 differs in different countries could also be interesting if you wanted to look at how the vertical relationships are negotiated in language in different cultures…as something not based on power or bloodties, if you use the word hierarchy, you probably do want to qualify that…?

      Anyway, glad to see Huaiyu is back… I feel much better!

    • Thanks for your engaging attitude, Sara.

      My view is that the importance of Analects have been overrated in the USA as most authentic and representative for Confucius’s teachings (just as Baghavata Gita overrated for Indian Culture). For ancients, it was just one of the 13 classical texts, ranked much lower than others like Poetry and Book of changes – it is easy to read and study, of course, maybe that’s why Americans elevated it to be the only text authentic.

      So, that Confucius did not talk about certain things (like women) in the Analects is no evidence that he hold no importance on the issue. After all, this is not a systematic treatise by Confucius, but fragmentary records of his conversations with students. And as most of his students were male and the issue often had to do with political matters for which women did not participate because of ancient customs, there is little wonder that you cannot find lot discourse on women there.

      Good place to work on women may be found in Chapter “Neize” of the BOok of Rituals.

      My two cents 🙂

    • Thanks for the direction to the chapter in the Book of Rituals, Huaiyu.

      I don’t mean to suggest that the Analects is the most authentic embodiment of Confucianism. It’s just where I am working right now (and yes, partly because it is a welcoming point of entry in certain ways).

      I’m not surprised that the Analects is silent on women either. And this is not, in itself, a critique. But if we see the Analects of Confucius as a relatively reasonable starting point for the tradition we know as Confucianism (perhaps you would contest this, though?), then asking the question of the degree to which that text does or does not foreclose certain feminist considerations seems legitimate. But I also agree with Peony, that remaining in the realm of abstraction only gets us so far. The concrete practices, roles, relationships, etc. are essential to engage.

    • Thanks Sara.

      You are right that the term “confucianism” itself is quite misleading as it misidentified Confucius as the “Starter” of a tradition that can be traced to millenniums before him. I think the Chinese character “ru” that names “Confucianism” today indicated mainly the ritual practices that were intended to instill a gentle and aesthetic way of leadership orchestrated by ancient Sages. Confucius, to be sure, was a major preserver of that tradition – but hardly a starter.

      For your purpose, I would recommend the same book I mentioned to Steve above:

      Ku Hungming. 1915. The Spirit of the Chinese People 春秋大義. Peking: The Peking Daily News


      Ku’s book is by far the best introduction to Confucianism and Ancient Chinese view on women I have ever read (though I don’t agree with him always :-)- Ku himself was a cultural celebrity in his day, highly acclaimed by such writers as Tolstoy and Tagore. The ignorance of his works in contemporary discourse, I think, is mainly a sad result of various Cultural vandalism in China and Western modern prejudices in the past century.

  17. I think I meant “critiquing Confucianism with feminism,” but I guess the opposite is also boring and obvious…

  18. Flattered by you kind comments, Peony – I was not scared away by Steve or anybody, however, just have some urgent matters to deal with a publisher.

    Good defense, Steve – apparently your views represent some main trends in the field and the issues involved are complicated and need elaborate consideration. I shall try to be short here though.

    First on the issue of oppression. No one can doubt that there were many “instances” of oppression of woman and others in the long history of China as in any other societies or even in US today. But we can easily find evidence for the respect and treatment of women and others also in ancient China. So, the key questions are:

    1) To what extent the oppressive cases were representative of the general practices and realities of the ancient China
    2) To what extent such oppressive cases were informed, enjoined, or permitted by Confucian teachings

    For 1), it is mainly an epistemological question: we need collect data to show the percentage of women oppression against the whole women populations in different historical periods. We should also be careful not to impose today’s standard and ideas of well-being upon ancient women – ie. we should be more concerned with their own feelings of satisfaction and happiness instead of degrading their states just because they did not have we have now.

    This of course is a complicated and challenging project – but I haven’t seen much scientific/empirical evidence to show the real status of women in ancient China – more often than not, people tend to just gave two to three pieces of negative cases and then draw the quick conclusion that women were victims of oppression in Confucian China, and this is what I called a systematic misconceptions. (even Li Chenyang did such over-generalization in p 4-5 of the book you mentioned, though overall, his book was meant to correct such misconceptions).

    For 2), I believe I have not seen “ANY” evidence, except for evidence based on possible misinterpretations of classical texts and their historical contexts. I would like to know what textual sources you have in mind when you said that Confucianism is systematically blind to the presence of oppression and harms for ordinary people including women.

    Thanks 

  19. Like this gem from the Neize chapter?

    If a parent have a fault, (the son) should with bated breath, and bland aspect, and gentle voice, admonish him. If the admonition do not take effect, he will be the more reverential and the more filial; and when the father seems pleased, he will repeat the admonition. If he should be displeased with this, rather than allow him to commit an offence against any one in the neighbourhood or countryside, (the son) should strongly remonstrate. If the parent be angry and (more) displeased, and beat him till the blood flows, he should not presume to be angry and resentful, but be (still) more reverential and more filial.

    • Nice paragraph from the neize, though not directed related to women, it pinpoints the same kind of moral discretion and resilience that was applicable to women education as well.

      Slight infidelities in this version of translation though:

      “If the admonition do not take effect, he will be the more reverential and the more filial;”

      may be better translated as “… he will recharge his sense of reverence and filial devotion.”

      I think the underlying motive was that as the father did not take the son’s advice, the son should examine whether there were something lacking in his sense of reverence and devotion to the father so as to recharge himself for further remonstrations. The basic sense of the passage showcases the Confucian attitude to admonish and rectify the wayward behavior of the father through love and sincere persuasion.

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