Confucianism “largely defined the mainstream discourse on gender in China from the Han dynasty onward.” The often strict, obligatory gender roles based on Confucian teachings became a cornerstone of the family, and thus, societal stability. Starting from the Han period onward, Confucians in general began to gradually teach that a virtuous woman was supposed to follow the lead of the males in her family, especially the father before her marriage and the husband after she marries. In the later dynasties, more emphasis was placed on women to uphold the virtue of chastity when they lost their husbands. Chaste widows were revered as heroes during the Ming and Qing periods. This “cult of chastity” accordingly, “condemned many widows to poverty and loneliness by placing a social stigma on remarriage by women.”
Confucianism was usually characterized by Western scholarship, up until the mid-1990s, as a sexist, patriarchal ideology that was responsible for the severe subjugation and oppression of women in pre-modern China. However, recent reexaminations of Chinese gender roles suggest that some women can flourish within Confucianism. During the Han dynasty period, the important Confucian text Lessons for Women (Nüjie), was written by Ban Zhao (45–114 CE): by a woman, for women.
She wrote the Nüjie ostensibly for her daughters, instructing them on how to live proper Confucian lives as wives and mothers. Although this is a relatively rare instance of a female Confucian voice, Ban Zhao almost entirely accepts the prevailing views concerning women’s proper roles; they should be silent, hard-working, and compliant. She stresses the complementarity and equal importance of the male and female roles according to yin-yang theory, but she clearly accepts the dominance of the yang-male. Her only departure from the standard male versions of this orthodoxy is that she insists on the necessity of educating girls and women. We should not underestimate the significance of this point, as education was the bottom line qualification for being a junzi or “noble person,”…her example suggests that the Confucian prescription for a meaningful life as a woman was apparently not stifling for all women. Even some women of the literate elite, for whom Confucianism was quite explicitly the norm, were able to flourish by living their lives according to that model.
Joseph A. Adler has also indicated that even with the Neo-Confucians who have the reputation of discriminating against women, the actual situation was in fact quite complicated. As he writes, “Neo-Confucian writings do not necessarily reflect either the prevailing social practices or the scholars’ own attitudes and practices in regard to actual women.” There had been a difference between textual teaching and the actual social practice by the Confucians and society in general throughout all of China’s dynasties.
Matthew Sommers has also indicated that during the Qing dynasty, the imperial government began to realize the utopian nature of enforcing the “cult of chastity.” As a result, by the late Qing period, Qing officials became more tolerant and allowed practices such as widow remarrying to stand. Finally, some Confucian texts like the Chunqiu Fanlu (春秋繁露) also has passages which suggest a more equal relationship between a husband and his wife. All of these things add to the complexity of the issue of women in Confucian teaching.
In 2009, for the first time women (and ethnic minorities and people living overseas) were officially recognized as being descendants of Confucius. These additions more than tripled the number of officially recognized descendants of Confucius.