Introduction

Leaving China & the
Journey Across the
Pacific

Cultural Traditions

Women in Early
Chinatowns

Anti-Chinese Violence
& Women's Resistance

Chinese Women at
Work

Educational
Opportunities

Women in Cultural
Work

The Great Depression
and War

Conclusion

Additional Resources


 

 

 

Confucianism and Women

Woman praying Interior of a Chinese temple in Chinatown, Los Angeles.
California Historical Society

Chinese Americans brought many religious and spiritual practices with them from China, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Confucianism, the state-sponsored Chinese belief system, had the strongest effect on the lives of Chinese Americans.

Confucius, a Chinese scholar, born in 551 BC, helped popularize a moral code of conduct, which would eventually dominate Chinese politics and society. Although Confucianism has a metaphysical dimension, Confucius himself was more concerned with reviving traditions, including the ancestral cult, which would help stabilize government and, through a focus on morals, form the building block of society and family. 8

Confucianism was built on a hierarchy of power – ruler guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife – that infiltrated the home. 9 Women were placed at the bottom of both the power and the gender hierarchy. Nonetheless, the matriarch in the household governed the domestic sphere. The most powerful role for a woman was reserved for the mother-in-law, who expected complete subservience from all wives and concubines under her command. 10

Yet, life in a Confucian household was difficult for all women. Under Confucianism, women suffered “footbinding, concubinage, arranged marriage, female chastity, and sexual segregation.” 11

Inscribed stones, the reputed writings of Confucius, 1902.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-42223

When the Chinese immigrated to America, Confucian beliefs and practices came with them. Many Chinese women continued to live secluded in Chinatown, their freedom of movement restricted by their bound feet, the belief that wife’s place was in the home, and the racial hostility in the world outside Chinatown. They were still subordinate to their husbands and males and were considered property that could be bought or sold at will. 12

Despite the pervasiveness of its moral code, life in America and changes in China transformed the influence of Confucianism in Chinese American homes. In America, Chinese wives were no longer under the thumb of their all-powerful mother-in-laws, and as a result, were able to exercise more control in their own household. Because their contribution to household income was so important to the family's survival, work offered autonomy to Chinese American women. Marriageable Chinese women in Chinatown San Francisco were scarce, and thus they were treated with more respect than their counterparts at home. Finally, Protestant missionaries in California joined Chinese reform societies to actively campaign to end footbinding and practices such as concubinage, which they considered cruel and immoral. 13

 

 

 

The Primary Principles of Female Instruction in Traditional China

  • Obey her father as a daughter
  • Obey her husband as a wife
  • Obey her son in widowhood
  • Morality (virtue)
  • Proper speech (carefully choosing one's words)
  • Appearance (keeping clean and tidy)
  • Diligent work (devotion to weaving and spinning)