Traditional Chinese Women’s Roles

Choo Ai Naa, an intern at WCC and Corporate Communication student tries to get a grip on tradition and women in this article.

11004667_932187280147315_1747137492_nFrom the Qin (221 BC – 206 BC) to Qing (AD 1644 – 1911) Dynasties in Imperial China, women had been burdened with conservative social prejudice, and they had tried very hard to live their own life. All of this could be traced back to the prevalence of foot-binding, the “three obedience and the four virtues”, and arranged marriage. Traditionally women were forced to go through foot-binding, learn needlework with no access to education and their marriages were arranged by parents. Women had no legal rights and career opportunities unlike men.china

Foot-binding[1] would be carried out when the girl is between 5 to 8 years old by her mother or servant who is familiar with this practice. During the process, except the big toe, the remaining four toes would be bended downwards then wrap with a long piece of cloth then sewn up. The reason for the prevalence of foot-binding was that smaller feet were believed to be the symbol of beauty and was attractive to men. Women with bound feet would be seen as decent, those women without bound feet might face difficulties in finding a partner for marriage, and marriage was everything to women. Foot-binding caused extreme pain and they would lose the ability to conduct any activity on their own especially outdoor activities. This situation definitely sealed the divide that women stayed indoor and men get to go out. For unmarried women, they needed to stay at home and learn needlework, while those who were married would also stay at home to take care of children and family members. This was how a woman’s life was spent, they had no access to any outside information, and they lived to serve men. However, should a woman spend her live this way? No one should have limitation to freedom, especially the painful foot-binding. Why didn’t men try to bind their feet? So they could understand the pain women had to bear for the so-called “attractiveness” of small feet.8(162)

Other than that, the study of “the three obedience and the four virtues”[2] were extremely sexist. In the three aspects of obedience, women were required to obey their father before marriage, their husband during married life, and their sons in widowhood. The four virtues were morality, modest manner, propriety in speech and be skilled in needle work. In that patriarchal society, women had no right to voice their opinion but submissively accept men’s decisions. At that time, a man could have a few more concubines while a woman had to be faithful and obey to only one man, how was this situation fair?cooking

Apart from that, arranged marriage[3] was also one of the issues. Women were not given the chance to choose who they wanted to get married to, their marriage were arranged by parents with the help of a matchmaker. The marriage could be arranged before the child was born, and once engagement was made, they had to get married after they grew up. Women did not have the right to oppose, nor break the engagement, because such action would damage the reputation of her family. A woman who had broken off an engagement would be despised by the society, she would also be banned from going back to her parents’ home, because she had ruined the reputation of her family. At that time, if women encountered marriage problem, everyone would consider it as the woman’s faults. Therefore, to avoid this situation from happening, even if a woman did not like her husband, she would never give up the marriage. Arranged marriage did not respect women, leaving them to be judged and controlled by society. This should not happen, everyone should have their own freedom, most importantly in finding our own soul mates. Our marriage should be decided by ourselves, and a family should not put the honour of the family on a woman’s marriage.

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Centuries have passed, nowadays women are able to get education, career opportunities and some legal protections, but are women truly empowered now? As we celebrate this Chinese New Year, look around and see who are doing all the housework and cooking? So, do we really have gender equality?


[1] For the history of foot-binding in china, refer to


[3] For detailed traditional Chinese marriage, refer to