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WOMEN AND CONFUCIAN CULTURES IN PREMODERN CHINA, KOREA, AND JAPAN, edited by Dorothy Ko, Jahyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 338 pp., 35 illustrations and tables. $24.95 (paper).

It is often thought that Confucianism is somehow discriminatory toward women. And it is true that its emphasis upon filial piety is mainly addressed to the father. In general the tradition concerns itself little with women.

The founder himself wished to restore a hierarchical feudal society which he believed was harmonious and therefore natural. The tradition was thus generally conservative and displayed an abiding interest in political power.

It is assumed that Confucianism also insisted that this power was male and that women were mere fodder for such ambitions as good wives and wise mothers.

This was never entirely so, however. There were periods when women claimed and obtained equal rights not only in the home but also in more public spheres.

How and when this occurred has become a subject for increasingly detailed research. The latest contribution is this volume, edited from papers submitted at a 1996 workshop, which sought to rethink Confucianism in East Asia by using gender as a category of analysis.

One of the first items of agenda was a clearing of the ground. “The old stereotype construes Asian women as victims of tradition, or Confucian patriarchy. Our premise is that to correct this simplistic picture we need to recognize that neither ‘women’ nor ‘Confucian tradition’ is a uniform or timeless category.”

Rather, gender is formulated as a product of negotiation. In so doing the participants hoped to avoid exaggerating oppression on one hand or romanticizing resistance on the other. This necessarily indicates a closer study of the aims of classical Confucianism.

Since this is an ethical system, it is based on hierarchies of relationship. The “three bonds” refer to those between ruler and minister, father and son, and husband and wife. The “five relations,” wrote the philosopher Mencius, were filiality between father and son, loyalty between ruler and minister, precedence between siblings, trust between friends, and differential harmony between husband and wife.

“Differential” can mean a number of things (“opposite” and “contrary” among them) but here Mencius perhaps meant something like our standard dictionary definition: dependent on or making use of a specific difference or distinction.

This is, of course, what occurred again and again, leading occasionally to such gross excesses as foot-binding. Not always, however, and is to these examples that the attention of the 30-member workshop was directed. From their papers, 11 were chosen to make up this volume. All of them, to greater or lesser degree, aim at more precisely describing women living under Confucianism.

There was a time, for example, when the wife was not considered the exclusive property of her husband, when neither “chastity” nor “adultery” were relevant concepts. An early Japanese tale tells of an irate husband accusing a suspect of “seducing” his wife.

Three centuries later the same story was retold and the husband now called the suspect a “thief.” Since this latter occurs in the 12th-century “Konjaku Monogatari” (a collection of folklore tales), it adds to general agreement that the notion of a husband owning a wife’s sexuality only became common in Japan during the later Heian period.

Indeed, before that both husband and wife had equal land rights and she might even have owned more slaves than he did. They were commensurate in many other ways and thus fitted into Friedrich Engel’s famous formulation that for any civilization the “savage” era saw general martial parity, the following “barbaric” era ushered in one-to-one pairing, and that the “civilized” period saw the domination of the female by the male, leading to the uncomfortable conclusion that the more civilized you are the worse you treat your wife.

The periods of overt male domination are not, however, general. There are periods when they do not apply and there is also the fact that such general rules never wholly apply. Even now (a period somewhat repressive to women here in Japan) many wives take the money, spend it as they see fit, and give the husband an allowance. She may be stuck in the house but she has all the monetary control.

It is the “exceptions” to a somewhat suspicious “rule” that these scholars have turned their attention. Their book is well researched and, given its nature, provocative — and it is this aspect which makes it worth reading.

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