Making Herstory

The Ascent and Descent of Women in History (Pt 2)


Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans

I have John Lennon to thank for getting me back into the Ascent of Woman series. I’ve been so caught up in the throes of day to day, that I haven’t had enough time to finish blog posts, let alone watch the second episode of The Ascent of Woman.

As this blog is a significant part of who I am and what I value, this quote reminded me that I am the one who constructs my life, and where my purpose leads. So I finally stopped, put my other jobs on the backburner, and got back into this wickedly awesome BBC series.

The first episode focused on women in prehistoric civilisation. You can read my review of it here. The second episode is opened with the introduction of an 11th century Chinese artwork called the Qingming Scroll, which depicts an idealistic view of China as envisioned by an Emperor: peaceful, well governed and almost exclusively male. Like in the many centuries before it, and across the globe, women are expected to be behind closed doors; quiet, chaste, obedient.

A large portion of the episode was dedicated to the effect of Confucianism on women; a Chinese philosophy that played a large part in the shaping of a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal China. It encouraged social harmony, through the idea of Yin (female essence) and Yang (male essence), but this was eventually challenged when Yin was labelled as inferior to Yang by male scholars. The hierarchical system went so that the Emperor was practically God, and women were fundamentally bottom of the ladder. Confucianism believed everyone had a social order, which aligned with heaven, and if everyone kept their place, the cosmos stayed in balance. But if not, the heavens wreaked havoc through plagues and famines and such. (No pressure, women!)

The confucian classics – written by all-male scholars – were a cornerstone of which Confucianism was based. Liji, the Book of Rites, governed rules of state and individual behaviour and conduct. Women were in the home, the men could be in the public realm of government and culture. Many beliefs of this society were shaped by writings that endorsed a mentality of male superiority – even up to the 20th century!

In this episode, what stood out to me was the story of a Chinese Empress in the 7th Century, Empress Wu, who defied the Confucian model of womanhood by creating her own dynasty. She came from a low-ranking family, ended up the concubine of an Emperor, and married his son, to become the new Empress. She clawed her way up to the top in order to prove herself, and in return was vilified, with hundreds of crimes laden upon her. This reminds me a lot of Hillary Clinton – who is by no means sleeping her way to the top – but for being ambitious and being a woman, she has been labelled a criminal for actions that in the case of others, were overlooked as mistakes. And like Empress Wu, who to this day is the only Chinese Empress to have ruled China, is still seen as an ‘evil and corrupt woman’. In reality, it was her challenge of the Confucian order that got her to power, and during her reign she lead as any other male Emperor lead, with some outstanding achievements and reformations, but also some cruelty in her practice. Despite the good she did, she was vilified more than any other male counterpart. But the horrific cliches of woman in power are pumped out in every culture. To this day, government and politics is still very much a male preserve.

“I think that people take a moral perspective when they judge a female political leader; people think from the achievement angle when they judge a male political figure.” – Ascent of Woman

The condition of women in Asia improved with Empress Wu. It was refreshing to hear about the women of the Tang Dynasty, were very much like women today. Longing for more freedom and equality. They were celebrated and present in arts and culture. Empress Wu’s ideology was that she didn’t want to be seen as male, but she didn’t want to be seen as female. She was a true visionary. Empress Wu was determined to give women agency and power, equal to men, while still implementing governmental change, like reforming the tax code, creating a formal civil service, and increasing China’s trade and diplomacy.

In Japan, they followed an adopted method of religion and culture through Buddhism and Confucianism in the 6th century, but their original and oldest religion is Shinto. This was significantly different in ideology as it didn’t have a founder, written works, and saw people as fundamentally good (evil caused by impure spirits). This religion had a female chief deity, opposite to Yin and Yang, and therefore females had more of an importance in Japan. However, this doesn’t mean things were all equal and idealistic. In the 11th Century of the Heian Period, married women had a completely bizarre set of rights and restrictions, that allowed them to own property, for example, but we separated from husbands and public life. These regulations lead to societal standards of beauty in Japan, an emphasis on ritual and artiface, where female goodness is not judged by character (as in China), but the beauty of calligraphy, or the sophistication of their kimono, or physical beauty and intelligence. This was what led to marriage and prosperity.

Due to the restriction of Japanese women from the outer world, in the inner world Women communicated in native Japanese called the Woman’s hand. A unique phenomenon in world history was born, where women, not men, had a prime role in the creation of a written language. Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a female lady-in-waiting who barely exists in the history books, was known to write the world’s first novel, with characters that came alive off the page and told stories much like today’s fictional stories. Dr Foreman was reduced to tears seeing the existence of Murasaki’s writing  inkwell, which was such a historic item to women’s history. This woman made and forged the culture and celebration of Japan today, but much like in China, Japan was taken over by a culture based on codes of male honour (The Samurai), which eradicated the artifacts and objects, as well as the little agency women had briefly within the Heian period. Female inheritance laws wouldn’t return until for 900 years. But today, a Buddhist nun tells Dr Foreman, “The age of women has come in Japan”.

A final issue was addressed at the end of the episode, which made a lasting mental and physical impact on women until the 20th Century. It also had a physical impact on me, I felt thoroughly sick after watching it! The regulations of women in China, like Japan, also led to societal standards of what beauty looks like – not just through purity of character, but physical means. Foot binding: the act of binding feet of girls from a young age, and a symbol of the domestic confinement of women and a harsh ideology. This was an excruciatingly painful process and lead to physical deformity and chronic pain, as the bones in the feet had no space to grow. This was also forced by women, on women as a requirement for marriage (in other words, prosperity), before it was banned in 1902. The ironic thing is – we still have it today. Plastic surgery, magazines and media that promote beauty standards, shaving and make-up. We are still forced to undergo painful, time-consuming or expensive methods of beauty for the sake of being ‘womanly’.

As a summary, over the history of pre-medieval Asia, over the course of different periods and dynasties, there seemed to be a back and forth approach to how women were viewed and valued. They would gain freedoms and status, and then lose freedom and status, and this was all based upon religious structures and harsh ideologies. It’s interesting how often women bear the brunt of religion, and how frustrating it must have been to lose freedoms one may have had for a whole lifetime.

Entire nations have based their ideologies around how they value and treat their women, but it was never the case of women playing the victim. What these women stood for is energy and irrepressibility, and a desire to fulfill a role.

“Ideology and reality are rarely the same, and even at the height of foot binding, women not only contributed to the family, but the economy and the culture in which they lived. And to not tell their story too, is to tell a non-truth… what they are finally getting today is recognition.” Dr Amanda Foreman



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