Women's History: Asia

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Author: Sharon Sievers
Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz
Date: 2005
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,381 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1550L

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Women's History: Asia

The prominent roles occupied by women in the legends and myths of that complex and diverse part of the world called Asia suggest that "histories" of women in Asia have existed for a very long time. That these legends have been shaped, written, and sometimes performed by men operating in androcentric cultural contexts does not negate the impression of power and consequence their narratives convey. From Japan's sun goddess, the original ancestress of the imperial line, to Korean shamans, to the powerful and transgressive women of South and Southeast Asian myth, or China's Hua Mulan, the stories of these legendary women suggest that women in early Asian societies did "make history." Perhaps only in China does the written record present, dynasty after dynasty, legendary women whose experience is embedded in the historicity of China's changing social, political, and economic institutions.

In various parts of Asia, these myths generated questions about matriarchal societies that were reinforced by the nineteenth-century work of Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) and Garrett A. Morgan (1877–1963). This theoretical framework may have encouraged one of Japan's first historians of women, Takamure Itsue (1894–1964), to do research on family registers; that research, parts of which have been reinforced by twentieth-century scholarship, strongly suggests that families in eighth-century Japan were predominantly matrilineal. For other women in Asia, myths and legends provided models for resistance and revolution in the twentieth century (China and Vietnam) and left some, like Hiratsuka Raicho (1886–1971), wondering why and how women had lost the power and authority they once had in Japanese history.

The Confucian Pattern

Few intellectual traditions have had a greater impact on women in Asia than Confucianism, in part because Confucian Page 2490  |  Top of Article traditions were central not only to China but also to other parts of Asia (Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia) influenced by Chinese culture. The study of women in these cultures has dismantled basic assumptions about Confucianism: its universality, monolithic nature, and immutability. The study of women has shown many different Confucianisms and has made it clear that the continuity of these traditions is the result of accommodation to social change, not stasis.

Scholars of Chinese women's history have, in recent years, moved far beyond an earlier scholarship that focused on Confucianism's role in conceptualizing and rationalizing a patriarchal, patrilineal family in which women were marginalized, victimized, and seemingly left with little opportunity to develop or exercise a sense of their own agency. Overcoming and supplanting this view has come only through the continuing research of historians who, reading against the grain of the Confucian record, have provided a much more complex picture of women's lives and of Chinese culture. Margery Wolf's work on women in Taiwan represents a rare early glimpse of women developing strategies to increase their power in the family; Susan Mann, Patricia Ebrey, and Dorothy Ko have since demonstrated, in a number of different settings, how important women were as contributors to "Chinese civilization" and how effectively they circumvented the institutional barriers ranged against them.

Elsewhere in Asia, Confucian patterns had less continuity as well as less influence. In the Japanese case, Confucian ideas about the family and statecraft were heavily moderated by existing cultural patterns, even in the two periods when Confucianism is thought to have had greatest influence—the eighth and ninth centuries when the Japanese state was being organized, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the Tokugawa period. Korea, although thoroughly conversant with Confucianism, was really not dominated by these ideas until well after the fourteenth century, and Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, encountered the greatest levels of Confucian influence between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Recent scholarship makes it clear how difficult it is to walk the tightrope between establishing a history of women in Asia that speaks to their strengths and acknowledges the reality of the constraints they faced. Although historians continue to investigate stereotypical symbols of women's oppression in Asia (sati, footbinding), they do so with a heightened sense of the possibility that Western scholarship "orientalizes" women when it fails to present them as active participants in their own culture, able to find nuanced and effective ways to challenge those constraints.

The Modern Period

There has always been a women's version of the Western civilizing narrative in Asia; in many times and places, Western colonizers sought to use the "oppression of women" in Asian cultures as a rationale for their self-proclaimed civilizing mission. The treatment of women, they often said, was the standard by which civilizations could be judged, and on that basis it was clear that Asia "needed civilizing." The history of women in Asia has convincingly demonstrated that the "Western impact" on Asia not only complicated women's ability to improve their lives but also generated an anticolonial, nationalist engagement that did not aid, but typically subverted, feminist agendas.

Growing recognition of the intellectual significance of feminism since the late nineteenth century has been coupled with the assumption that feminism's natural competitors—nationalism and socialism—have eclipsed feminism's impact in the modern period. Women have been critical to the development of nationalism and socialism in China, India, Korea, and Southeast Asia: as symbols of "tradition," workers, educators, and soldiers. Women were asked to postpone their agendas in China's great twentieth-century revolution, where leaders pursued a "backward to revolution" strategy, and in India, where connections with nationalism and anti-imperialist movements were complicated by geography, ethnicity, caste, class, and religious diversity. While South Asia may present the greatest challenges for historians of women, it is also true that, in the 1990s, scholars there such as Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid pointedly demonstrated how much a feminist standpoint adds to our understanding of nationalism, colonialism, and anticolonial movements. Independence may have brought an improvement in the legal status of women, but the partition that created the new states of India and Pakistan ushered in a long period of conflict in which large numbers of women were abducted, raped, and/or killed as part of a continuing political, ethnic, and religious struggle. Until 1990, women were an invisible part of historical analysis of this conflict; since then, historians of women, such as Urvashi Butalia in South Asia, have made clear how important women and gender are to any understanding of these conflicts.


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Sharon Sievers

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424300822