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Confucianism and Women for AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

3 min read

Apr 18

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The role of women in Confucianism is an illustrative example of the Developments in East Asia from 1200 to 1450 topic in Unit 1 of AP World History. You could reference this example on your AP World History test.



Confucius
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Confucianism, an ancient Chinese philosophy developed by Confucius during the 6th to 5th century BCE, has significantly influenced the cultural and social norms of East Asian societies. This philosophy emphasizes ethics, morality, and social harmony, which extend deeply into gender roles and familial structures, particularly in how men are expected to treat women.


In traditional Confucian society, the roles of women were largely defined by a set of patriarchal norms encapsulated in the concept of the “Three Obediences and Four Virtues.” The Three Obediences dictated that a woman should obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her sons if widowed, underscoring the limited autonomy women had within the family and broader society.

Men, in turn, were taught to uphold the “Five Relationships,” which are central to Confucian ethics. These relationships include ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, and friend to friend. In the context of husband to wife, men were expected to treat their wives with fairness and respect, providing guidance and protection, thereby embodying a benevolent leadership role within the household. This relationship was ideally one of mutual obligation: while women were expected to demonstrate obedience and virtue, men were supposed to exhibit moral integrity and kindness, ensuring the welfare and dignity of their wives.


The Four Virtues in Confucian philosophy—morality, proper speech, modest manner, and diligent work—form a core set of principles that were specifically designed to define the ideal conduct of women in society. Morality refers to the upholding of ethical standards and purity, ensuring that women were seen as paragons of virtue within the family and the community. Proper speech was another critical virtue, emphasizing the importance of women speaking in a manner that was considered respectful and appropriate. This involved not only the content of what was said but also the tone and manner. The ideal was to avoid gossip, speak kindly, and use language that reflected well on her family and her upbringing, thereby contributing to the harmony and respectability of her household. Modest manner pertained to both the demeanor and appearance of women. It advocated for humility, discretion, and the avoidance of any behavior that could be seen as assertive or flamboyant. In terms of appearance, it emphasized traditional and conservative dress codes that were meant to underscore a woman’s respectability and social role, rather than personal expression or beauty. Diligent work referred to the competence and vigor with which women managed domestic responsibilities. This virtue highlighted the expectation that women were to be industrious in their duties at home—ranging from childcare and education to managing household affairs and assisting with family businesses.


Despite these norms, which were restrictive for women, some women managed to exert influence, particularly within their families and through educating their children. Throughout history, there have been notable exceptions, with some women excelling in the arts, literature, and even politics, often despite, rather than because of, prevailing Confucian ideals.


Printable Reading Passage on Confucianism and Women

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Confucianism and Women FREE Reading Passage



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Developments in East Asia from 1200 to 1450


Unit 1:The Global Tapestry


AP World History



Confucianism and Women

#APWorldHistory #Women

Cate O'Donnell

3 min read

Apr 18

2

0

0

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