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The majority of women in ancient China lived oppressed lives. Even women of the nobility and the imperial family did not escape the oppression, though life was possibly slightly easier for them than for the large population of poor women. Women were considered inferior to men and from the moment of birth most women were treated as inferiors.

Family life

Women in ancient China were considered inferior to men. This meant that their whole lives were spent being subservient to the men in their families. Generations of one family often lived in the same house together and older people were greatly respected. A grandmother became important if she outlived her husband as she would then be the oldest member of the household and would be afforded the most respect. Confucius taught that women's roles were to look after the men in their families. He believed that it was not acceptable for a woman to have her own ambitions and that she should have barely any life outside her own home. He did, however, teach that a woman's role as mother and mother-in-law should be respected. He taught that a 'woman's greatest duty is to have a son'.


Marriages were arranged in ancient China but they were also carefully considered. The parents of the children to be married consulted an astrologer who referred to the birth charts of each child. The astrologer would determine if, by the time and date of their births, the children were compatible. As a woman's thoughts and opinions were not considered important, the father's word was final on who his daughter would marry. The morning after the marriage, the girl would bow and offer tea to her in-laws as a sign that she now belonged to her husband's family. Once married, a girl would live with her husband's family. She would be required to obey all the members of his family, particularly his mother. A girl often became the servant of her mother-in-law and was forbidden to disobey her. A girl gained more respect in her husband's family if she gave birth to a boy. The birth of a boy was always celebrated more than the birth of a girl. If families were very poor, they would sell their daughters as servants to rich families. If a wife did not give birth to a son, her husband often took other wives.

Education and ancestor worship

The ancient Chinese did not think it was important to educate women. Women also did not practise ancestor worship as once they married their loyalties would lie with the families of their husbands. Ancestor worship was important to men as they remained loyal to one family. Women were not allowed to take exams and therefore could not enter into government service. Most girls did not go to school. Some girls who had scholars as fathers could learn from them, but female scholars were very rare

Foot binding

It is thought that foot binding began in around 900 AD during the Tang dynasty and continued until 1911 when it was finally banned. There are various legends regarding the origins of foot binding. Some suggest that the practice became fashionable in the emperor's court as small feel were considered to be a mark of exceptional beauty. It is thought that the practice was initially taken up by wealthy families and it became a symbol that a family was wealthy, as girls with bound feet were barely able to walk, let alone work. See image 1

Girls with bound feet were considered very attractive and it became a common practice. It also became common for girls without bound feet to be rejected by suitors. The custom of foot binding gradually spread to all social classes as many poor people saw it as a way of improving their social status. This put great pressure on poor families who needed all members of their family to work. Some peasant families were so poor that the women continued to work in the fields with their bound feet. As they were unable to stand, they had to work on their hands and knees.

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It then became necessary for families to bind the feet of their daughters in order for them to find a husband. It had long been a belief in China that women were inferior to men. The practice of foot binding further reinforced this belief, as women with bound feet were debilitated and weakened and less likely to be disobedient or rebellious.

Foot binding began for most girls when they were around six or seven years of age, while the bones of the foot were still young and the arch had not yet fully developed. The process was excruciatingly painful. The toes were broken and bandages were tightly bound around the foot to pull the toes back and restrict their growth. The bandages were changed every few days and the process usually continued for another ten years until the feet had stopped growing and had become small and pointed. In addition to the pain endured by the girls, their feet often became infected, which in some cases proved fatal. In later years, women with bound feet were more likely to fall and fracture their hips.

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Women's work

Women's work was centred on the home. Tasks such as preparing food, cleaning and looking after children were the norm for the majority of women in ancient China. They were expected to have many children and most women felt the pressure to bear a son. It was common for women to take up manual labour in the home. Spinning, weaving and sewing were common occupations. Some peasant women worked in the fields with their husbands.


Clothing was important in ancient China as it became symbolic of status. People from the higher classes wore fine fabrics, whereas poorer people wore cheaper fabrics that were rough to the touch. Most people wore tunics, women wore long tunics with belts and men wore shorter ones, usually with jackets. Most people, including men, wore their hair long. Many people believed that their hair was a gift from their parents and considered it disrespectful to cut it. Men were rarely seen in public without headwear.

Colour was also an indicator of class. Some emperors insisted that a certain colour became the royal colour and could not be worn by anyone other than the emperor. From the Sui dynasty, the royal colour was yellow.

A secret language

Nushu was a secret language which is thought to have developed in the Jiangyong county of Hunan province in southern China. No one knows its exact age, but it is thought to have developed over hundreds of years. Some experts suggest that it began around 300 AD.

Nushu was a secret written language developed by women who were not allowed to be educated. It was different to the language that men learned and used and therefore could only be understood by the small community of women who communicated with it.
Knowledge of Nushu was passed down by grandmothers, mothers, aunts and great aunts and was never shared with men. For many women it was comforting to be able to secretly share their feelings with other women.

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Question 1/5

1. Who did the women in ancient China need to obey after their marriage?

Their son

Their father

Their husband

Their mother


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