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Gender and Social Life in Imperial China  

Weijing Lu

Social life in imperial China was structured on the Confucian gender principles of the separation of male and female and the division of “inner and outer” spheres. Homosociality prevailed while heterosociality was limited. Homosociality dominated the forms and manners of social interaction. Men moved around freely and faced little constraint in forging relationships and networks, while women were largely homebound and secluded. In general, women enjoyed more physical freedom in earlier imperial times than in late imperial China, when seclusion of women intensified thanks to the rise of the female chastity cult and the spread of the practice of foot-binding. But even in the late imperial period, women were able to form networks and communities, in person or by means of writing. Local traditions and stages in the life cycle influenced women’s lived experiences of socialization, and class also played an important part in social life for both men and women. For example, education and a government career provided main venues for elite male socialization but for the men in lower social classes, their networks were built around localized institutions such as temple associations, sworn brotherhood, secret societies, and native place association.