In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender Issues in Traditional China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographical Dictionaries
  • Compiled Translations
  • Collected Essays
  • Journals
  • Studies of Women in Chinese Society by Period
  • Female Rulers
  • Marriage and Family
  • Religion
  • Work
  • Concubines and Courtesans
  • Women Authors
  • Women Artists
  • Law and Property
  • Manhood and Masculinity

Chinese Studies Gender Issues in Traditional China
Harriet Zurndorfer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0074


The study of pre-20th century gender issues in China began in the 1970s with Margery Wolf’s groundbreaking anthropological analysis of women and the family in rural Taiwan. Her Stanford University 1972 publication Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan (see Wolf 1972, cited under Marriage and Family) challenged the idea that Chinese women were always subordinated in the Confucian patriarchal family. She posited that, instead of their being on the margins, they were at the center of family relationships. Elderly mothers, in particular, were empowered by the Confucian family structure and thus had a vested interest in its perpetuation. Wolf’s work inspired research on modern Chinese women, and, within the same decade, the first journal articles appeared arguing that the dichotomy of traditional vs. revolutionary woman was too simplistic. Although the bulk of the early scholarship on Chinese women in the Western academy focused on the modern and contemporary eras, and the question of women’s liberation, by the 1980s the first published research on the lives of empresses and other imperial relatives as well as Buddhist and Daoist nuns as alternatives to the dominant Confucian ideology emerged, and these studies stimulated new work on women as “historical agents” instead of “victims.” Also in the 1980s literary studies began to scrutinize the rich legacy of Chinese women’s writing and artistic production and, in particular, courtesan poetry and painting. By the 1990s scholars were publishing translations of female-authored writings, producing analyses drawing on theoretical works about culture and power, and thus utilizing the gender concept to investigate how male/female identities in imperial China were constructed. The 1990s also saw the first attempts to go beyond the study of Chinese women to consider a gendered context and to investigate maleness, homosexuality, and male relations outside the boundaries of the patriarchal family. The majority of historical and literary studies on gender issues published at that time focused on the late imperial period, roughly from the 16th century to the early 19th century. These developments in English-language scholarship on women and gender contrast with research in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the 1980s and early 1990s. During these years publications there concentrated on the theme of women as victims of patriarchal forces. Since the beginning of this millennium feminist scholars in China have attempted to revise this narrative, but, at the same time, they have also emphasized the limitations of Western theoretical perspectives on the historical study of Chinese womanhood. In Taiwan, scholars tend to appreciate both the earlier and the current scholarship of the Western academy and pursue avenues of research similar to those of their Western colleagues.

General Overviews

Hinsch 2016 provides a comprehensive study of Chinese women and gender issues from earliest times until the end of the 19th century. Ropp 1994, and Teng 1996 are excellent analyses of how the first scholarship in Western languages challenged traditional caricatures of Chinese women of the imperial period. Mann 1999 gives a well-documented historical overview of Chinese women’s history during the dynastic periods and its impact on related themes in Japan and Korea. Ebrey 1990 provides a useful summary of Western scholarship on the study of Chinese women from early times through the Song period (960–1279) and also briefly for the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) eras. Mann 2002 is a superb evaluation of existing scholarship on women and gender issues for the period beginning in the late Ming to about 1800. Chen and Tong 2010 is the most comprehensive study of Chinese women by PRC scholars. Lee 2009 gives an excellent introduction to how scholars in Taiwan have approached women and gender issues.

  • Chen Gaohua 陈高华, and Tong Shaosu童芍素, eds. Zhongguo funü tongshi (中国妇女通史). 10 vols. Hangzhou, China: Hangzhou Chubanshe, 2010.

    The chronological range of this ten-volume comprehensive history of Chinese women extends from the pre-imperial era in the first volume to the last one, which covers the Republican era. Each volume is edited by a renowned specialist of a given dynastic period and contains a bibliography of Chinese references.

  • Ebrey, Patricia. “Women, Marriage, and the Family in Chinese History.” In Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization. Edited by Paul S. Ropp, 197–223. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520064409.003.0008

    Analyzes the status of women and family life in the complex interplay of social, political, legal, economic, and cultural forces for the imperial period. This is an excellent study suitable for nonspecialized readers.

  • Hinsch, Bret. Women in Imperial China. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016.

    The first English-language text that surveys the history of women in China over more than two thousand years. The bibliography of this volume also includes works in Chinese and Japanese. A readable, learned, and lively narrative which is useful for both undergraduates and researchers in gender studies.

  • Lee, Jen-der 李貞德, ed. Zhongguoshi xinlun: Xingbieshi fence (中國史新論:性別史分冊). Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan and Lianjing chuban shiye gongsi, 2009.

    A rich collection of eleven essays critically analyzing Chinese gender history from the pre-Qin era to the Republican period through the perspectives of archaeology, literature, fine art, law, religion, oral history, and social history. The articles are authored by leading Taiwan scholars plus one PRC historian. A list of chapter headings in English is included.

  • Mann, Susan. East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea. Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 1999.

    Provides a well-documented historical overview of leading trends and developments in the history of Chinese women from the Han (206 BCE) period to the 20th century and compares the same for women in Japan and Korea.

  • Mann, Susan. “Women, Families, and Gender Relations.” In The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 9, The Ch’ing Empire to 1800, Part 1. Edited by Willard J. Peterson, 428–472. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521243346

    Relates major developments in the history of women and gender relations from the late Ming to 1800 to social, economic, and demographic variables for the same period. Invaluable.

  • Ropp, Paul. “Women in Late Imperial China: A Review of Recent English-Language Scholarship.” Women’s History Review 3.3 (1994): 347–383.

    DOI: 10.1080/09612029400200115

    A very comprehensive and judicious review of the earliest publications concerning Chinese women in relation to social, religious, philosophical, and cultural matters. Pays special attention to women in literary discourse.

  • Teng, Emma. “The Construction of the ‘Traditional Chinese Woman’ in the Western Academy: A Critical Review.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 22.1 (Autumn 1996): 115–151.

    DOI: 10.1086/495138

    Excellent comprehensive overview of earlier and contemporary publications that deal with women as “victims” or “agents.”

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