What Life Was Like For Women In Ancient China

History class might've taught us that gunpowder, paper, printing and the compass were some of ancient China's greatest achievements. Unfortunately, while the people of the ancient dynasties enjoyed impressive technological strides in both the workforce (with the invention of the wheelbarrow) and entertainment (fireworks displays), there was one group of people who were barred from many of the activities that the civilization had to offer: women. In fact, based on the philosophical and religious norms of the time, women were created by men to honor men and nothing more.

According to Ancient History Encyclopedia, women in ancient China were instead tied solely to domestic life, serving first their fathers, then husbands, and finally their sons if they wound up as widows. They were largely poorly treated, socially segregated and forced to constantly compete for their husbands' admiration with concubines. While males were obligated to financially contribute to the family, a woman could not work outside the house, instead obligated to take care of her husband's family. Many newborn girls were abandoned after birth, with traditional lore even stating that women had been men in a previous life, only to be cursed as a woman in the present life as a punishment.

They were taught to have one purpose

From a very early age, girls were taught that being a wife and mother should be the greatest success that they could achieve, with nearly every resulting action of their adolescence aimed at being a proper caretaker for a spouse, according to Asia Society. Many practices were adapted in order to draw the attention of a male suitor, who were seen as the core of society. The practice of foot binding was also especially popular, a trend which crushed little girls' feet in the belief that small, dainty feet would please the child's future husband.

As Ancient History Encyclopedia recounts, there were four major expectations of women: industriousness, fidelity, cautious speech and graceful manners. In fact, many girls in ancient China were given names such as Chastity or Pearl in the hopes that the child would live up to the name and later receive a decent dowry. The most 'virtuous' women, such as those who remained chaste after becoming widows, were honored with shrines or monuments after death.

A career was almost impossible

Women of lower classes, such as farmers' wives, were expected to work in agriculture. However, as many farmers did not own their own land, women working in the fields were subject to abuse from landowners. During drought seasons and crop failure, women were also forced into prostitution. It was not until the Song dynasty around 960 A.D. when women were finally able to more freely hone certain professions. These jobs included midwives, housekeepers and inn owners.

Despite giant social barriers and strict gender norms, there are always exceptions to the rule, and some women shattered the ancient glass ceiling to make strides in literature, academia and government. Wu Zetian, also known as Wu Zhao, was a former concubine of Tang dynasty emperors Taizong and Gaozong who was made empress in 655 A.D. Ban Zhao is one of the most famous female writers and scholars from ancient China, whose most famous work is "Instructions for Women", an etiquette text that was pretty progressive for her time in arguing that women should be able to educate themselves. Her influence on academia in the ancient world is incontrovertible and has been studied by generations of women.