You are here

Chang, "Family matters: Women's negotiation with Confucian family ethics in Qing and republican China," 2007

USC dissertation in East Asian Languages and Culture.
August 21, 2009

Chia-Lan Chang, Ph.D

Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation explores how individual women in Qing (1644-1911) and Republican (1912-1949) Quanzhou, a port city in the Fujian province, preserved the male-centered family system yet empowered themselves within it by negotiating with Confucian family ethics. Focusing on gender and family, this study explores how Quanzhou women utilized legal powers, concepts of morality, family status, and community connections as cultural and social capital in pursuit of their own interests.

Chapter 1 presents the historical development of Chinese family ethics. The gap between orthodox principles of patrilineality and local practices gave women an opportunity to wield power in their families. Chapters 2 and 3 describe women's engagement with the contractual tradition. They show the decreasing influence of agnates and the growing independence of women and their conjugal units. Women used their legal powers and parental authority to further their self interests and that of their families. Chapter 4 uses public notices in newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s to analyze disputes between men and women, and older and younger generations. In these notices, women claimed to be virtuous and appealed to public opinion among the readers to guarantee their economic security in the family. Meanwhile, husbands and in-laws displayed their anxiety about women's loss of female virtue and used the 1931 Family Law to evict young widows from households and take their property. Chapter 5 details how women created fictive family ties outside of their kin organizations. Many women entered local monastic orders or justified their marriage-resisting practices by highlighting their filiality, chastity, and by conceptualizing a form of social motherhood. They maintained strong ties with their natal families and developed fictive mother-daughter bonds between religious instructors and disciples.

Quanzhou women did not abandon Confucian family ethics, but they manipulated concepts of virtue to benefit their own practical kin groups and legitimized unorthodox religious practices. They thus enhanced both their family status and their own authority. The process of negotiation reveals an interconversion of their female virtues, family status, property rights, and social reputation. Most women chose to stay within the family system and acted as the protectresses of Confucian patrilineality and patriarchy.

Advisor: Birge, Bettine
Committee members: Cheung, Dominic,  Cooper, Eugene,  Goldstein, Joshua