From the earliest civilizations, societies everywhere have been dominated by the patriarchy. However, the level of degree of male dominance and social structure in society did differ between the civilizations. The Roman Empire and Han Dynasty were no exception to this. Both ancient civilizations were similar in the respect that from birth, girls were treated lesser than boys. Even if in the Han Dynasty, where the values of Confucianism were respected and followed, which stated that everyone under the empire were equal, the true actions of citizens did not reflect this philosophy to its entirety.
In the Roman Empire, women were subject to similar prejudice, as they were subject to the authority of their father, and then husband after marriage. The Roman Empire and Chinese Dynasties were not in contact with each other, limiting their influence on one another, however, both civilizations were strikingly similar in regards to their gender division in society. But with these similarities also came striking differences, ultimately allowing females in China to have a greater social mobility than females in Rome.
Although similar in the gender divide in their respective societies, the comparison of gender roles between Roman Empire and Dynastic China is most striking when their differences are discussed. A key difference between Rome and China is that often after bearing children, and completing their household duties, Chinese women took the opportunity to break away from traditional Confucius views, become literate and have a position of influence in society. This shift in power structure, where a woman would become in a position of power, was not common but also not unheard of.
Ban Zhao was an extraordinary woman in the Han Dynasty who was able to overcome the social constraints and acquire a literate education, allowing her to eventually rise to positions of influence, including an advisor to the state. Ban also wrote literary compositions including “Lessons for Women”, where she outlines the proper behavior for a woman in society. Among maintaining humility, respect, and exercising caution, Ban also lists the womanly qualifications. The qualifications are as follows: “(1) womanly virtue; (2) womanly words; (3) womanly bearing; (4) womanly work.
Women are expected to be proper, to be faithful to their spouse, not use foul language, bear children for their husband, and to maintain the work around the house. Having these qualifications written from the perspective of a scholarly woman reveals that although she is literate and maintains a level of power in society– she can still act within the traditional views of how women should act. If a man wrote the qualifications, however, the qualifications would read as a doctrine rather than a guideline. In Rome however, women were not allowed to gain an education after the death of their male “guardian” as Ban did.
Empress Lu is another Chinese woman who was able to rise to power. The chapter of the “Basic Annals” outlines Lu’s rise as an Empress, however what is most interesting is her desire for power. The story of Lu’s ascent to power is most impressive because it does not shy away from highlighting the driven and often power hungry demeanor of Lu. These characteristics are important to take note of because such attributes were almost unheard of for women at that time, and to see a women take action and defy the present authority to assume her own position of power is striking.
In the Roman Empire, women had little to no role in politics and often were not afforded the opportunity to receive an education, resultantly, there is little known by historians about the daily life of an average woman in ancient Rome. Women like Ban were less common in Rome than in China, a trend that is a result of the social structure of Rome. The Rules of Rome state “Guardians are appointed … for males under puberty, … for their infirmity of age; for females, … both under and over puberty, … for the weakness of their sex as well as their ignorance of business matters.
In Rome, females were seen as incapable, compared to their male counterparts. Upon birth, all children are given a guardian, however, only women maintain being watched by a guardian for the progression of the rest of their life. Essentially, women are given a babysitter. A guardian is similar to the social structure of Confucius traditional society structure, however the foundation of the hierarchy in China is based off a level of respect. In Rome, women were seen not only as inferior, but also as incapable and foolish.
If a woman in Rome were to try and achieve what Ban and Empress Lu did, she would be made a mockery of. Additionally, in Chinese society, the mother and mother-in-law have a level of respect in the family, however there is no strong indication that this was true about mothers in Rome. The reason why there are little historical reports of Roman women is because women had no part in society aside from making a family. Rarely, when women are discussed, it is in the context of women in the upper classes. In Juvenal’s sixth satire, he discusses the upper class women of Rome, and satirizes their “perfect” womanly behavior.
He writes about a woman who is demanding and presumptuous, and is concerned with activities beyond those of her household duties – all characteristics that go against the womanly qualifications. In the eyes of the law, Roman women never surpass the stages of childhood, and have to be constantly watched after. On the contrary, males are cultivated from birth and are trained to the best ability of the parents to maximize the “intellectual capacity of the natural birthright of men”. Dynastic China was similar to Rome in respect to the treatment of females in society.
The Han dynasty respected and followed the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. “Confucian thought validated these differences in male and female roles, and the concept of yin/yang represented the complementary nature of male and female roles in the natural order. The male principle (yang) was equated with the sun: active, bright, and shining; the female principle (yin) corresponded to the moon: passive, shaded, and reflective. ” From birth, girls were already seen as inferior to boys. From the ideology of society, females were viewed as passive, inactive members of society.
Even before they had the chance to determine their own future, it was pre-determined, and females were inferior to males. As a daughter, it is believed that girls and women should always follow the suggestions of men. From an early age, boys were put into school, as they were in Rome, and the parents tried to unlock the greatest potential they could from their sons. When the daughter gets married, she is born into the family she is married into and becomes a part of that family, rather than her own. Society views her as the wife of a man, rather than an individual.
The main purpose of a woman in society is to get pregnant and bear a son to carry on the name of her husband. The idea of females belonging to their father and then, upon marriage, their spouse, follows the Rules of Rome where women were appointed a guardian because they were viewed as immature and incapable of taking care of themselves. The teachings of Confucius, and his outlined roles of familial structure and roles of females are similar to those of the Womanly Qualifications in Ban’s “Lessons for Women”, indicating that although she was educated, she could still follow the traditional guidelines set by society.
Although still not ideal, it should be realized that women could maintain an education, position of power, and still conform to the traditionalist views. Although each civilization, the Roman Empire and Chinese Dynasties, upheld its own cultural values based off of their own ideals, there were overlaps, ultimately revealing similarities between cultural values in the cultures, especially those relating to the gender roles and treatment of females in society.
In both societies, females were not expected to be educated or work outside of the home, unlike like the males of society, who in both civilizations were trained from birth to maximize their given potential. However, women in China were allowed greater opportunity to become literate and achieve a position of influence in society, evident through the documentation of literary works from women like Ban and Chinese Empresses such as Empress Lu.
Roman literature, such as Juvenal’s satirical poems, indicates that Rome was progressing towards where China was at in regards to allowing women have positions of power in society, by mocking the strict social standards set for females. Although both ancient civilizations subordinated women to men throughout almost every stage of life, there were slight progressions that indicate a potential for even the smallest change in either society.