The Lives of Women in Ancient China

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Kelly Macquire
published on 12 April 2022

In Ancient China, it was widely known that it was better to be born a male than a female. To be born a female meant being subordinate to one’s father, then to one’s husband and if a wife became a widow, then she would be subordinate to her sons - this is a system known as the ‘three followings’ or sancong.

In ancient Chinese literature, sometimes female characters would state that they were a man in their previous life, but had been born a female in this one as a punishment for past deeds, and a common introduction for women in literature was the line ‘unfortunately she was born a woman’. There was also the tradition of idealising women in literature, while at the same time oppressing them in real life. The Four Beauties are four women whose actions dramatically affected the fate of the nation. These women are Xi Shi from the Spring and Autumn Period, Wang Zhaojun from the Han dynasty, Diaochan a fictional character from the book Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Yang Guifei who was both idealised and demonised. There is also the example of the legendary Chinese literary character Mulan, who could only bring honour and help her family dressed as a man, not as a woman.

One woman who started off as a concubine for the emperor but ended up seizing power herself was Wu Zetian. She was first a concubine for the Tang dynasty emperors Taizong and then Gaozong, and, after reigning as regent for her sons Zhongzhong and Ruizong, she eventually took the throne for herself, and proclaimed herself as emperor. There was also Ban Zhao who lived between 41 and c. 115 CE and wrote commentaries on the Confucian classics and became one of the most famous female writers and scholars in early China.

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0:00​ Introduction
0:59 The Views of Women in Ancient China
4:06 Marriage and Home Life in Ancient China
8:06 Chinese Concubines and Courtesans
10:31 Outro

Women in Ancient China
Wu Zetian
Ancient China
Daily Life in Ancient China
Mulan: The Legend Through History
Song of Everlasting Sorrow

The Silk Road: Trade Route of the Ancient World
Wu Zetian: the First and Only Empress of Imperial China
The Long History of Dogs in Honour of International Dog Day
History of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival
The History of Tea and the Spread of "Cha" and "Tea" Around the Globe
The Qingming Festival: Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day

You can find all attribution and credits for images, animations, graphics and music here -

The music used in this recording is the intellectual copyright of Michael Levy, a prolific composer for the recreated lyres of antiquity, and used with the creator's permission. Michael Levy's music is available to stream at all the major digital music platforms. Find out more on:

— THUMBNAIL IMAGE —,_18th_century,_ink_and_colors_on_silk.jpg / / User: Cold Season
Public Domain US / faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain

Still from Mulan, Walt Disney Pictures (2020)

World History Encyclopedia

#ancientchina #womeninancientchina #ancientchinesewomen #womeninhistory

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About the Author

Kelly Macquire
Kelly is a graduate from Monash University who has completed her BA (Honours) in Ancient History and Archaeology, focussing on iconography and status in Pylos burials. She has a passion for mythology and the Aegean Bronze Age.

Cite This Work

APA Style

Macquire, K. (2022, April 12). The Lives of Women in Ancient China. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Macquire, Kelly. "The Lives of Women in Ancient China." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 12, 2022.

MLA Style

Macquire, Kelly. "The Lives of Women in Ancient China." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 12 Apr 2022. Web. 23 Jul 2024.