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Promoters of Morality, Moral Mainstays, and Guardians of Cultural Superiority: The Gentry Women's Praise of Female Chastity and Expectations of Women's Social Roles and Responsibilities in Qing China

Xing Yuan (苑 星)

Pages 121 - 158


This article examines gentry women's writings on female chastity and views on
relevant topics such as women's learning, education and identity in Qing China.
As can be shown, their enthusiastic praise for chaste women in effect reflected
their expectations of women's social roles and responsibilities. The erudite
mid-Qing female scholar Wang Zhenyi established chaste women as virtuous
exemplars that promoted social morals. In this way, she illustrated the meaning
of “correct beginnings”, that women's upright behaviors in the inner quarters
would positively influence the outer world. Also, she advocated that women
should engage in learning for the cultivation of their virtue and undertake the
responsibility of upholding morality. During the late Qing, when more and more
“new women” transgressed the inner-outer boundary and neglected the traditional
concept of womanhood, the guixiu reformers Zeng Yi, Xue
Shaohui, and Shan Shili extolled chaste women as moral mainstays, whom they
expected would resist the decay of female norms and save the social and ethical
order. These moderate reformers recognized women's education as a foundation for
strengthening the nation. Simultaneously, they defined the role of women as that
of competent household managers within the “inner” family. Furthermore, based on
the fact that these gentry women regarded the traditional womanly virtues, the
principle of gender segregation, and the restriction of women's role to the
inner sphere as symbols of China's cultural superiority, which, they insisted,
must be preserved in women's education, we should conclude that in their eyes,
the virtuous women who defended these cultural morals would indeed become
guardians of the perceived superiority and unique nature of Chineseness as


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