The proper place for women is first described in Romance in the first chapter in which many signs appear suggesting the decay of the Han Dynasty. Cai Yong, a senior minister called upon to explain these unusual conditions wrote a memorial to the Emperor “asserting that the rainbow in the harem and the metamorphosis of the hens signified the improper influence of the imperial consorts and the eunuchs in public policy.” The Emperor being indeed under the influence of the eunuchs did not do anything; civil unrest in the form of the Huang Jin rebellion ensued.
When the Emperor Ling lay a-dying (chapter 2 of the Romance), the succession was disputed between his wife and his mother, that is, the Empress He who naturally supported her own son Bian, and the Empress Dowager Dong who protected Xie, the son born to one of Ling’s concubines. Both had the conflicted support of the eunuchs, who were inclined in the final analysis to support the Empress Dowager (secretly) since they had less to fear from her. As she watched the Empress Dowager’s political moves, the Empress He decided to confront her at a banquet. She declared: “As women, it is not proper for us to participate in court matters. In ancient times, the Empress Dowager Lu, wife of the first Han emperor, attempted to obtain power and as a result her paternal clan was totally exterminated. Now I believe, we should seclude ourselves, ‘under nine layers’ as the saying goes, and leave matters of state to the councilors and our elders. Thus, our nation will continue to enjoy good fortune.”
Dong overplayed her hand when, in response, she accused He of having Xie’s mother poisoned and declared that she, Dong, could eliminate both He and her brother He Jin, the military commander-in-chief. He protested and said: “I have tried to urge a positive approach, why such anger on your part?” To which Dong replied: “You are from a family of small-time butchers, what would you know?”
Even though it portrays them as less than inspiring figures, this episode does not demean the position of the women; it simply shows them with motives and actions more or less comparable to that of the male actors in the story. Indeed, He’s reference to the consequences of the Dowager Empress Lu’s attempt to gain more authority than was her due, makes it clear that she at least recognized what the ground rules were, that there were limits to female intrigue.
The case of Lady Cai, second wife of Liu Biao, is very similar; she wanted to increase the influence of the Cai family in Jingzhou and relied on her brother Cai Mao. Together they made Biao’s younger son Liu Cong over Liu Qi, the oldest son. (Whether Cong was her own son or not is beyond the scope of this essay; my own opinion is that he was not.)
When, after the Battle of Chibi, the leaders of Jiangdong schemed to regain Jingzhou, the role of women is shown to be more complex. Much has been made of Sun Quan’s filial piety to his mother; in addition one should consider the mother’s actions. When she found out about the scheme to use the offer of Quan’s sister in marriage as a ploy to lure Liu Bei to Jiangdong, she was furious. When Quan tried to pass the blame to Zhou Yu, Lady Wu grew even more furious: “So the great Zhou Yu, protector of six prefectures and eighty-one cities, cannot think of a better way of getting Jingzhou than to use my daughter as bait! If you kill Bei, her life will be ruined; who in the world will consider a proposal for her marriage? You all are such geniuses!”
After the marriage of the princess (Lady Sun) to Liu Bei, their relationship appears to be that almost of equals. Bei wanted to get back to Jingzhou but, he told Lady Sun, he did not want to do so without her and she of her own free will decided to leave Jiangdong with him. When troops sent after them to prevent Bei’s escape finally caught up with their party, she faced the men down: “Do you only obey Zhou Yu? Do you dare act against me? If Yu has the power of life and death over you, do you think that I do not have the same power over him?”
Of course, women do not play a major role in the Romance; it is after all about the future of “all under Heaven.” Only in the twentieth century have women gained the right to vote. But the Romance is supposed to be reflective of the popular culture seen through the prism of 15th century literati neo-Confucianism. The position of women in China would get worse; it was under the Qing that various chastity laws were promulgated. (The Qing, however, also tried to put an end to foot-binding but in this they failed although they succeeded in making men wear the “pigtail”.)
All this is to say that sweeping generalizations about Confucius/Chinese tradition being anti-feminist are misguided.