Chinese traditional culture, as well as the majority of others, doesn’t really consider women and men equally, despite the fact many ethnic groups have always been following matriarchal lines rather than patriarchal ones. This carelessness towards women is clearly shown, for instance, in the work of Confucius, who is widely recognised as the most important thinker of Ancient China. The importance of his thought is due to its capacity to strongly impact Chinese society and common sense, other than to survive the passing of time and dynasties. Though there have been women who fought against the Confucian idea and who have sought power, with effort and determination, in both terrifying and thoughtful ways.
Wu Zetian [624 – 705] is the only women in Chinese history to have proclaimed herself as Empress and founded her own dynasty (the Zhou). She was a concubine of the former Emperor of Tang dynasty Taizong, who passed away twelve years after her entrance at the Court. Following the tradition, she went to live in a Buddhist Monastery after the death of Taizong: during this period of time she became increasingly interested in Buddhism and culture in general. A few years later she was asked to move back to the Palace and be a concubine of Taizong’s son, Gaozong. Since her comeback, she started planning her very personal coup d’état, aspiring to create a better and more equal empire. Wu was not from a noble family and at that time the power was in the hands of the aristocratic elite, whereas the more deserving academics from the middle classes were often ignored. She decided to give more importance to merit in the process of hiring imperial functionaries by improving the Imperial Exams, and to sensibly decrease the influence and power of the aristocrats in general. To do so, she used brutal methods and often killed her opponents to demonstrate her power was strong and legitimate.
Cixi [1835-1908], as well as Wu Zetian, entered the Imperial Palace as a concubine. She was never officially recognised as an Empress, but she held the power de facto for almost 50 years after the death of Emperor Xianfeng of the Qing dynasty. She is often referred to as the woman who brought China into modernity, because of her innovative ideas and open-minded government: she was able to bring China onto the international scene as an actual player and not just a victim of Western power. She was held in high regard by many personalities of that time, such as Queen Victoria and Lincoln. Cixi was able to overcome the still and millennial Chinese traditions and rituals, introducing elements of progress and modernity in the country (railways, modern commercial treaties, scientific education in Universities) without ever bowing down to the arrogance of the West and never forgetting to pay respect to the greatness of China. In opposition to Wu Zetian’s brutal and murderous methods, Cixi always played it soft, preferring to compromise and support of the other members of the Court rather than their physically eliminating them.
Author: Beatrice - Italian - Student of Chinese