TO understand the overall development of women's rights in a society, one must examine the most basic of rights - education.
A review of women's education in China offers remarkable insight into the struggles of Chinese women over history. From the severe repression of ancient times to the freedom and equality of today's society, both women's rights and education in China have developed at an incredible pace.
In particular, it was the May 4th Student Movement of 1919, that signalled an end to women's exclusion from institutions of learning. Prior to this time, people's attitudes towards female literacy varied from disdain to loathing.
In ancient China from birth to age 7, girls and boys were treated virtually the same. They followed the same daily routines; played together; and even studied basic mathematics together. In the early years, their lives did not differ greatly.
However, at age 7, boys and girls met with their first separation. Boys began to learn to read and write, often starting to attend school, while girls were barred from such pursuits. These former playmates were now discouraged by parents from associating with one another.
By the age of 10, girls were banished to their boudoirs, barred from venturing out or pursuing anything but domestic activities. At this point, the constraints of traditional rearing switched into high gear.
Parents or tutors prepared girls solely for the role of obedient wife and mother. Girls were instructed in basic household duties, but more importantly, they were instilled with a low-self worth. They were not to question their subservience to men, and with this process starting at such an early age, little chance was available to question it.
Preparing for marriage
As the aim of this traditional education was limited to teaching social ethics and family traditions, there was no reason to instruct young girls in reading and writing, and during some periods literacy was even seen as a sign of moral corruption.
A girl's behaviour was molded to fit a society governed by a strict moral code and rigid social customs. These girls were trained to conform to the so-called "Husband as Guidance" and "Three Obediences and Four Virtues" doctrines.
The first doctrine laid down the basic rules for the relations between husband and wife. The husband was dominant, while his wife was expected to be completely obedient to him. His wish was her command.
The "Three Obediences and Four Virtues" was taken as the highest ideal expected of women. According to this doctrine, a woman was to be obedient to her father before marriage, to her husband when married and to her sons when the husband died. She should also aspire to the virtues of moral discipline, proper speech manner, modest appearance and diligence.
According to Professor Wong Yin Lee of the Hong Kong Baptist University in Hong Kong, "the sole aim of girls' upbringing in this traditional patriarchal society was tailored precisely towards the need to maintain male domination."
Even with such a rigidly enforced system, ancient China did see successes among the female literati. Although, they lacked formal education, these talented women still managed to contribute to a broad field of arts, which included poetry and painting.
However, as the period of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) drew to a close, women found themselves facing increasingly harsh repression. As Confucian ideology gained strength, women faced more and more repressive ideals.
"Wen's Book of Mother Indoctrination" recommends that "It is sufficient for women to know a glossary of a few hundred words such as fuel, rice, fish and meat for their daily use. To know more can do more harm than good." A virtuous woman was defined as "she who hath no talent."
By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1388-1644), the idea of female ignorance as a virtue had gained widespread currency. People during this period abhorred the idea of women reading and writing. Female literacy was associated with the idea of moral corruption in women, as courtesans and females singers, who mainly came from the ranks of literate women, were looked upon virtually as prostitutes.
It was not until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that women would get relief from this yoke of oppression.
The first public opposition to the educational restriction that faced women came during the Qing Dynasty. Reformers such as Yan Mei and Chen Bichen went as far as setting up their own schools and taking in girl pupils.
However, it was the May 4th Student Movement of 1919 that signalled the final destruction of barriers to female education.
One of the greatest steps forward was made the following year, when two female students entered Beijing University under the chancellorship of Cai Yuanpei, a forceful advocate of equal education.
University co-education had finally arrived for the women of China. After this fateful event, secondary schools and universities across the country began to admit female students. The opportunities for women to enter universities began to increase steadily.
Education brought the emancipation of women, which leads to great accomplishments in the field of women's rights in China.
Women had finally been given the key that unlocked their ancient prison.