Early Modern Period: Nonfiction, Confucian Doctrine
This excerpt comes from Onna daigaku, or Greater Learning for Women, which is commonly attributed to Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714), a Japanese botanist and Neo-Confucian philosopher. Ekiken was most concerned with translating Confucian doctrine into terms people from all classes could understand. His Onna daigaku is considered by many to be the most important ethical text for Japanese women, in part because it was the first Confucian text to include specific prescriptions for what women’s role in society should be. In keeping with traditional Confucian ideals, the book stresses that, in order to maintain order, society must be organized into a clear hierarchy. This hierarchy was decided by a person’s gender and age. Older males, for example, were usually seen as the worthiest members of society. However, one’s place within the hierarchy was also dependent on merit, which Confucians defined as the possession of humanness (love of mankind) and propriety (doing the right actions with the right attitude). Whereas earlier Confucians described humanness and propriety as they pertained to men, Ekiken’s Onna daigaku advocated specific actions and attitudes for early modern Japanese women, and explained the consequences of failing to abide by them.
This source is a part of the Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 teaching module.
I. Girl’s Instruction
It is a girl’s destiny, on reaching womanhood, to go to a new home, and live in submission to her father-in-law. . . . Should her parents, through her tenderness, allow her to grow up self-willed, she will infallibly show herself capricious in her husband’s house, and thus alienate his affection; while, if her father-in-law be a man of correct principles, the girl will find the yoke of these principles intolerable. She will hate and decry her father-in-law, and the end of these domestic dissensions will be her dismissal from her husband’s house and the covering of herself with ignominy. . . .
II. Demarkation Between the Sexes
From her earliest youth a girl should observe the line of demarkation separating women from men, and never, even for an instant, should she be allowed to see or hear the least impropriety. The customs of antiquity did not allow men and women to sit in the same apartment, to keep their wearing apparel in the same place, to bathe in the same place, or to transmit to each other anything directly from hand to hand. A woman . . . must observe a certain distance in her relations even with her husband and with her brothers. In our days the women of lower classes, ignoring all rules of this nature, behave themselves disorderly; they contaminate their reputations, bring down reproach upon the head of their parents and brothers, and spend their whole lives in an unprofitable manner . . . [A] woman must form no friendship and no intimacy except when ordered to do so by her parents or middlemen. Even at the peril of her life must she harden her heart like rock or metal and observe the rules of propriety.
III. “Seven Reasons For Divorce”
In China marriage is called “returning,” for the reason that a woman must consider her husband’s home as her own, and that, when she marries, she is therefore returning to her own home. However low and needy her husband’s position may be, she must find no fault with him, but consider the poverty of the household which it has pleased Heaven to give her as the ordering of an unpropitious fate . . . With regard to this point, there are seven faults which are termed the “Seven Reasons for Divorce”:
(i) A woman shall be divorced for disobedience to her father-in-law or mother-in-law. (ii) A woman shall be divorced if she fails to bear children, the reason for this rule being that women are sought in marriage for the purpose of giving men posterity. A barren woman should, however, be retained if her heart be virtuous and her conduct correct and free from jealousy, in which case a child of the same blood must be adopted; neither is there any just cause for a man to divorce a barren wife if he have children by a concubine. (iii) Lewdness is a reason for divorce. (iv) Jealousy is a reason for divorce. (v) Leprosy or any like foul disease is a reason for divorce. (vi) A woman shall be divorced who, by talking overmuch and prattling disrespectfully, disturbs the harmony of kinsmen and brings trouble on her household. (vii) A woman shall be divorced who is addicted to stealing. All the “Seven Reasons for Divorce” were taught by the sage. A woman once married, and then divorced, has wandered from the “way,” and is covered with great shame, even if she should enter into a second union with a man of wealth and position.
IV. The Wife’s Miscellaneous Duties
A woman has no particular lord. She must look to her husband as her lord, and must serve him with all worship and reverence, not despising or thinking lightly of him. The great lifelong duty of a woman is obedience. In her dealings with her husband, both the expression of her countenance and style of her address should be courteous, humble, and conciliatory, never peevish and intractable, never rude and arrogant . . . When the husband issues his instruction, the wife must never disobey them . . . Let her never even dream of jealousy. If her husband be dissolute, she must expostulate with him, but never either nurse nor vent her anger. If her jealousy be extreme, it will render her countenance frightful and her accent repulsive and can only result in completely alienating her husband from her, and making her intolerable to his eyes . . . In her capacity of wife, she must keep her husband’s household in proper order. If the wife be evil and profligate, the house is ruined. In everything she must avoid extravagance, and both with regard to food and raiment must act according to her station in life, and never give way to luxury and pride.
Ekiken, Kaibara. “Greater Learning for Women.” In Women and the Wisdom of Japan. London: John Murray, 1914.