The social position of women during the Qing dynasty has been characterised as subject to Confucian principles of patrilocality, patrilineality, village exogamy, an agrarian economy, and divisions of labour based on gender.
Women had no legal rights to property, other than in relation to their dowries, and were mainly restricted to work that could be conducted within the home, such as weaving. This was facilitated by the common practise of foot-binding, which prevented women from standing or walking. In poor families, women’s feet might not be bound or, even if they were, the woman would work in the family’s fields.
Though the Qing attempted to end the practice (Manchu women were forbidden from binding their feet), doing so among the Han Chinese proved impossible.
As in previous periods, women were expected to obey the Three Obediences and obey their fathers in childhood, their husbands when married, and their sons in widowhood. Women’s personal names are typically unknown; they were referred to as, “the wife of [X],” or, “mother of [X].”
A woman’s achievements during her life were closely connected to her ability to bear children; those who could not were looked down upon by their husbands, in-laws, and neighbours. If a woman did not give birth within a few years, the husband would typically take a concubine.
Letters written in women’s script between blood sisters show that many women felt abandoned in widowhood, so remarriage was an attractive option, particularly if they had no sons or fathers (affinal or natal) to depend on within the patriarchal society.
Biographies of citizens of merit recognised women for what the writers judged to be moral achievements, such as committing suicide to avoid rape, never marrying in order to uphold filial piety, being widowed before the age of 30 and remaining a widow for more than 20 years.
Even in these biographies, however, the women’s names are rarely given. While the Ming authority approved of widow chastity, it was in the Qing period that it was officially promoted, with the practice described by a historian as a “bureaucratic tool of moral reform”.
To promote female chastity in every community, the government asked local leaders to nominate exemplary women and submit their biographies. If the woman was proven to fit the description of a “chaste widow”, her family would receive a personal commendation written by the emperor or a chastity arch would be erected in her community memorialising her.
From 1644-1736, approximately 6,870 women in the Jiangnan region received such honours. Numerous chastity and filial arches (節孝坊) were constructed in communities all over China. In contrast to the Ming period, however, the Qing actively discouraged the practise of young widows committing suicide on their husband’s death (Chinese: 尋死; pinyin: xúnsǐ).
Critics of the practice argued that such deaths were usually inspired more by despair than loyalty to the deceased husband, caused by the threat of remarriage, abusive in-laws, etc.
Qing law also gave fathers absolute authority over their daughters, including the ability to kill them for behaviour they considered shameful, however, a man was forbidden from selling either his wives, concubines, or unmarried daughters.
The Qing government praised demonstrations of virtue and, to prove their commitment to morality, discouraged officials and scholars from visiting courtesans. The developed academic and literary circles cultivated during the Ming by courtesans, like Dong Xiaowan and Liu Rushi, thus declined and, as the Qing stopped regulating prostitutes, large numbers of privately owned brothels appeared.
Some of the more expensive brothels had women of the courtesan tradition, who could sing, dance, and entertain their clients.