How And Why Did Women's Rights To Property And Marriage Change In China Between 960 And 1400?

2520 words - 10 pages

The period 960 to 1400 covers a time of significant historical changes inChina. The Song, Yuan and early Ming dynasties saw migration to the south,the birth of a new elite in the educated class, increasedcommercialisation, a revival of the influence of Confucianism and, in thevery early years of the 12th century until 1368, invasion by a foreignforce. Despite such developments, previous studies suggest that the basicinstitutions of property and marriage were not among these changes andremained fairly static. Indeed, for men, whose rights have changed verylittle for centuries, this was the case. It is only when examining therights of women with regards to property and marriage that the effects ofthe aforementioned changes become visible.In 960 AD General Chao K'uang-yin founded the new Song dynasty atK'ai-feng. This is the starting point from which we will trace the changein women's rights which In 960, were those granted under the previous T'angdynasty. The basic rules of inheritance were ''older and younger brothersreceive equal portions'' and ''sons receive their father's share''. When afather died, each son received an equal share of his land on which toestablish his own patriline. Female property, under traditional Confucianideology, was rendered insignificant in the division of household property.The dowry a wife brought with her into the marriage remained the propertyof her and her husband.The tradition of a dowry was an ancient one. As both P. Ebrey and J.Holmgren confirm, the institution of dowry turned marriage into a vitalmeans of transmitting property. Depending on the family's wealth, a dowrycould include fine materials, clothes, strings of cash, precious metals,jewellery and landholdings. The richer a dowry a family could produce, thericher a family their daughter could marry into. At the beginning of theSong however, a bride's dowry, although expected to be equal to the valueof the groom's betrothal gift, was generally worth less.Along with dowry, a T'ang women was also able to gain property by defaultunder the state policy of ''extinct households''. These were householdswith no male heirs. For the state, they were untaxable. In cases such asthese, where the deceased had not left any will stating otherwise, thedaughter was the first in a line of potential inheritors or, as the statetermed them, receivers (for such laws were drawn up within the context ofthe T'ang equal field system whereby the state claimed absolute ownershipof all land). T'ang law did not differentiate between married, returned andunmarried daughters.Once in a marriage, a women became essentially the property of her husband.It was only with his death that the issue of women's rights once againarose. Indeed T'ang laws gave widows remarkable authority. If her husbanddied without leaving an heir, it became her responsibility to adopt one.Significantly she had complete freedom of choice in this matter. If he diedleaving sons, it was her responsibility to raise them. It...

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