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In China, the concept of gender difference appears visually in the male/female aspects of the yin/yang Taoist symbol. The dark swirl within the symbol’s circle is the passive, yielding, feminine yin; the light swirl the active, aggressive, male yang. Neither principle is considered subordinate to the other; each complements the other and is capable of expressing both female and male characteristics. Within Taoism, then, women were able to seek spiritual fulfillment beyond their family duties. Some joined convents, others gathered with men to discuss philosophy and religion, a few became Taoist adepts.

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Ancient China’s highest goddess, Hsi Huang Mu (Queen Mother of the West), found in the classic tale Journey to the West, also expresses aspects of yin/yang beliefs. As yin, this goddess is compassionate, promising immortality; as yang, she is a force who had the power to disrupt the cosmic yin/yang harmony. This pervasive fear that women could bring chaos by upsetting the cosmic harmony was an obstacle for women who aspired to male political leadership. Those who succeeded were accused of breaking one of nature’s laws, of becoming “like a hen crowing.” Years after her reign, this derogatory term was applied to China’s only female emperor, (Tang dynasty, 625-705 C.E.).

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Strong Legendary and Real Heroes: Counterbalancing beliefs about women’s place is the historic veneration of some powerful, albeit exceptional, women. Stories of warrior women such as Hua Mulan and various militant Ninja types appear regularly in classical Chinese fiction. In Japan, samurai women appear, like Tomoe Gozen who supposedly rode into battle alongside her husband during Gempei Wars, or Hojo Masako (1157-1225), wife of Japan’s first shogun, who directed armies and in effect ruled the Shogunate from the convent where she had “retired” after her husband’s death. Later, bands of women armed with the exclusively female sword called naginata, were called upon to defend their towns or castles. Japanese girls today still learn to use this long sword.

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Ultimately, the need to develop a sense of solidarity between male and female peasants as both subjects of oppression resulted in criticizing concerns relating to women alone. Such was the fate of author Ding Ling, the most prominent female writer of her generation, whose attack on the sexist attitudes of her comrades resulted in suppression. The state also failed to deal with opposition to the progressive changes embodied in the Marriage Law of 1950, which granted young people the right to choose their own marriage partners, and women to initiate divorce and to inherit property.

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Essay on Women Empowerment - IAS Paper

In the modern era, women have been honored for their militant participation during civil wars and the struggles against invaders. In the Taiping Rebellion mainly Hakka women with unbound feet fought both as soldiers and generals against the Manchu government. Women took up arms again in the Boxer Rebellion when young women organized themselves into militant “Red Lantern” groups. During the Cultural Revolution, the militancy of young female Red Guards attest to their willingness to become revolutionary heroes when struggling for what they perceived to be a just cause. Individual revolutionary female icons who have been held up as powerful figures for women to emulate include China’s Chiu Chin (Qiu Jin), who in 1907 was executed by the Manchu government, and Soong-li Ching (Soong Ching-ling), wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and champion of social justice and women’s liberation, and Deng Yingchao, an advocate of women’s rights and wife of Zhou Enlai. The societal admiration of female heroines such as these has helped justify the actions of the women who managed successfully to define new roles for themselves alongside men.