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The position of Women in Worship in the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty: Research on Gender, Status and Role in the Bronze Inscriptions (Part one)

Vol. 32 No. 4   12/2001  


The position of Women in worship in the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty: Research on Gender, Status and Role in the Bronze Inscriptions (Part one)


Chao-jung Chen









Key words

Zhou (Chou) dynasty, bronze inscriptions, women, gender, ancestor worship, family roles, social statue.


   This paper is based on the detailed analysis of a large number of Zhou (Chou) dynasty bronze inscriptions examining the position of women in worship in the Western and Eastern Zhou. From the worship directed at women after death, it is found that the four important roles women played during life were those of daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother; of these, it was a role of mother were most exalted. Female ancestors were much less of ancestor worship than mail counterparts; gender resulted in a definite difference in the treatment of male and female ancestors. Looking at women’s role in worshipping ancestors, it is found that most bronze were cast for male patrons and the majority of women owners were passive recipients of ritual bronze vessels as gifts from their husbands or fathers, for the purpose of worshipping the husband‘s ancestors. After marriage, women’s ability to have vessels cast was weak, and vastly inferior to men’s. Only a few women like empresses and concubine of the Zhou kings, and wives of feudal lords, etc., due to their relativity high status, could have bronzes made after their husband’s death. Even ritual vessels made for such adeceased husband were uncommon; the fact that sons (rather than wives) had the majority of such inscribed bronze vessels cast attests to the limited autonomy of the wife. Married woman primarily worshipped the husband’s ancestors, not normally participating in worship to her own ancestors or having ritual vessels made for them. The activities of the post-ritual banquet also focused primarily on the husband's blood lineage, and although women participated to some extent in the preparation of sacrificial items for the ritual, extremely few invited to participate in the post-ritual banquet. Relatives by marriage sometimes received invitations, but their important did not match that of the husband’s blood relatives.

    Overall, the Zhou dynasty was a period of male dominances and patriarchy, with the manufacture of ritual vessels and the entire ritual activity firmly in men’s hands. Among the decreased recipients of worship, the status of male ancestors was also greater than that of female ancestors. Both after death, in being the focus of worship, and during life, in having ritual vessels made and participating in worship activities. Women in the Zhou period occupied a weak and passive role.



Author: Chao-jung Chen
Genre: Article
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