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Lienü Zhuan: Nurturing the Ideal Woman in Han Dynasty

Prior to the Qing Dynasty (1644), education for women in China was scarce and even if provided, they were restricted to the teaching of moral values and family traditions (p.277). This was also the case during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), by which the Lienü Zhuan (Categorized Biographies of Women), assembled by Han scholar Liu Xiang, was one of the few books dedicated for women’s moral education. Thus, Lienü Zhuan was influential in teaching women ethics during the Han Dynasty, as the exemplary biographies of honorable women found in this book demonstrated the expected virtues that women ought to cultivate and learn from during that period.

SURVIVAL 101: How to survive in a MAN-ifested Greece


As many of you know, women had little or no rights in ancient civilization. Just take a look at all the emperors, kings or leaders we’ve learned about in our previous classes. Alexander the GreatQin Shi Huang. Gilgamesh. What do they have in common? That’s right, they’re all males! Throughout the evolution of ancient civilization, one thing that seems to have stuck is that women seemed to be considered the “inferior” gender or even looked upon as second-class human beings. The equality of women has been a hotly debated topic, even in today’s society, and we hope to contribute by showing awareness of how poorly women were treated, especially in the past. It is during the classical period in Greece that we begin our journey and for entertainment purposes, we have devised a survival guide for women living in those times.


Try imagining this in today's society...

It'll probably never happen!

Just to be clear, the ill-treatment of women did NOT happen in ALL of Greece. True, women were not seen as the equal of men but their treatment varies among certain Greek city-states or poleis. Although there are many other city-states such as Corinth and Thebes , many use the 2 more popular states as comparisons and we will be doing the same: the treatment of women in Athens vs Sparta.


If you were given birth and lived in a certain country for most parts of your life, you would definitely be considered a citizen in said country right? Well, that wasn’t the case for women in Athens. The foundation of being considered an Athenian is purely based on two things: firstly, one has to be given birth by parents who were born in Athens themselves and secondly, you had to be a male (page 9). Thus, women living in Athens throughout their entire lives aren’t even considered to be citizens of the state. Women were only valued for their use of being able to reproduce and to give birth to offspring that could contribute to the state’s military or political purposes (page 9). In contrast, Spartan women were given more responsibilities and were treated more of a citizen than their Athenian counterparts.


Imagine you could not have a property under your name. The whole idea of having a roof over your head is basically dependent on either your spouse, father or brother IF you were a women. However, in this instance, Spartan women were lucky enough not to share the same fate as female Athenians. Not only could they own properties, but there are also reports that an estimated “40% of agricultural land” belonged to women (page 222). That’s a stark contrast to women in Athens who were neither allowed to own any sort of land, nor buy or sell any kind of property (page 9).


Athenian women had very, very few legal rights. Firstly, there was even a law dictating the number of women allowed to attend a funeral (page 9). Astonishing isn’t it? To even limit the amount of women who wished to pay their respects to those who have passed away. Secondly, in the event that a women wanted a divorce, she has to seek out a male representative (has to be a relative) in order to initiate divorce (page 9-10). To make matters worse, not only do they have to return the dowries received upon marriage (page 10) but in the event that she has a child/children, custody would immediately be granted to the male parent (page 10). On the contrary, women in Sparta had significantly more legal rights. They do not have to suffer what we would deem as injustice in today’s society but they were also allowed more privileges. Spartan women could inherit an equal portion of their father’s properties (page 11) and this is something that is sorely denied to women in Athens. How could anyone be denied something that belonged to their family? This was the harsh reality that women in Athens faced.


Clearly, this wasn't the case in ancient Greece

Clearly, this wasn't the case in ancient Greece

As you may have already guessed, women in Sparta were allowed much more freedom as opposed to their Athenian counterparts. Apart from visiting relatives or other wives, women in Athens basically lived in seclusion (page 8). On the other hand, Sparta women were allowed as much freedom as they pleased (page 224). However, not all Athenians were confined to their own homes. There were a few exceptions, who come in the form of “prostitutes, concubines and mistresses” (page 9), otherwise known as hetaera.


Similar to freedom, women in Sparta were afforded the same amount of education as men (page 224) whereas Athenian women received little or no education (page 222). However, the hetaera received a much higher education than the rest of the women in Athens as they were “taught poetry and music” and could eventually join in on conversations such  as politics (page 9), something that was male dominated in ancient Athens.


Finally! Something that both Spartan and Athenian women have in common. Both sets of women had no public influence on political decisions. In Sparta, men did not allow women to speak publicly and they were isolated from men in this regard (page 11). This was harsher in Athens, where Athenian men felt that women “brought disorder, evil and were utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy” and thus, basically incapable of making correct political decisions (page 8).

This post may have portrayed Spartan women to have such carefree and easygoing lives and while that is true (as compared to Athenian women at least), we cannot forget that they were still treated as the lesser gender. Therefore, we came up with a guide essential for women survival in ancient Greece dubbed “Survival 101”.


All jokes aside, women really were treated very harshly in the ancient times and although the issue of women equality has taken a massive leap forward in today’s society, it is important for us to keep it going and strive for total equality. Spreading awareness of the miserable lives women had to endure in the past is our way of contributing and we hoped that this post was an eye-opener for you readers!


Sparta: Taught to War?

At the mention of Sparta, one may instinctively conjure images that are synonymous with the movie 300; which implied Spartans to be aggressive, militaristic individuals who were mainly taught to fight from a young age (as discussed back then in class). [embed] [/embed]

 "...death in the battle field is the greatest glory he could achieve in his life. Spartans, the finest soldiers ever known" - 300


However, the portrayal of the Spartans in 300 may be a tad too simplistic as the Spartans, as feared as they were back then, should definitely not be remembered just for the one Battle of Thermopylae (the battle depicted in 300) during the Greco-Persian Wars and the bold, self-sacrificing King Leonidas. We will explore the Spartans through the perspective of education in this post. Similarly (as in the previous post on Athenian Education), the time period relevant to this post will range from 800BCE-350BCE (Classical Greece).

Spartan Education started out at a young age (about 7 years) and placed equal emphasis on the exercise of the intellect and the exercise of the physique. However, unlike Athenian Education, Spartan Education catered to both males and females, regardless of economic status, as the Spartans perceived education to produce good future citizens of society. This is supported by Plato's Protagoras that mentions the importance of the exercise of intellect in every Spartan, as it would help the individual conduct himself/herself more effectively in terms of reasoning, understanding and thinking (342d-343a). In addition, Xenophon states in the Constitution of the Lacedaimonians that equal emphasis on physical exercise in both parents would produce ideal, stronger children (1.4). Hence, it can be inferred that the equal footing in education given to both males and females stemmed out of the practical consideration; to build a strong core for Spartan society, evidenced by the perception of Spartans as physically strong, thoughtful and witty individuals to outsiders.


Also, Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus mentions that "...if the most important and binding principles which conduce to the prosperity and virtue of a city were implanted in the habits and training of its citizens, they would remain unchanged and secure, having a stronger bond than compulsion in the fixed purposes imparted to the young by education" (13). Plutarch's account hints at a Spartan belief that both males and females alike have contributions to make in society and that education was the best way to build society. In support, Plutarch includes the idea that Spartans were taught to live for their country and not for themselves (25), drawing focus to the idea of achieving a collective for society that benefits every citizen. With the effort of every Spartan (not just the males), the flourishing of Spartan society as compared to their other greek counterparts is definitely a conceivable possibility.


Despite the equality in education for both genders in Spartan society, there were differences that existed between males and females within the Spartan education. According to Plutarch, Spartan Boys would be taken to agoge (state training for boys) that included common experiences relating learning and discipline when they were 7 years old. The boys learnt to read, write and fight (16). Thereafter, boys who were spotted to be courageous and have good judgement would be appointed as captains of their companies while the other boys learnt to take instructions from them (16). This was done so that the boys recognised the core importance of self-discipline. When the boy reached 12 years old, he was taught to steal and survive (under the supervision of a commander and elders) (17) in preparation for his time in the military which would last into his adulthood (24). Besides physical exercise, equal importance was also given to the intellect in agoge as boys were trained in reasoning (19), music and poetry  (21). This was done so that the boys became soldiers who could physically fight and spar intellectually with others as well.

On the other hand Spartan Women did not undergo agoge, but practiced activities such as dancing and singing, other than reasoning, reading, writing and the sharing of exercise with men (14). The chief difference in education between males and females boiled down to a vocational difference; men were soldiers while women were masters of their household and producers of future warriors. Women needed to be adept at taking charge at home while their husbands were deployed in the military.  Moreover, it can be argued that bringing women to the best condition possible (both in physique and intellect) through equal education would produce a more capable society with strong citizens, as the women could perform the roles of nurturing the young and producing healthy children more effectively.

Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas sums up the pride of women in Spartan society well by the remark of "Yes, we are the only ones that give birth to men." in response to a comment made by a foreign woman who said: "You Spartan women are the only ones who rule their men..." (14). Gorgo's response reinforced the presence of parity women were viewed to possess, so much as to command an equal education with men unlike their greek neighbours (i.e: Athenians), in Sparta.

In Essence, although the Spartans integrated the role of the military into their education, to narrow down the achievements of the Spartans to just military might would be injustice as the Spartans were really thoughtful individuals as well; everyone was educated regardless of gender and economic status. In contrast with Athenian Society, where gender and economic factors came into play when one considers taking up an education, the Spartan Education is way more accessible as every Spartan was entitled to education. Perhaps one could argue Athenian Education held more merit on the premise of thoughtfulness, but of what use will that be if hardly any one is there to enjoy the fruit of it?


Spartan Education may not provide the perfect education but it definitely emphasises a society that functions as a collective; one that possesses camaraderie between citizens while reducing the possibility of a sense of entitlement coming up in select groups within society. Looking beyond the aggressive, war mongering image of Sparta, perhaps the Spartans were truly a people who reconciled individuals with equality instead; at least that's what their education suggests. What do you think?

An inclusive education in Athens?

Ancient Greek Society is commonly associated as a foundational culture for modern day western society as ideas that were promoted in the day can still be observed through our current societies. A prime example of the application of ancient greek influence can be exemplified through the implementation of voting and debate in democratic societies today; drawing influence from parts of Athenian democracy (one vote per citizen, regardless of affluence) and Spartan democracy (greater freedom for women alongside men), as discussed in class. Noting the advances that the Ancient Greeks have brought to modern society, one core feature of society that was discussed less in class was the education that was available back then in Ancient Greece. Education will be explored in 2 separate blog posts pertaining (i) Athenian Education and (ii) Spartan Education. We will first examine Athenian Education in this post. Also, to help paint us a clearer context, the relevant time period will range from 800BCE-350BCE (Classical Greece). But, do note that some of the practices extend prominently even into the Hellenistic World Era of 330BCE-30BCE as Greek influence had still remained particularly strong.

Athenian Education would begin at a young age (around 6-7 years old) that includes three main areas of learning; reading and writing, music, physical education and sport (p2 of link). Examples of some reading and writing activities include practicing writing on wax tablets, music activities include singing and playing instruments such as the lyre, physical education and sport activities include wrestling and discus throwing. Also, there were designated mentors for each area of learning. For example, the Kithistes only taught the child music.

As the child grew older he would have the option of pursuing further education on his own through private schools such as Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum or by the means of looking for a mentor. Through either of these routes for further education, the child would develop a relationship with his selected mentor that centres on increasing knowledge and virtue, so that he may participate better and command higher regard in Athenian society.


"It is our settled tradition that when a man freely devotes his service to another in the belief that his friend will make him better in point of wisdom, it may be, or in any of the other parts of virtue, this willing bondage also is no sort of baseness or flattery." - Plato


However, formal Athenian Education was primarily meant for males in Athenian society, perhaps because males were more valued in Athenian society and held more rights such as citizenship over the females who were perceived to be less intelligent in the first place. However, other than the influence of gender inequality in Athens, a more practical consideration relating affordability existed to determine if one was able to receive formal education or not. Very often, only the affluent minority were able to afford formal education for their children while the poorer majority were only able to learn some basic education informally through interactions with others in their respective vocations.


FACT: For the privileged minority of Athenian children who were able to receive a formal Athenian Education, a paidagogoi (slave) was often employed by the family to chaperon the child when he attended classes with his tutors.

Sounds exclusive huh?


In support, Greek biographer Plutarch acknowledges in his work The Training of Children that education may favour the rich as he mentions about the poor: "...let them not blame me that give them for Fortune, which disabled them from making the advantage by them they otherwise might." (11). This reinforces the idea that Athenian Education favoured those who were more affluent just as Plutarch notes how fortune brings advantage - taking care of education costs - when it comes to supporting a child's education.

Even though, Athenian Education can be viewed as unaffordable to most Athenians Plutarch also advises that, "...even poor men must use their utmost endeavor to give their children the best education; or, if they cannot, they must bestow upon them the best that their abilities will reach." (11),  thus reinforcing the significant value of receiving education in Athens.

Also, Plutarch hints at some intentionality behind the three main areas of learning by going further to explain specifically how the ability to reason in philosophy (10) and the exercise of the body (11) promotes virtue, as the individual would make better decisions and exert more self-control. For instance in real situations, understanding philosophy will help the individual regulate his emotions so that he does not overreact in difficult situations (10) while exercise builds the individual's mental strength as he makes the effort to maintain a healthy body (11). Consequently, it can be observed that the learning in Athenian Education was a targeted and meaningful one, that can combine to attain greater knowledge and virtue.


In essence, Athenian Education was an intentional system that promoted knowledge and virtue for individuals in Athenian society even from a young age via reading and writing, music, physical education and sport activities. Although the Athenian Education had meaningful goals, it was unreachable for a majority of citizens as they could not afford it. Also, the near-exclusion of women reinforced the suggestion that Athenian Education was a higher privilege that existed in a society that practiced a direct democracy. An inclusive democracy? An inclusive education system? You decide.


Test Yourself: Review of Athenian Education (An Animation)