Three Obediences, Four Virtues, and Seven Criteria Code for Divorce


The “three obediences” stipulated that a woman should obey her father before marriage, obey her husband once married, and, after her husband dies, obey her son. The “obediences” included obeying, agreeing, serving, and following. The “four virtues” stipulated that along with a servile manner, the woman’s manners, attitude, carriage, and skills must conform to the standard in each of these four areas. Under threat of punishment, as laid out in the “seven criteria code for divorce,” women were trained to toe the line in the three obediences, and were trained in the many skills and temperament necessary for the four virtues. The lives of women in China were severely regimented and the women were compelled to embody traditional Ruist qualities.


In the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–ca. 1100 BCE), according to historical records, the kings’ consorts led armies into battle, presided over ancestral worship as well as presiding at major farming and administrative events. After decimating the Shang dynasty, the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100–256 BCE) formed the first aristocratic rule based on blood relations, which, including the systems of primogeniture and enfeoffment, was historically known as the “establishment of rites and rituals by the Duke of Zhou.” In order to prevent women from participating in political and military activities, the government was compelled to distinguish the proper duties of men and women. These decisions would force women to the confines of their homes. Once this was accomplished, laws clearly delineating the difference between the “interior” (private, within the house) and the “exterior” (public, outside the house) and the gender roles that occupied them were promulgated.


Family was the most important form of organization that defined the roles of men and women. A family of a husband and a wife made a clear distinction between inside and outside, which happened to be opposite to the inside and outside of the parties’ position and work sharing. Within a marriage, a man was inside and a woman outside. However, in both cases, the common theme was that the man was the controlling party and woman the submissive party.


In order to maintain the stability of patriarchal authority in the family, Ruist rituals and etiquette required women’s morals, conduct, and discipline to follow the guidelines of the “three obediences and four virtues.” As the society changed, these guidelines evolved. The Zhou dynasty established the family based on patriarchal ideals which clearly defined the distinct roles male and female played inside and outside the family, as well as the idea of innate male superiority. Only after these rules were in place could the women be required to submit to the males in her family. The “four virtues” were then placed into this context to implement “the three obediences.” The “four virtues” related to a woman’s conduct, discourse, appearance, and domestic skills. Millennia later, women were required not only to submit to the men in their families but were made to forego remarriage after the death of a spouse; in some instances, suicide was required in order to maintain their subservience to their husbands after death.


The “three obediences” forbade women from making decisions on their own; rather, they had to follow and carry out the orders of their fathers, husbands, or sons. Women “bent over backwards” to serve men for a long time. Thinking of this expression, it is interesting to note that the character for woman as it was written in oracle bone script shows a person kneeling down and bending forward. In the Zhou yi (Classic of changes), there is a hexagram statement that states a woman must always obey and serve her husband. Centuries later, widows were required to forego remarriage or even to commit suicide in order to preserve her chastity.


The so-called “code of seven criteria for divorce” included disobedience to in-laws, failure to bear a son, debauchery, grave infirmity, jealousy, excessive chattering, and thieving. If a wife violated any one of these, the husband could divorce her. Ever since ancient times, traditional Chinese society has placed great emphasis on the institution of marriage. Divorce was not lightly undertaken; however, because of the patriarchal society, men were given the privilege of initiating divorce. The “code of seven criteria for divorce” was one of the measures used to bolster the rights of the husband.


From a modern point of view, the “code of seven criteria for divorce” was intended to enhance patriarchal authority and to maintain the order in the family by exerting the husband’s dominance. Looking back, it is not hard to understand that disobeying in-laws was a reason for divorce as it was necessary to maintain the hierarchy of the parents and to shift the care giving duty squarely onto the wife. Equally understandable was the desire to divorce a wife for licentiousness, jealousy, or excessive chattering as these activities affected the order in the household, the purity of the bloodline, and the harmony among family members. However, a modern person would find it beyond the pale to divorce a wife for not bearing a son, for being gravely ill, or for stealing. They were adopted merely to bolster the male’s dominance in a family with the goal of extending the family’s lineage, social reputation, and material gains. As a whole, the “code of seven criteria for divorce” were used to intimidate and oppress women in order to force them to obey and to sacrifice.

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