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Women, silk production, gender and work roles along the Ancient Silk Roads: the Han Dynasty (206BCE- 220 CE)

The Ancient Silk Roads saw a myriad of caravans traders that were taking a journey throughout Central Asia. For 7000 miles, precious commodities such as as silk, ivory, gold, and fur were transported along the Silk Roads. One of the most precious fabrics, silk, became exchanged as a currency and ultimately gave the name to the trading roads. During the Han Dynasty, from 206 BCE to 220 CE women played an important role in the production and trade of silk, a role that was not confined to the final part of the chain namely, wearing the garments. Women had important work roles in the family and in society as well, roles that went far beyond the typical stereotype of women as mothers in the household. 
This paper will attempt to answer one main research question: to what extend women during the Han Dynasty challenged gendered work norms? This main question will be answered by two subquestions: In which ways women’s role in silk production and silk trade influenced social structures? In which ways women in leadership roles e.g in politics were able to challenge gender roles?
First, I will analyze the role and importance of women in the production of silk along the Silk Roads and the role of women during silk trade. Second, I will delve into the man-women relation in regards to silk production and trade and explore the role of women in the households. This part will try to shed light to whether silk production and trade did actually change social structures. Third, I will look into the role of women in political settings to understand if women held leadership roles and helped to advance their  status in society. 
The literary review will include an account of Marian Vasile’s Gender of Silk. Vasile describes how the women that were involved in the production of silk held the technical knowledge and the responsibility. Moreover, she examines the history of cultural movement along the Silk Roads and the commercialization of the silk industry. However, Marian does not shed light to whether silk production helped to advance women status in society. The second main source will be Berit Hildebrandt’s Silk : Trade & Exchange Along the Silk Roads Between Rome and China in Antiquity which explains the trade and exchanges of silk and the importance of silk and textile.  His work in confined to the importance of silk trade and women role in it. The third main source I will be looking at will be Bret Hinsch’s Women in Early Imperial China which describes how the role of women changed under the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BCE -220 CE) offering both history and gender studies in the early imperial era. Hinsch delves into the role of women in family structures. Lastly, I will use Keith MacMahon’s Women shall not rule: Imperial wives and concubines in China from Han to Liao to understand the role women played in politics and if, they were holding decision making positions.
In order to analyze the role of women in Han China I will use Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of feminism as explained in The Second Sex.  According to de Beauvoir, women are defined in relation to men and explains how throughout history women have been confined to a sphere of “immanence,” and the passive acceptance of roles assigned to them by men. She explains:

To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue nonetheless to exist for him also: mutually recognizing each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other.

De Beauvoir sheds light on the meaning of being a woman from an historical point of view. Throughout history, women has been both a “presence-absence” a presence which has been absent to history which is done and written by men. According to De Beauvoir even if there has been few exceptions, women have been what men wanted them to be, they have lived in relations to men and had no voice. This will be the starting point to analyze women work roles in Han China to understand if those women involved in the production of silk, trade or politics were able to challenge work norms and gender roles given to them by society and by man. This theory will also be the limitation of this paper.  Due to lack in Eastern feminist literature available, I will knowingly apply a western modern theory on Chinese women during the Han Dynasty.
The method for this paper will include primary sources from the Textile Research Center at Leiden University which offered with with a comprehensive history of the textile including the history of silk in China throughout history. Secondary sources such as academic peer-reviewed articles, books, journals and newspapers will be used extensively in order to answer my research question.

The first question of this paper will address whether women’s role in silk production and silk trade influenced Han China’s social structures. However, before doing so I will explain the history of silk and the importance of textile throughout Chinese history. When silk was originally discovered and invited in China around 3000 BCE it was a material reserved exclusively for the ruler and kept away from the rest of the population. With the beginning of the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE, things changed. During this period, silk stopped being an industrial material and acquired an absolute value making its way to become part of Chinese economy. Plain silks, products of peasant households, were used as the main form of tax paid to the government. Silk began to be used for paying civil servants and rewarding subjects for outstanding services. Values were calculated in lengths of silk as they had been calculated in pounds of gold. Before long it was to become a currency used in trade with foreign countries and resulted in a major increment in production. Silk was the only Chinese product that was able to reach the regions west of Central Africa and was considered to be one of the commodity that China exported to India as well as transported to Roman markets through India. (p.64 of Ancient India and Ancient China). p. 65. Silk was massively produced and supplied to the Roman Empire and to the entire Mediterranean world. Throughout its journey from China to Rome silk was produced and supplied to other parts of the world as well so much so that fragments of Han Silk was found in tombs in Palmyra. While silk was mainly used as currency, silk was also used as garments and textile for fashion and decorations in king’s palaces and cities. Fancy silk textiles were worn or displayed by the wealthy as symbols of status from the Han Dynasty onwards. By the the time of the Gupta period from approximately 319 to 485 CE silk was mentioned in literature and was widely used among the population. p. 74. Women were behind the production of textiles and silk. According to Simone de Beauvoir’s theory women were defined in relation to men and Chinese women were no exception. Work roles were appointed according to gender which meant that women were supposed to stay home and men work outside of the house. The home was considered to be the center of female’s labor. Work is what can bring division between the sexes, what men do and women do. p. 59 In the eyes of society, what we do for living, a job, is more than just something we do on a daily basis, it shapes who you are. Women, who had to depend on men for many necessities of life, had to comply with male demands. As Hinsch explains “Social roles order work and earnings in standard ways. These work roles have profound implications for both individuals and society”. p.60 While men were providing grain for the family women supplied the family with clothing. Men and women roles in the family was not interchangeable, textile producing was a skill that required a lot of years of practice, attention and decision. However, because silk production and the textile industry was a role confined to women, it also somehow made men depend on women or better, men and women had mutual dependence on each other. The production of garments soon became something men could not do. Because of this fact, women work in silk and textile production was considered an important source of power for women, as well as prestige in Han China. p. 65, p.68, Early writers wrote extensively on the juxtaposition of masculine activity in the field work and female tasks in textile production ultimately assuming cultural meanings and more than just labor roles. p.69. Soon enough, women began to dominate all aspects of textile work to the point where this manufacture became synonym of women’s work. Economically, women’s monopoly on cloth manufacture and silk production gave women a powerful status in society. Put it simply, for early Chinese economy, textiles were the most important manufactured product. Every industries begins with textile and women’s hard work in production made up around half the value of a household’s output. In terms of gender equality, this is a big step forward. The wealth of the family wasn’t only sustained by men’s income, but by women’s labor as well. During the Han Dynasty, textiles were also the focus of commercial transactions that created a complex sales and distribution system. Women hard work with silk production in the textiles brought the first success towards recognition. In 10 CE the government recognized the economic importance of women cloth production and officials registered all female cloth makers. This showed strong evidence that women were considered a prized economic force. p.70. In addition silk production and textile also played an important role in terms of mobility for women and autonomy. Thanks to their work role in the family, women enjoyed personal autonomy in the household production. For women who were divorced, unmarried or widowed silk production meant control over their profits. In terms of mobility women were used to form groups and come together to spin and weave sometimes at night in order to conciliate motherhood and family life with work. Women were required to work in groups to save money on the expenses. On top of that, p.71 Women loved to have a chance to chat with friends and neighbors and that boosted ideas exchange and a strong supportive network a source of mutual strength, security and protection. This group dynamics could even function as bank, by  pooling resources and then draw on them when needed and ended up becoming one of the best ways for women to improve themselves during the Han dynasty. Group empowerment and hard work did bring recognition and privilege to women. During the Han Dynasty women had the opportunity to have a business or be part of one. Women weren’t in fact only involved in the luxury industry of silk or the prestigious pearls, but were also in trades of basic foodstuffs and were considered to be a common sight in the marketplace. Trade was good for women because it was giving them a great deal of mobility as they were traveling a good distance to go pick up the money of their trades from different locations. (here starts p,73.) Women were in fact also taking up the big responsibility of money to take safely back home a sometimes considerably high amount of cash. They were holding responsibilities for important business transactions of what sometimes constituted money for the entire family. This was considered to be a great deal of power within the family and a clear boost to their status. However, the most important point was that women merchants were also a counterpoint to the weaver woman. If a virtuous woman was a female that was involved in the textile production, the role that was assigned to her by society, a women merchant wasn’t. (p.74). Women were no longer just wives of a tradesman but were partners in family business dealings. For some women and families trade brought a great source of wealth and female merchants were often times criticized for floating their prosperity and challenging their gender work role, being a wearer. While producing textiles was a norm for women part of their duty and role in Han China, being a merchant was breaking the traditional scope of both gender and labor “By departing from gendered work norms, both female ad male merchants became equally disreputable in the eyes of the landed elite” p. 74. This chapter sheds light on the female’s role and labor during Han China. During this period women were mostly working as weavers and spinners in the production of silk and textiles. This gendered work roles, as it is explained by De Beauvoir, have been assigned to women by society and women worked in function and in relation to their families and their man/husbands. Although women have been assigned by society the role of weavers, this chapter describes how women were able to create their own space in society and prestige thanks to silk production and their irreplaceable skills. Moreover, women involved in silk trade were able to challenge even further the gendered stereotype of women weavers. Whether women were expected to take care of the family and work from home, women were able to gather and work outside of the households.
The second research question will seek to understand the relation between women covering leadership roles in society and typical work roles. From what we established before, thanks to silk production and silk trade women were able to perform an indispensable work role in the family. Because of their importance in the family business, women were recognized by the government as important contributors to Han’s economy but what about women in politics or decision making positions? According to Keith MacMahon’s Women Shall not rule: Imperial wives and concubines in China from Han to Liao, at the begging of the early imperial period, during the Zhao Dynasty  (6th century BC) women lacked political power and they were little affected by the rulings done by the government which was manly focused on husbands and sons. Despite this fact, there were some women member of China’s ruling elite that were directly affected by governmental rulings on a daily basis but again, they were a small insignificant minority. During this early imperial period few women were allowed to have powerful roles and a social role in the government was considered to be the most powerful role a women could have. Fast forward few centuries, Han China saw a great difference in terms of women in positions of power. During this time, the power of government grew enormously resulting in greater opportunities for women “Extending kinship to politics meant that traditional female roles in the family became imbued with fantastic new potential” p.93. The moment women could get into politics it meant a great deal for them and had a big impact in the family dynamics. As a result, the shift  women was terrific, wives and mothers of emperors grew to be players in court politics being able to reach not only the imperial family but the empire itself. This phenomenon happened during Han China where women became the true rulers of China. Empress Lu (188 – 180 BCE) was a great example of woman’s leadership in Han China. She was the first one of a series of women empresses and consorts in the Dynasty. She was able to influence family affairs and lead the central government. She was so influential that even if an emperor was sitting on the throne, historian consider the years from 188 until her death in 180 to be the her own ruling period. She never declared herself as emperor, even if she governed as if she were one. In her own subtle way she acquired respect during her time and throughout the years “Sima Qian and later historian usually place the biography of empresses in the chapter on empress and consorts, but in this case he gives the empires a separate chapter, an unusual privilege”  p.67 (women shall not rule)
p.94 Women’s leadership did not happen without opposition, some men were not in favor of female participation in the government. The obvious link these men were making was that more power for mother and wives translated into less power for men. Little by little, women began to manage a wide rage of daily activities in the palace, they had their own specific duties and were separated from male bureaucracy. p.100(note 20). However, women were excluded from most of the vital functions of the government, a fight that man had pursued. Man felt again threatened, by feeling that their power beyond the court could undermine their authority. p.101 Therefore, even if women at the palace covering important roles were able and allowed to deal with bureaucratic functions, men dominated the majority of offices and functions. This was probably due to the lack in education and training that men had received and women didn’t. If we go back to Simone de Beauvoir theory of feminism, it’s possible to see how women, who have been trying to take on more important roles with greater responsibility in history have been at times denied access by men who have felt could undermine their role in the government or the society. Women wanted to make history and did not leave space for women to do the same. Women in power positions in Han China shows us that women were able to advance in society and participate in governmental roles, but not without obstacles and not without resistance from their male counterpart. 
In conclusion, this paper sought to shed light on to what extend women in Han China challenged gender work roles. In order to answer this question I chose to first analyze women in the production of silk and textiles and women as merchants. Second, I delved into the role of women in leadership role and government. I looked at both subquestions through Simone de Beauvoir’s lenses of feminism. In her novel The Second Sex, she explains how women have been present and absent from history because men have always dictated the way. She always explained that women had to agree and comply with the roles given to them by society and men, something that we could see in both the production of silk, the stereotypical women’s role of wearers and spinners in the house and women in the palace were women were mostly confined to bureaucracy work because impeded by man to access more decision making roles. However, in both subquestions I see women challenging their work roles. Women in silk production made their role important for economy and acquire a new prestigious status. They challenged their role as women who work from home by originating themselves into groups and deliver a better, more cost effective work. They made their skill exclusive to women, something that men could not do. Women in silk trade challenged the work norms even further. The responsibility they had, the long travels they needed to undertake and the business skills and wealth they quickly acquired as merchants, was not seen in favor by men but  women certainly departed from gendered work norms and did not accept the roles given to them by society. Women in politics as Empress Lu showed that women leadership was present during that time. Women in politics had sought to challenge male authority and leadership and showed that as in the case of Empress Lu, even if not always under the sun, women were able to influence and take critical decisions for the empire. When we think about Chinese early imperial history, silk and trade along the silk road we often into women’s roles, this is because as Simone de Beauvoir said, we usually think and believe history is made and written by greta men. If we look closely into the role that women played in society during Han China we can determine that their role was far from insignificant. Silk wavers, traders and empresses extensively participated to the history of the Ancient Silk Road and their roles and contribution can no longer be overshadowed. 

Reference List

Beauvoir, Simone De. The second sex. London: Vintage Classic, 2015.

 Duby, Georges, Michelle Perrot, Arthur Goldhammer, and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. A History of Women: Silences of the Middle Ages. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1994.

Geetha, G.s., and R. Indira. Women, Income Generation, and Political Capital in the Silk Industry in Karnataka. Gender, Technology and Development 14, no. 3 (2010): 423-40. doi: 10.1177/097185241001400307.

Hildebrandt, Berit. 2016. Silk : Trade & Exchange Along the Silk Roads Between Rome and China in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 29, 2017).

Vasile, Marian. The Gender of Silk Identity, Religion, and Cultural Difference Journal of Research in Gender Studies 3 J. Res. Gender Stud. (2013).

Werner, Cynthia. Feminizing the New Silk Road: Women Traders in Rural Kazakhstan.

Xinru, Liu. Silk and religion: an exploration of material life and the thought of people, AD 600-1200. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.