Women In Neolithic And Pre-Imperial China


Gender norms and roles have been a very common topic for discussion among historians, sociologists, and other scientists. It is undeniable that each country had its own perspective on the matter, especially during ancient times. Such discussions have led to the conduction of various studies related to women’s rights in said locations. The following text will review an article about the examination of gender roles in Neolithic and Pre-Imperial China.

The Scholars’ and the Writer’s Arguments

Chinese history is rather interesting in that regard, as the origin and evolution of local norms has been a common topic for discussion. This topic becomes even more interesting in reference to the Warring States, Imperial and Pre-Imperial China. The following article states that during the country’s earlier eras, women were treated decently (Nichols, 2021). One of the first works that it mentions is Bruce Trigger’s Understanding Early Civilizations. In this book, he claimed that women used to be mistreated legally and economically in Shang era China. However, this statement has caused many contradictive discussions from Chinese scientists on the matter.

They rely on three arguments to support their viewpoint: Marxist interpretation of local history (The Banpo Clan Commune: On the Matriarchal Clan Society by Shi Xingbang), Zhou dynasty texts, and the burial sites of regal women. The article disagrees with this position for multiple rather convincing reasons. First, the writer believes that even the current interpretation is severely biased, thus misrepresenting the past. Second, the arrangement of tombs and the reluctance to discuss misogyny in Zhou texts are not valid signs of its absence at the time. Third, the focus on rich women ignores the socio-economic position of commoners during that era. Thus, he decides to choose other sources to debate both Trigger’s and the scientists’ claims, implying that women were most likely mistreated.

The Methods of the Research

The research depicted in the article relies on bioarchaeological data received from various studies. It examines the phylocultural trunk of China to review the position of women in the past. There are two main sources of information: dental and osteopathic data received from the bodies and the review of genetic one. The former specifically focuses on bone lesions and tooth issues, which then provide information on the diets of the two genders. However, the article acknowledges that the evidence received from it is imperfect for the assessment of diet inequality. The latter thoroughly studies DNA: Y-chromosomal genetic material and mitochondrial. This method helps acquire information on marriage, mating, and residency patterns.

The Results

The acquired results, coincidentally, are more in line with Bruce Trigger’s claims of pre-Imperial China being misogynistic. Upon thorough review, it has been discovered that Wang Jianhua’s claims of polyandry and positive treatment of women are false, as the researched remains were most likely misidentified by scientists. It has been revealed that during the Zhou and Neolithic eras, diets had been changing, as men had more protein in their diet and women’s ones featured less. The former became taller, while the latter were significantly shorter.

Further discoveries were even closer to Trigger’s perspective of Chinese history. Women were most likely to suffer from osteoarthritis during the Shang Period. Moreover, it has been discovered that female slaves were mistreated more severely than their male counterparts. Moreover, women were more frequently exposed to dental problems than men. This period had two other defining features: the frequency of sacrificing women to calm local deities and arranged marriage for political alliances. Thus, these findings demonstrate that women’s lives were not that pleasant during the time.

Discussion of the Results and Their Meaning

The discoveries provide three rather interesting and compelling conclusions. First, with the help of the received data, the writer, in a way, confirms Trigger’s perspective on how women were treated in China during the pre-Imperial and Neolithic eras while providing some corrections. Second, the claims of gender equality during those times are most likely a product of bias, even nowadays. Third, the information not only demonstrates the deterioration of women’s statuses in Chinese society with the passage of time but provides a possible explanation of how their worth in society was minimized while not related to external factors, such as invasions. Overall, the data acquired from the results are presented in a more convincing matter.

The Weak Points

There are two weak points in the argument of the article. First, it, in some way, implies that the deterioration of women’s position in society started with the Zhou dynasty, as they were used to ensure political alliances and had more limited rights. One might argue that deadly sacrificial violence and the poor position of female slaves in the Shang dynasty are more suitable starting points for said issue. Second, although those cases are acknowledged, they are not interpreted as events that predate further misogyny in local society. This, in a way, may be dismissive of the gender role climate of the Shang dynasty.

The Strong Points

However, the strong points of the argument outweigh the weak ones. First, it does not rely on ancient writings, as some of the scholars did. In fact, the writer criticizes the use of Zhou texts as a source since the lack of discussion of sexism does not mean that this attitude was absent. Second, it is a result of bioarchaeological data, specifically genetic, dental, and osteopathic information. This creates a solid foundation to further validate the argument. Third, the argument is not created on the basis of bias towards Trigger’s or the scholars’ findings. On the contrary, it is created, acknowledging the flaws of both perspectives and the gaps in dental and osteopathic information. Thus, the argument is based on solid data and considering its underlying issues.


Nichols, R. (2021). The status of women in Neolithic & pre-imperial China: How bioarchaeological evidence informs ongoing debate. World Archaeology, 53(2), 273-286.