Three Obediences and Four Virtues

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The Three Obediences and Four Virtues (Chinese : ; pinyin : Sān cóng ; Vietnamese : Tam tòng, tứ đức) is a set of moral principles and social code of behavior for maiden and married women in East Asian Confucianism, especially in ancient and imperial China. Women were to obey their fathers, husbands, and sons, and to be modest and moral in their actions and speech. Some imperial eunuchs both observed these principles themselves and enforced them in imperial harems, aristocratic households, and society at large.



The two terms ("three obediences" and "four virtues") first appeared in the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial and in the Rites of Zhou respectively, which codified the protocol for an elegant and refined culture for Chinese civilization. The protocol was originally meant to define the various parts of a harmonious society and was not intended as a rule book. This code had a strong impact on ancient and imperial China. It went on to influence other East Asian civilizations, such as Japan and Korea, and prescribed East Asian social and philosophical thought even into the twentieth century. [1]

Three Feminine Obediences

The Three Obediences instruct that a woman is obligated not to act on her own initiatives and must submissively obey or follow: [2] [3] [4] [5]

  1. her father at home, before getting married (Chinese : ; pinyin : Wèi jià cóng ; or Chinese : ; pinyin : Zài jiā cóng )
  2. her husband after getting married (Chinese : ; pinyin : jià cóng ; or Chinese : ; pinyin : Chū jià cóng )
  3. her sons after her husband's death (Chinese : ; pinyin : cóng )

Four Feminine Virtues

The Four Feminine Virtues are: [6] [7] [8] [9]

  1. Feminine Conduct (Chinese : ; pinyin : )
  2. Feminine Speech (Chinese : ; pinyin : yán )
  3. Feminine Comportment (Chinese : ; pinyin : róng )
  4. Feminine Works (Chinese : ; pinyin : gōng )

Ban Zhao (49–120 CE), the first known female Chinese historian, elaborated on these in her treatise Lessons for Women (Chinese :女誡; pinyin :Nǚjiè; Wade–Giles :Nuchieh): [10] [11]

Speaking about these four, woman's virtue requires neither unparalleled talents nor exceeding brilliance; woman's speech requires neither rhetorical eloquence nor sharp words; woman's appearance requires neither a beautiful nor a splendid look or form; woman's work demands no unsurpassable skills.

Exhibit tranquility (you 幽 [/ qing 清]), unhurried composure (xian 閒/閑), chastity (zhen 貞), and quietude (jing 靜). Safeguard the integrity (jie 節) of regulations. Keep things in an orderly manner. Guard one's action with a sense of shame. In movement and rest, it is always done in proper measure. This is what is meant by woman's virtue. Choose words [carefully] (ze ci 擇辭) when speaking. Never utter slanderous words. Speak only when the time is right; then, others will not dislike one's utterances. This is what is meant by woman's speech. Wash (guan wan 盥浣) clothes that are dusty and soiled, and keep one's clothing and accessories always fresh and clean. Bathe regularly, and keep one's body free from filth and disgrace. This is what is meant by woman's bearing. Concentrate on one's weaving and spinning. Love no silly play nor laughter. Prepare wine and food neatly and orderly to offer to the guests. This is what is meant by woman's work.

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  1. Kelleher (2005), p. 496.
  2. Liji "Jiao Te Sheng (The single victim at the border sacrifices)" 35.2, quote: "婦人,從人者也;幼從父兄,嫁從夫,夫死從子。"
  3. Yili Zhushu (Etiquette and Ceremonial Annotated and Clarified) "Funeral Clothing - Zixia Commentaries" p. 92/266 quote: "婦人有三從之義無專用之道故未嫁從父既嫁從夫夫死從子"
  4. Records of ritual matters by Dai the Elder (大戴禮記) "Destiny (本命)" 11 quote: "婦人,伏於人也。是故無專制之義,有三從之道──在家從父,適人從夫,夫死從子"
  5. Biographies of Exemplary Women "Matronly Models - Mother of Meng Ke of Zou" 8 quote: "以言婦人無擅制之義,而有三從之道也。故年少則從乎父母,出嫁則從乎夫,夫死則從乎子,禮也。"
  6. Liji "Hun Yi (The Meaning of the Marriage Ceremony)" 7 quote: "教以婦德、婦言、婦容、婦功。"
  7. Zhouli "Heavenly Officers - Chief Officers" 131 quote: "九嬪:掌婦學之法,以教九御婦德、婦言、婦容、婦功" translation: "The nine concubines enforce regulations on women's learning, so as to teach the secondary concubines feminine conducts, feminine speeches, feminine comportments, and feminine works."
  8. Ban Zhao, Lessons for Women, quoted in Book of Later Han "vol. 84: Biographies of Exemplary Women - Ban Zhao" quote: "女有四行,一曰婦德,二曰婦言,三曰婦容,四曰婦功。"
  9. Knapp (2015).
  10. Ban Zhao, Lessons for Women, quoted in Book of Later Han "vol. 84: Biographies of Exemplary Women - Ban Zhao"
  11. quoted and translated in Pang-White, Ann A. (2018). The Confucian Four Books for Women: A New Translation of the Nü Sishu and the Commentary by Wang Xiang. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 106-107