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Women's History

AsiaThe Confucian Pattern, The Modern Period, Bibliography

The prominent roles occupied by women in the legends and myths of that complex and diverse part of the world called Asia suggest that "histories" of women in Asia have existed for a very long time. That these legends have been shaped, written, and sometimes performed by men operating in androcentric cultural contexts does not negate the impression of power and consequence their narratives convey. From Japan's sun goddess, the original ancestress of the imperial line, to Korean shamans, to the powerful and transgressive women of South and Southeast Asian myth, or China's Hua Mulan, the stories of these legendary women suggest that women in early Asian societies did "make history." Perhaps only in China does the written record present, dynasty after dynasty, legendary women whose experience is embedded in the historicity of China's changing social, political, and economic institutions.

In various parts of Asia, these myths generated questions about matriarchal societies that were reinforced by the nineteenth-century work of Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) and Garrett A. Morgan (1877–1963). This theoretical framework may have encouraged one of Japan's first historians of women, Takamure Itsue (1894–1964), to do research on family registers; that research, parts of which have been reinforced by twentieth-century scholarship, strongly suggests that families in eighth-century Japan were predominantly matrilineal. For other women in Asia, myths and legends provided models for resistance and revolution in the twentieth century (China and Vietnam) and left some, like Hiratsuka Raicho (1886–1971), wondering why and how women had lost the power and authority they once had in Japanese history.

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