What Are the Three Obediences?

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Key Takeaways:

  • The Three Obediences are a set of moral principles for women in East Asian Confucianism, especially Ancient and Imperial China.
  • They dictate that women should obey their father before marriage, their husband after marriage, and their son after their husband’s death.
  • The Three Obediences were part of the larger Three Bonds and Five Relationships framework for society.
  • They were paired with the Four Virtues of morality, proper speech, modesty, and domestic skills for women.
  • Together they promoted order in society but were not intended as strict rules.


Confucian philosophy had a major influence on the cultural and social norms of East Asia for centuries. One well-known example is the “Three Obediences,” a code of conduct prescribing submission for women at different stages of life. But what exactly are the Three Obediences, and what purpose did they serve in ancient Chinese society? This article will provide a comprehensive overview of this historical concept.

We’ll examine what the Three Obediences are, their origin and context in Confucian thought, and how Chinese society applied these principles. The traditional Four Virtues paired with the Three Obediences will also be explained. Understanding the Three Obediences provides insight into the cultural values and gender roles of imperial China and other Confucian cultures. The principles reveal an orderly patriarchal social structure emphasizing filial piety and female modesty and domesticity.

This detailed guide will outline the basics of the Three Obediences doctrine, its complementary virtues, and its practical implications. Whether you are a student of Asian history or just curious about different cultural norms, you’ll finish this article with a solid grounding in this facet of ancient Chinese culture and women’s roles. Let’s dive in and decode this Confucian code of ethics.

What Are the Three Obediences?

What does the doctrine of Three Obediences entail??

The “Three Obediences” refers to a Confucian ethical code that dictates three stages of submission for women:

  • Obey father before marriage
  • Obey husband after marriage
  • Obey son after husband’s death

It prescribes a woman’s obedience first to her father, then to her husband after marriage, and finally to her adult son in the case that she’s widowed. This doctrine defined the primary social relationships and dutiful conduct for women in East Asian Confucian societies.

What was the cultural context behind the Three Obediences??

The Three Obediences originates from the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who lived around 500 BCE. His teachings emphasized social harmony through hierarchical relationships and mutual obligations.

Confucianism advocated orderly gender dynamics with men in dominant authority roles and women in subordinate ones. The Three Obediences doctrine reflects this, codifying submission of women to the key men in their lives at different life stages.

The teachings were further solidified and propagated by Neo-Confucian scholars like Zhu Xi in the 12th-13th centuries CE. They became entrenched in East Asian culture and social norms, especially during the Ming and Qing imperial eras in China.

Origins in Confucian Thought and Teachings

How did Confucian teachings lead to the Three Obediences principle??

Confucius’s philosophy stressed five fundamental relationships that needed to work harmoniously for society to function:

  • Ruler and subject
  • Father and son
  • Husband and wife
  • Elder brother and younger brother
  • Friend and friend

The Three Obediences specifically addressed the Confucian model for the husband-wife relationship. Wives were obligated to obey husbands, who had authority over the household.

Expanded principles like the “Three Followings” further dictated that women follow men in all stages of life – as daughters obey fathers, as wives obey husbands, and as widows obey sons. This formed the basis of the orderly Three Obediences code.

Were there any other related Confucian principles for women’s conduct??

Yes, the Three Obediences was part of a larger framework dictating proper behavior for women in Confucian thought. Core principles included:

  • The Three Obediences: obedience in three life stages
  • The Four Virtues: morality, proper speech, modesty, diligence in domestic work
  • The Three Followings: following father, husband, then son
  • The Seven Reasons for Divorce: major offenses allowing husbands to divorce wives

These pluralist guidelines were meant to shape women into virtuous, obedient, and dutiful contributors to a harmonious society. Scholars like Ban Zhao wrote manuals teaching women these Confucian norms.

Social Application of the Three Obediences

How were the Three Obediences applied in ancient Chinese society??

In ancient China, a woman’s purpose and value was judged on how well she adhered to principles like the Three Obediences. Proper conduct for women was enforced through:

  • Education: Girls were taught Confucian precepts like the Three Obediences from childhood.
  • Family oversight: Fathers and husbands vigilantly monitored women’s virtue and obedience.
  • Societal norms: Women who disobeyed faced judgement and stigma from society.
  • Laws: Dynastic legal codes like the Ming Dynasty “Seven Outs” made disobedience a punishable offense.

Despite this, not all women blindly followed the principles. Many resisted or negotiated with flexibility in the real world. But the pervasiveness of these teachings still heavily shaped gender roles.

Were the guidelines interpreted as fixed rules or flexible ideals??

The Three Obediences were generally treated as flexible guiding ideals, not as fixed rigid rules.

According to Confucian scholar Ban Zhao, the precepts defined a “woman’s way” but allowance must be made for individual personalities and circumstances. However, male family members still expected women’s obedience and enforced these principles to varying degrees.

Some flexibility was seen in widow re marriage. A widow would usually still be expected to obey her late husband’s family. But she could theoretically marry another man and transfer her obedience to her new husband, if permitted.

So the Three Obediences established social and behavioral norms without necessarily imposing absolute compliance. But undoubtedly they still confined women’s options and autonomy.

The Four Virtues Complementing the Three Obediences

What were the “Four Virtues” that accompanied the Three Obediences??

The “Four Virtues” were ethical standards and practices considered proper for women alongside the obedience guidelines. They included:

  • Womanly morality: Integrity, righteousness, discipline
  • Proper speech: Refraining from gossip, vulgarity
  • Modest manner: Reserve, purity, calmness
  • Diligent work/skills: Proficiency in womanly duties of household management

These virtues focused on quiet deference and domestic ability, complementing the obedient role prescribed by the Three Obediences.

How were the Four Virtues supposed to contribute to social harmony??

The Four Virtues and Three Obediences had a symbiotic relationship in promoting order:

  • Obedience created hierarchy
  • Virtue enabled women to positively contribute within it

Proper conduct ensured women didn’t disrupt stability while possessing virtues necessary for household duties.

Following these guidelines signaled a woman’s value to family and society. Her virtues enabled her to raise proper Confucian sons to continue the social order.

Conclusion: Significance of the Three Obediences

The Three Obediences doctrine provides prime insight into traditional gender dynamics in Confucian societies. While not always followed literally, these principles constructed firm social expectations for women’s submission and deference.

Study of Confucian precepts like the Three Obediences reveals how Chinese imperial culture was founded on patriarchal hierarchy and obedience. This provides crucial perspective on women’s restricted roles and rights historically in East Asia.

At the same time, the principles did not represent fixed rules, and many women found ways to subtly negotiate their prescribed roles. Understanding this nuance helps us see how women operated within and pushed back against these norms.

Whether regarded as timeless wisdom or outdated limitations, the Three Obediences remain an integral part of Confucianism’s cultural legacy. Their lasting impact reminds us how core ethical teachings can shape social structures and gender inequality. Examining this complex history aids our understanding of both women’s oppression and agency throughout East Asian antiquity

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