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Sanctioned Self-Immolation: Suicide in the lives of women in China, 17th-21st Century
AuthorThomas, Tiffani Louise
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Women in China have not always been constrained by Confucianism; women were once able to participate in social and political spheres that were later dominated by men during the Neo-Confucian period beginning during the Song dynasty. Women found themselves in newly controlled roles that left them with limited agency, mobility, or influence. Coinciding with the rise of Neo-Confucianism, female suicide became an avenue for women to gain honor and agency in a world very much organized by men.Once heralded by the Chinese Imperial state as prime examples of higher Confucian ideals, female suicides are now deemed an indicator of China's deeply rooted social problems. While the problem of female suicide remains, the way in which it is viewed by Chinese society has shifted. Much like a large population was once perceived to be beneficial to the Chinese state and now is seen as encumbering and disastrous, so too is female suicide. To understand the continued persistence of female suicide within Chinese culture we must take into consideration the immense gender inequality that was promulgated through tradition and further instilled through contemporary social, political, and economic gender inequity. Through the ultimate form of self-harm, women have attempted to right societal wrongs, save themselves from public scrutiny, ensure vindication, demonstrate chastity, mourn a husband, resist tyrants, or simply exercise individual agency within a highly regulated society. While their reasons have been varied, women turning to suicide primarily stems from their controlled, second-class status within traditional Chinese society.The large majority of research done on female suicide in China has been focused primarily on a particular topic such as the faithful maiden cult, chaste widows, or suicide in literature. This paper attempts to combine these different avenues of research to demonstrate the depth and breadth of female suicide within both the historical record and memory of China. This paper discusses female suicide in China through the multiple lenses of Confucian morals, Neo-Confucian ideals, and Western theories of suicide developed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim. In addition, an attempt to lend an interdisciplinary approach lends a nuanced argument to the continued phenomena of female suicide in China.