Teaching Module

Ancient China

The Book of Rites, Early Education and Gender Differentiation [Literary Excerpt]


In early China, aristocratic boys are said to have studied the Asix arts. Specifically, this referred to ritual, archery, charioteering, music, writing, and mathematics, all skills associated with government, warfare, and religious and court ritual. Education for girls consisted of training in the ritual duties assigned to women and in domestic work such as spinning, weaving, and sewing and social skills conducive to survival in large extended families. This reading demonstrates, however, that not only girls, but young boys needed to learn to adopt subservient attitudes in the presence of their elders and superiors. It also demonstrates the importance of sexual segregation of children after the age of seven, not only to prevent mingling of the sexes but to facilitate the different forms of instruction deemed suitable for each gender. The text suggests that women were sequestered. This practice may have been observed by some aristocratic women in some places and times, but it was not universally observed throughout Chinese history.


"Early Education and Gender Differentiation." Chap. 10 in Liji (Book of Rites). Translation based on James Legge, Li chi: Book of Rites. Quoted in Muller, Max, ed. The Sacred Books of the East. Vols. XXVII and XXVIII. Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1885. Reprint, New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1967. Vol. 1, 476-79. Annotated by Anne Kinney.

Primary Source Text

When the child was able to take its own food, it was taught to use the right hand. When it was able to speak, a boy was taught to respond boldly and clearly; a girl, submissively and low. The former was fitted with a belt of leather; the latter, with one of silk.

At six years, they were taught the numbers and the names of the cardinal points; at the age of seven, boys and girls did not occupy the same mat nor eat together; at eight, when going out or coming in at a gate or door, and going to their mats to eat and drink, they were required to follow their elders: the teaching of yielding to others was now begun; at nine, they were taught how to number the days. At ten, the boy went to a master outside, and stayed with him even over the night. He learned the different classes of characters and calculation; he did not wear his jacket or trousers of silk; in his manners he followed his early lessons; morning and evening he learned the behavior of a youth; he would ask to be exercised in reading the tablets, and in the forms of polite conversation.

At thirteen, he learned music, and to repeat the odes, and to dance the civil dance of the Duke of Zhou.1 When a full-grown lad, he performed the martial dance of King Wu and learned archery and chariot-driving. At twenty, he was capped, and first learned the different classes of ceremonies and might wear furs and silk. He performed the Great Xia dance, and attended sedulously to filial and fraternal duties. He might become very learned, but did not teach others, his object being still to receive and not to give out. At thirty, he had a wife, and began to attend to the business proper to a man. . . .

A girl at the age of ten ceased to go out from the women's apartments. Her governess taught her the arts of pleasing speech and manners, to be docile and obedient, to handle the hempen fibers, to deal with the cocoons, to weave silks and form fillets, to learn all woman's work, how to furnish garments, to watch the sacrifices, to supply the liquors and sauces, to fill the various stands and dishes with pickles and brine, and to assist in setting forth the appurtenances for the ceremonies.

At fifteen, she assumed the hair-pin; at twenty, she was married, or, if there were occasion for the delay, at twenty-three. If there were the betrothal rites, she became a wife; and if she went without these, a concubine.

1The specific nature of the three dances names for various worthies of antiquity mentioned in this section is unknown, apart from the sense that the first dance epitomized civil culture, the second martial arts and the third combined both.

How to Cite This Source

Anne Kinney, "Ancient China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #187, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/187 (accessed August 10, 2021).