Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang (Translations from the Asian Classics)
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In early China, was it correct for a woman to disobey her father, contradict her husband, or shape the public policy of a son who ruled over a dynasty or state? According to the Lienü zhuan, or Categorized Biographies of Women, it was not only appropriate but necessary for women to step in with wise counsel when fathers, husbands, or rulers strayed from the path of virtue.
Compiled toward the end of the Former Han dynasty (202 BCE-9 CE) by Liu Xiang (79-8 BCE), the Lienü zhuan is the earliest extant book in the Chinese tradition solely devoted to the education of women. Far from providing a unified vision of women's roles, the text promotes a diverse and sometimes contradictory range of practices. At one extreme are exemplars resorting to suicide and self-mutilation as a means to preserve chastity and ritual orthodoxy. At the other are bold and outspoken women whose rhetorical mastery helps correct erring rulers, sons, and husbands. The text provides a fascinating overview of the representation of women's roles in early legends, formal speeches on statecraft, and highly fictionalized historical accounts during this foundational period of Chinese history.
Over time, the biographies of women became a regular feature of dynastic and local histories and a vehicle for expressing and transmitting concerns about women's social, political, and domestic roles. The Lienü zhuan is also rich in information about the daily life, rituals, and domestic concerns of early China. Inspired by its accounts, artists across the millennia have depicted its stories on screens, paintings, lacquer ware, murals, and stone relief sculpture, extending its reach to literate and illiterate audiences alike.
Xiang drew upon narratives that predated his own age to compile the Lienü zhuan, it is clear that the problem, in its broader outlines, was not entirely new. What is new is the compilation of a text designed to address it. “Speaking truth to power” is always a delicate business, and even more difficult for those crossing gender boundaries. The Lienü zhuan was thus almost certainly meant to provide more than an array of lessons for quiet contemplation; it was, in some important respects, also a
corpse beneath the city wall and wept for him. Her sincerity so greatly moved all passersby that not one of them failed to shed tears for her. After ten days [her weeping] had caused the wall to collapse. After she buried her husband, she said, “Where shall I go? A woman must have someone she can rely on. When her father is alive, she depends on her father; when her husband is alive, she depends on her husband; when her son is alive, she depends on her son. Now, in the generation that came
share the same dish; and they maintain separate clothing racks and use different towels and combs. 74 This is how [the king] instructs them.75 “If a feudal lord behaves in a licentious manner outside of his own home, he will be exterminated; if a minister or grandee behaves in a licentious manner outside of his home, he will be banished; if an officer or commoner behaves in a licentious manner outside of his home, he will be castrated.76 Nevertheless, if benevolence is neglected, then it can be
Summary says, When the ruler of Qi attacked Lu, The Righteous Aunt maintained her principles. She saw the army and fled to the hills, Abandoning her son and taking her nephew. When the Qi general questioned her, He admired her moral reasoning. One woman practiced righteousness, And the army of Qi was halted. 5.7 CONSORT ZHAO OF DAI Consort Zhao of Dai was the daughter of Zhao Jianzi, the elder sister of [Zhao] Xiangzi, and the consort of the King of Dai.46 After Jianzi’s burial,
and he shows us all courtesy.”98 These words apply well to this account. The Verse Summary says, Qi’s lump-necked woman Was picking mulberry leaves at Dongguo. When King Min ventured out on a leisure trip, She did not alter her behavior in the least. The king wanted to speak with her, And her words of advice were perceptive indeed. In the end she rose to the rank of queen, And her reputation was illustrious. 6.12 THE OUTCAST ORPHAN MAID OF QI The outcast orphan maid was a woman