Lecture Notes

Chinese 222 Lecture Notes
You are responsible for the content of these notes in quizzes and exams; if you missed a class, you then ought to come here to take a look at the notes for the work we discussed.
Goddess Inanna and the idea of the whole woman

  • As we study the ways women are represented in art and literature, let’s begin with an ancient Sumerian poem or hymn written during the third millennium B.C. about a goddess whom, as many contemporary feminist scholars argue, exemplifies the idea of the whole woman; Inanna is a powerful goddess, a warrior, a fighter, an agricultural specialist, a businesswoman, a prostitute utterly unashamed of her own sexuality and proud of her art of lovemaking and kissing of the phallus; but she is not whole until her descent into the underworld where she meets her sister Erishkigal, the dark goddess; Erishkigal represents everything she is not, namely, all the negative or even destructive feminine energies such as hatred, bitterness, resentment, and brutality; after the two sisters meet, Erishkigal has Inanna killed and it is because of her father’s help that Inanna is given back her life and allowed to leave hell; thus death and rebirth that constitute a woman’s psychological transformation;
  • The idea of the whole woman as represented in this ancient Sumerian myth signifies the coming together of a woman’s public persona and her energies and qualities society deems un-lady like or un-feminine; in order to be successful in the public sphere, many women reject and suppress an important part of themselves that are vital to their physical and psychological well-being; that is why Inanna, before seeing Ereshkigal, is told to disrobe, stripping herself of all her beautiful garments (here reads: social successes and achievements) and stand naked in front of the queen of the underworld who kills her; the symbolic stripping and death mean the conditions for becoming whole: one has to renounce her social accomplishments, fame, fortune and power, in order to recognize and come into contact with her forgotten self;
  • Modern (cultivated) women are, as Sylvia Perera points out in Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, “badly wounded in our relation to the feminine [who] usually have a fairly successful persona, a good public image. We have grown up as docile, often intellectual, daughters of the patriarchy, with what I call ‘animus-egos.’ We strive to uphold the virtues and aesthetic ideals which the patriarchal superego has presented to us;” which is why Inanna’s descent is so necessary as it signifies a process of transformation in which a successful woman, whose womanhood is often constructed and dictated by the needs of culture and society, comes into contact with her the other half: her repressed and rejected self, with her undesirable womanly qualities and female energies of which the modern woman is seldom aware;
  • For example, in Journal of a Solitude (p. 12, New York: Norton, 1973), feminist author May Sarton says, “Plant Dreaming Deep has brought me many friends of the work (and also, harder to respond to, people who think they have found in me an intimate friend). But I have begun to realize that, without my own intention, that book gives a false view. The anguish of my life here–its rages–is hardly mentioned. Now I hope to break into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. I live alone, perhaps for no good reason, for the reason that I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many. My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inex yorable routines. I write too many letters and too few poems. It may be outwardly silent here nut in the but of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears. I hardly ever sit still without being haunted by the “undone” and the “unsent.” I often feel exhausted, but it is not my work that tires (work is a rest); it is the effort of pushing away the lives and needs of others before I can come to the work with any freshness and zest;”
  • Another feminist writer, Emma Goldman, says “You have opened up the prison gates of my womanhood. And all the passion that was unsatisfied in me for many years, leaped into a wild reckless storm boundless as the sea. Do you think that one who has heard the roar of the occean, seen the maddening struggle of the waves . . . known all the madness of a wild, barbarian primitive love, can reconcile one T’s self to any relationship under civilization? I was caught in the torrent of an elemental passion I had never dreamed any man could rouse in me. I responded shamelessly to its primitive call, its naked beauty, its esctatic joy. Yes, I am a woman. Indeed too much of it. That’s my tragedy. The greatest abyss between my womanhood nature and the nature of the relentless revolutionist is too great to allow much happiness in my life. The creative spirit is not an antodote to the sex instinct, but a part of its forceful expression. Sex is the source of life. Where sex is missing everything is missing. Love is an art, sex love is likewise an art. Sexual sensibility is greater and more enduring in woman than in man; ” quoted in Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood by Noami Wolf, New York: Ballantine, 1997. pp.218-92
  • In many stories we are about to read, there are “good” and “bad” women; one way to understand them would be to interpret them as different stages of becoming fragmented or whole, having to deal with their own Ereshkigal side as they try to fit into a Confucian tradition that patrillinealizes every aspect of that society and become a “good mother and virtuous wife;” behind every female stereotype as elaborated in these stories lives a bifurcated woman struggling to maintain her wholeness, just like Inanna traveling back and forth through heaven and hell to realize who she really is; these heroines—the coquettish little twit Cui Ying-ying in The Story of Yingying, the devoted and suicidal lover Liu Lanzhi in Peacock Southeast Flew, the jealous and controlling Yang Guifei with a queen-size ego, the virtuous wife and good mother Yun in Six Chapters of A Floating Life, the stubborn and rebellious Song-lian in Raise the Red Lantern, the injured and slighted whore Du Shi-niang, the virginal and rattle-box Li Cui-lian in The Shrew, as well as the short-lived bourgeois music teacher and professional Wei-ming in the film New Woman—allow us to become conscious of our own human potentials as men and women world over.
Legendary and mythological women

  • Book of Changes (易经) is one of the oldest Chinese classics originally attributed to Fu Xi (伏羲), the legendary king who lived around 3000 B.C. and who could divine future through 64 hexagrams; the authorship of this classic is attributed also to King Wen (文帝, 1,150 B.C.); the yin-yang philosophy or principle in the book offered a basis for gender classification and discrimination; the 8 trigrams represent eight natural phenomena (heaven, earth, lake, mountain, fire, water, thunder and wind) and 64 hexagrams represent 64 basic or archetypal human situations; with yin representing the female and passive principle, and yang representing the male and active principle; it is a binary mathematic system, with the broken line representing the earth and the dynamic line heaven; it is through this archaic mode of thinking or mythical system of meaning that the ancient Chinese conceptualized the natural universe, and developed their relationships with nature and with each other as men and women; Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was believed to have written many commentaries attached to the hexagrams; moreover, it is in these mythical and cryptic texts that many Chinese gender concepts are rooted; from this mystical language of earth and heaven, yin and yang came the philosophical discourses of Confucianism and Taoism that enable Confucius (孔子), Mencius (孟子), Lao Zi (老子)and Zhuang Zi (庄子) to talk about social order and moral justice; the archaic notions of female and male, family and marriage are elaborated mystically in hexagrams 1, 2, 11, 12, 37, 44, and 54.
  • Book of Songs (诗经) is another Chinese classic, a collection of songs, hymns, and ballads across the land, compiled around fifth century B.C.; to contemporary Chinese, the value of this body of poems is their function as time captures of pre-Confucian attitudes, sensibilities, and sentiments that are not overwhelmingly didactic and overtly moralistic in comparison to poetry written in later ages;
  • Before female gender identity was fully brought into the narrative of Confucian moral discourse with which to patrilinealize every aspect of Chinese society, there had been images and ideas of women in myths other than the stereotypical images of wife and mother; for example, the creation myth, before it was reinvented within the discourse of Confucianism, was a story about a goddess that created the human race without any moral purpose or any self-awareness as a domestic woman, like the pagan goddess Hera or Venus prior to the Christian myth; as a goddess, Nu Wa is recognized for another exploit that is equally significant and noble: when sky cracked open at one time, leaving a black hole, the goddess patched up the sky with colorful stones she smelt; Nu Wa is one of the very few legendary women who lived almost entirely outside the male domain and she is a mythical heroine totally free from the rules and etiquette to which most women were subjected; some social scientists even see her as the image of a female deity during the period when China was a matriarchal society, a goddess that is benevolent and kind to the inhabitants of earth during times of natural disaster; such speculations are not entirely groudless, considering especially the etymology of the word “surname” (姓, consisting of two words, female and birth) that honors the identity and family of the mother, as opposed to that of the father, a common practice in a patrilineal society;
  • Weaving maid and cowherd (牛郎织女) is a legend known as a love story to modern day bourgeois society; the romance between the cowherd and weaving maid seems to celebrate human passion and love in a way that is problematic to later Confucians that always emphasized one’s moral duties and social obligations over love and passion; the myth is also tied up to Chinese astrology and it romanticizes (anthropomorphizes) the cosmos; it later became a Chinese Valentine or “Double Seventh Festival” (七夕节); the 7th day of the 7th lunar month is a traditional festival of romance, which often goes into August in the Gregorian calendar; at night when the sky is dotted with stars, and people can see the Milky Way spanning from the north to the south; and on each bank are the Cowherd Star (Altair) and the Weaver Maid Star (Vega);
  • Chang E (嫦娥) is another celestial or mythological figure who lives in the moon; no more than some dark marks or shapes on the surface of the moon, Chang E is banished to the moon where she is lonely and forever separated from (and pining away for) her husband Yi on earth, the great archer who shot down nine suns to save humanity; this sad story of female exile seems to be a cautionary tale against indiscretion and impulsiveness on the part of women; had Chang E been more attentive to what her husband said and less venturous as a wife, she would not have inadvertently exiled herself to the moon by drinking up the elixir Yi had found for both of them;
  • Ancient cosmology, religion, and philosophy shape the way people conceptualized the world in which they live as men and women; mythological and legendary women such as Nu Wa, Chang E, Meng Jiang Nu, and the Weaving Maid are in fact elaborations of people’s thinking on gender and gender relations; today when we say gender identity is a cultural construct, we merely acknowledge the process that has begun a long time ago that gives a woman her gender even before she is born. The idea of woman precedes her existence.
Ye Xian (叶限)

  • This is a legend from ninth century Southern China; initially an oral tale but written down by a local official, Ye Xian story is incredibly similar to the Cinderella story but precedes the Western fairytale by nearly a millennium; Ye Xian, the title character, is badly treated by her step-mother but later married to a handsome prince; it is also through a lost slipper that her fate turns a turn for better; this riches-rags-riches cycle or Cinderella story seems to one of what Carl Jung refers to as “psychological archetypes of the collective conscious” that predispose us to imagine the world in certain way, as often elaborated in art and literature regardless of time and place; the story expresses the basic human desire to be accepted and loved unconditionally, not subject to social class or material wealth.
  • Southerners have passed on a legend that prior to the Qin Han dynasty; there was a person there that used to be a chieftain of the Wu tribe. The local people called him cave chief Wu, and of course this place of his was referred to as Wu’s cave. He had two wives. One of the two had died early and left behind a daughter called YeXian. In her youth she was smart and clever, also skilled at panning for gold. Her father, master of the cave, loved her dearly. But later, her father died one year. After his death, his second wife, who really didn’t like his daughter YeXian, often bullied the lonely girl. She made her go deep into the woods to chop wood or to the deep well to gather water and other dangerous chores. One time, YeXian caught a fish, just over 2 inches long, with red scales and big gold eyes. YeXian raised the fish in a basin. The fish grew everyday and its original basin fit the fish less and less. She then used a bigger basin, and changed to a bigger one after that, and so on several times. The fish already was too big to be kept in the basin so YeXian was forced to raise it in a pond behind the house. Every day, YeXian brought some of her own leftover food, tossing it into the pond for the fish. So every time when YeXian came, the fish would then swim to the side of the pond, with its head raised above the water, leaning against the pond to greet YeXian. If another person came, that fish would not swim up. This wasn’t a secret for too long. One time, YeXian was discovered by her stepmother afterwards. However when her stepmother leaned against the pond, the fish was not willing to come close to the side of the pond. The stepmother then suddenly appeared to be concerned about Ye Xian, pretending to be kind-hearted and said to Ye Xian: “Girl! You are so tired with your work, here are new clothes for you, quickly put them on.” She made YeXian take off her old rags and put on the new clothes and wanted her to immediately go hundreds of miles away to another spring to gather water. Right after that, her stepmother put on YeXian’s old clothes, and she hid a sharp knife in her sleeve. When she came to the side of the pond she called for the fish, the fish, seeing YeXian’s clothes, recognized her stepmother as YeXian, then leaned against the side of the pond, and placed its head on the shore as if it was a pillow. The stepmother used this opportunity to take out the sharp knife from the secret sleeve she had used and killed the big fish. The fish was already grown more than ten feet long. The stepmother took the meat and cooked it. Its taste was many times better than ordinary fish. She took the leftover bones of the fish then hid them in the bottom of a dung pile. The next day, YeXian returned. She hurried towards the side of the pond, but she didn’t see the fish floating on the water to greet her. YeXian knew that the fish had surely met with misfortune so she let out a big cry. Suddenly a strange person with unkempt hair wearing crude clothes fell from the sky. He comforted her saying: “stop crying at once, your stepmother killed your fish, the bones of the fish head are hidden inside a dung pile; when you return there and take out the fish head bones and hide them well in your house. From now on whatever you need, as long as you pray to the fish bones, no matter what you wish, it will come true.” YeXian heard the strange man’s words. She took the fish bones and carried them home. Thereupon, afterwards, whenever YeXian wanted something, whether she wanted gold, pearls, flowery clothes or good food, as long as she prayed to the fish bones, her prayers were always answered. In the GuangXi province in China, there lived in this place the Zhuang people, that once or twice a year would make a standard sacrifice for the Cave Festival. Both men and women participated together in this event, and moreover, they confessed their love to the ones with who they were in love. To the young Zhuang adults living there, male or female, this was an opportunity to seize upon to come tell the truth. On the day of the cave festival, the stepmother instructed YeXian go guard the fruit in the peaceful garden. She took her real daughter along with her and they left from home to celebrate the cave festival. YeXian waited until her stepmother and younger sister had gone far, then she put on her green silk blouse and jade shoes spun together with golden silk thread. She left home at night to celebrate the cave festival. During the celebration, the stepmother’s real daughter saw her emerge, and then said to her mama: “oh mama, look, that girl looks like my older sister.” The stepmother also felt that she seemed like YeXian, but she dared not be certain, she jut felt uncertain and puzzled in her heart and mind. YeXian noticed that her stepmother and sister seemed to recognize her. She ran home in a hurry, dropping one gold slipper on her way home, which was found and taken away by a traveler. Afterwards, the stepmother took her daughter and returned home with her. She found YeXian sleeping in the garden holding the fruit tree, so she didn’t doubt that it was her. She didn’t take YeXian to be the girl at the celebration. Close by the Wu cave where YeXian lived, there was an island. On the island there was a very powerful kingdom called TuoHan. Their territory included ten islands and its spheres of influence reached as far as thousands of miles in the surrounding sea. In Wudong, the person who picked up the golden slipper, took the shoes and sold it in the kingdom of TuoHan. It passed through different hands until it reached the king. The king gave the girls in the palace the shoes to wear but nobody could wear it. The shoe was smaller than the smallest palace girl’s foot by an inch. He also made all of the women in the kingdom come and try to wear the shoe, but none of them could wear the shoe either. Oh this golden silk slipper! It seemed as light as a feather; it made little sound when walking on stone slabs. The TuoHan king felt that the shoe was stolen by the person who sold it. Therefore he arrested the man. He imprisoned and interrogated him, but he still didn’t come out with the right answer. So then he put the shoe on the main road and he dispatched a person to go search each family. If they found the other golden silk slipper, then they should arrest and return with that person. Afterwards at YeXian’s house they found the other slipper, they then ordered YeXian to put on the slipper. YeXian then put on the green silk blouse she had worn at the cave festival and wearing the golden slippers, she came out as though she were a fairy from the sky. Everyone then returned and reported everything to the TuoHan king, bringing the fish bones and YeXian back to the TuoHan king. But her stepmother and her younger stepsister were killed by flying stones. Those left behind saw and pitied both the stepmother and daughter’s deaths. They buried them, and called their grave the “tomb of sorry women.” It became a shrine for the god of marriage, where those wishing for a marriage could come and pray. Come here and make sacrifices. All your prayers will be answered When the Tuo Han king returned, he made YeXian his queen, and they were married that year. The king greedily prayed right away to the fish bones wanting a lot of gold, silver, pearls, jade, and other treasures. After a year had passed, the fish bones no longer answered to his prayers or gave him treasures. The king then ordered his people to bury the fish bones on the seashore, together with hundreds of bushels of treasures and he used the gold to make a wall that surrounded it from all sides. Afterwards there was a military coup in the kingdom, which set the soldiers into confusion, the king wanted to dig up some of the treasures and use them to enlist soldiers and buy horses in order to suppress the military uprising. Only then did he find out that the night before, all the fish bones and the treasures already been washed away.
Stories of Meng Jiangnu; 孟姜女的故事

  • Meng Jiangnu (孟姜女) is a famous love story that originates also in Zuo Zhuan (左传, B.C. 550), a Chinese classic that is a historic record; in this book of history, the heroine, known only as the wife of Qi Liang (杞粱妻), exemplifies the female virtues of calm and whole-hearted devotion; in its original form, there was no mention of the great wall, or her crying, let alone collapsing a stretch of the great wall because of her wailing; the story morphed during the Warring State period when the legend was put to music and an addition appeared in which the folklore heroine wept out of grief; the story picked up more mythological properties when Liu Xiang (刘向) of the Western Han (A.D. 200) collected it in his Biographies of Women (列女传) and had her weep so hard the deluge of her grieving tears made the great wall temple down; it was not until Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) that the legendary heroine and wife was identified as Meng Jiangnu; later ages also added more attributes to the heroine when sung and praised such that she came out of a magic gourd growing from a seed by swallows flying over the house of the Mengs; the love story became more elaborated, with added episodes of “wailing for husband” (哭夫), “collapse of the great wall” (城崩), and “drowning” (投水);
  • The genesis and developments of the myth which lends expression to many needs of the collective unconscious, needs for peace and social stability, fear and hatred for political tyranny, hope and wish for kindness and benevolence; the life of this folklore comes from its function as wish-fulfillment for the desire to see a weak and powerless woman bring down the greatest achievement of Qing shihuang (秦始皇), the first emperor who unified China and ordered the construction of the great wall in which tens of thousand conscripted laborers died of poor conditions; a sign of women’s powerlessness, her tears defy and ruin the symbol of tyrannical power; such open defiance is also seen when Meng Jiangnu confronts with emperor and demands a proper burial for her husband; the fantasy of a dialogue between a social zero and power that be, which would not take place in reality, is deeply gratifying for the rank and file that Meng Jiangnu represents psychologically; such wishful thinking, which dictates even the little details in the story, explains the life and popularity of the myth; women, in this case Meng Jiangnu, often become instrumental in this type of mythical thinking, with such mythical attributes and qualities as mysterious, dangerous, unpredictable, unreasonable, stubborn, etc. all of which become important ingredients of this particular heroic myth in a positive way;
  • A museum for and a stone statue of Meng Jiangnu stand today at the beginning of the great wall in Shandong province where she is believed to have jumped into the sea; a rock of the shape of a human figure is named as “look-for-husband” rock (望夫石); inside the museum there is a head board with the inscription of Wen Tianxiang (文天祥), the national hero and poet of Song Dynasty, “a good reputation to last ten thousand years,” (万古流芳) with the couplet on each side: “the emperor Qin was in peace while the great wall was built with grief; Jiangnu did not die because her virtues were carved in the stones to last for centuries;” (秦皇安在哉,万里长城筑怨;姜女未亡也,千秋片石铭贞); there are Meng Jiangnu’s temples throughout the land, built by local worthies and officials, even emperors, hoping to uphold the virtues that Jiangnu embodies and to side with the people; she has become an emblem of female virtues.
The Dao (way) of being a woman in the history of consciousness

  • In pre-Confucian China, narratives used to describe women’s lives, be they fictional, religious, mythological or historical, tend to be un-sophisticated (in comparison to the moral discourse of Confucianism in which women’s social roles are very clearly prescribed and codified); the idea of woman or female sex (雄雌/牡牝/公母/男女) is often articulated in opposition to man and masculinity; men and women are understood through a binary opposition such as yin and yang; gender discriminations and code of conducts could only be as sophisticated and advanced as the ethical or philosophical discourse was informed by the knowledge and technology people had about the world they lived in;
  • One of the popular anthropological theories about how female domination in matriarchal societies gradually declined and male power became dominant is that the domestication of animals (dog, sheep, pig, horse, etc.) allowed people to farm rather than hunt; the knowledge of animal reproductive cycle and the agricultural technologies to breed various domesticated animals 15000 years ago gradually dispelled or weakened the cult of female power; people knew better who contributed what to the reproduction of human life; prior to this point it is entirely possible and likely that people had believed that women could have babies by will for thousands of years, living in the infancy of human consciousness just like kids are led to believe by their parents that a stork brought them into this world;
  • In the classic Dao-De-Jing (《道德经》or the script of the way and virtue, written in the 3rd century B.C. by Lao Tzu), all binary oppositions are viewed as complementary and changing towards one another; in the text, the idea of virtue, (德 de), is understood as such only when in harmony with the way, (道 dao); this philosophical discourse shares affinity with mysticism emphasizing the unknowable aspects of the universe and resisting intellectual endeavors to rationalize human existence, including womanhood or femininity; within the perspective of Taoist naturalism, the ideas of woman and femininity are often mystified or rendered problematic; it is true that the language of Taoism associates men with action and being, and women with inaction and non-being, but as a philosophy it emphasizes complementarity and change, resists the rigidity and logic of rational thinking, and de-emphasizes social roles and identities for men and women that Confucians idealize and value; as a source of wisdom and enlightenment, the book prescribes a dialectic way of thinking for the feudal rulers who wanted to understand how the world operated by stressing the dynamics of natural forces over which man has no control; the female is mystified and awed, “know masculine, maintain feminine,” (知其雄,守其雌) or “the female ways conquers the male through her stillness;” or “All creatures under heaven are born from being; being is born from nonbeing.” (天下之物生于有,有生于无); to the founders of Taoism like Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, a paragon of virtue, man or woman, is necessarily a dead person and the superior man or sage is one that recognizes the need to change and the bewildering complexity of the natural world;
  • Founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu (老子,355-275 B.C.) was a philosopher and thinker critical of the way many Confucians defined human existence in terms of logical oppositions such as good and evil (man and woman); Greek philosopher Socrates who believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living” wanted human life to comply to cultural and intellectual ideas whereas Lao Zi’s idea of life is a natural process, “that which pervades heaven and earth is Tao; that which functions in harmony with heaven and earth is De, that which acts through all beings is justice;” to Taoists, the world is perfect as is; those trying to conquer nature are bound to fail;
  • Another Taoist thinker was Zhuang Zi (庄子, 370-301), the author of several philosophical treatises on life; to him too a person’s social accomplishments and achievements (including such things as female virtues, gender constructions, femininity, and masculinity) are but cultural affectations maintained at the expense of true human happiness, which is how he critically reflected on his reaction to his wife’s death as affectation; he thought his crying and sadness indicated his inability to accept the way Nature operates, which from Nothing brought him his wife and made him happy but also took her away and left him sad; his writings are on pp. 45-62 in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature.
History, Historians, and Women

  • Both Zuo Zhuan by Zuo Qiuming (左丘明, 502-422) and The Records of the Grant Historian by Sima Qian (司马迁, 145-86) are the earliest historical documents chronicling social events both before and after China was unified; although obvious, it is important to point out that, as the lives of historical personages are presented in these history books, man became more as the agent of change, responsible for the actions he took, as opposed to the concept of man in primitive Chinese cosmology where he is seen and understood for the most part as byproduct of natural forces over which he has no control; this is to say that the way historians record events also brings about a changed view of man with choices to make in life and moral responsibilities to fulfill; history is written less as meaningful coincidences or the results of unpredictable and uncontrollable circumstances than as the consequences of deliberate human actions, a process in the evolution of human consciousness, which is also characteristic of the way Ban Zhao (班昭, 45-120), the female Confucian and historian, writes about women’s place in history and society in her Lesson for Women;
  • We still see considerable emphasis on chance in these historical writings and records, but as actors on the stage of history, women are presented in sets of circumstances, delicate and complex, in which they had to act and carry out duties and responsibilities as mother, daughter, wife, royal consort, courtesan, and so forth; the exploits of women as recorded in these historical writings are not only what happened in the past as much as what women are expected to (not) do in the future; the actions taken by the sister of Nie (聂正) the assassin, as they are recorded in history, define or delineate the social space in which women are called upon to perform culturally; the moral lessons to draw from this story is also the implied position of honor to be occupied by women as mothers, made clear as Nie chose to care for her rather than go into politics as he is obliged by his friendship with Yan sui; the behaviors of Lady Li (骊姬) are also documented to exemplify what good women are not to emulate; the saga of Wang Zhaojun (王昭君) marks, among other things, an extra space in which courtly ladies could wiggle to realize themselves politically beyond just being agreeable and available sexually to the head of the state; the story of Duke Chuang shows us the extent to which mothers could affect the lives of powerful men; his mother, Lady Jiang, (武姜) goes down in history as an evil woman who shamelessly promotes the interests of one son at the expense of the other;
  • These historical and biographical accounts of people, men as well as women, establish the relevance of morality in human interactions, from the level of the individual to that of the state; they tell or show rather the reader how moral principles are at work in actuality in which it is hard or even impossible to have both loyalty to the emperor and filial piety for one’s parents (忠孝不可两全); it is from these stories that people soon learn the values and attitudes they must have in order to participate in Chinese society; what is perhaps most impressive is women’s resourcefulness, resilience and ability to effect change, as evidenced in such infamous women as Bao Si, Lady Li, and Lady Jiang in whom we still find the vestiges of a bygone matriarchal era where women held absolute power; these “bad” women more than transgressed and violated the code of female conduct as defined by Pan Chao; Pan Chao still has their sense of a woman as an agent of change but redefined it to suit the needs of her age.
Lessons for Women, by Ban Zhao (《女戒》,班昭),

  • Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women was important in that it readily serves as a subtext to many stories, fictional or historical, in which women have a role to play; Lessons delineates women’s social spaces and spells out the rules of the game if a woman wanted to succeed; it serves as a female success manual or etiquette for women
  • The relevance of Lessons is immediately apparent when we examine such fictional situations as Peacock Southeast Flew, a poem about domestic strife causing the death of two people; the conflict plays out precisely as Ban Zhao had understood it: “when the mother-in-law says, ‘do not do that,’ and if what she says is right, unquestionably the daughter-in-law obeys; whenever the mother-in-law says, ‘do that,’ even if what she says is wrong, still the daughter-in-law submits unfailingly to the command;”
  • the poem may have put a different spin on the patriarchal system as Ban Zhao had outlined it (with Liu Lanzhi falling victim to abusive power in spite of her efforts to be humble, docile, and subservient); she tried to please her mother-in-law in everyway Ban Zhao said a woman should, yet she ended up being badly hurt by her mother-in-law; but the tragic outcome does not fundamentally negate or prove irrelevant Ban Zhao’s understanding of the prevailing set of circumstances under which most women lived in ancient China; in other words, Lessons was necessary precisely because the reality as she understood it was prevalent
  • To whom or what do we attribute this instance of injustice? in a Confucian society, the explanation for Liu Lanzhi could come only from the moral teachings of Confucius; Hinsch interpreted the story for us and viewed the story as a case in which the mother should know better; for her lack of “ren” (仁,human-heartedness) she is punished by growing old without the care and love of her son and daughter-in-law, who were both forced to commit suicide; this is a Confucian way of reading the story. Liu had what Ban Zhao referred to as “whole-hearted devotion” to her husband; that is why from the perspective of the reader, people familiar with Confucian classics, sympathy goes to Liu rather than her mother-in-law, because at the core of Confucian moral philosophy is the emphasis on human kindness, the spirit behind all rites and rituals that Confucius wanted people to observe
  • Within the Confucian tradition, the story of Liu Lanzhi is indicative of how a moral universe operated where there were consequences to the choices people made; by emphasizing the decisions that women were making, Ban Zhao dignified female existence and the roles women played; what happened to Liu and her mother-in-law was not a case of misfortune but a result of bad and good moral choices. In other words, Liu Lanzhi personified and represented the moral conscience of society by trying to live up to the aesthetic ideals of “good women and virtuous wives” that Ban Zhao advocated
  • In many versions of Yang Guifei, including Bai Juyi’s (白居易) poem “The Song of Last Regret,” (Columbia Anthology p.478-485), we find essentially a love story, whereas we saw the institution of concubinage represented differently as a farm of dark social oppression in Zhang Yimou’s film Raise the Red Lantern; the basic story line of Yang Guifei again brings out the set of issues that Ban Zhao had articulated for successful women: balancing their roles of lover, wife, concubine; again the tragic heroine, though dead, comes through with total devotion; she takes all the blames like Liu Lanzhi; to be successful and heroic, a woman has to stake her life, as we’ll soon see in the story of Tu Shih-niang who commits suicide to prove her whole-hearted devotion;
Peacock Southeast Flew, 《孔雀东南飞》 徐陵著(Xu Ling, A.D. 507一583)

  • One of the earliest and longest narrative poems often set to music, the story is originally entitled “The wife of Jiao Zhongqing” (《焦仲卿妻》) or “A poem composed for the wife of Jiao Zhongqing” (《古诗为焦仲卿妻作》), collected as one of the stock pieces by the “office of music and poetry” (乐府, one of the administrative organs of the imperial palace); it is originally a oral folk tale about the tragic death of Jiao Zhongqing and his wife Liu Lanzhi (刘兰芝); before we read it as a romance, we need to know the cultural and historical specifics of this “Chinese” love story and be aware of the issues this story articulates at this particular time;
  • It is almost a self-predication to say that the issues presented in this story involve Confucian ideology; specifically they pertain to domestic life which is an important aspect of Confucian humanism codifying all modes of social interactions, such as parent-child relation, husband-wife relation, male-female relation; in Confucian China, personal interests are always subsumed in the interests of larger social units such as the tribal, familial and the state; individual love interest exists (and gets recognized) only as a part of the patrilinealizing social order prioritizing the male over the female, family over the individual, the aged over the young (gerontocracy), and loyalty over personal gain; such a hierarchy of moral values determines the fine line or delicate point at which obedience is laudable and rebellion criminal but beyond which compliance is despicable and revolt heroic; in the Chinese context, the story can be seen as a (re)interpretation, rather than rejection, of Confucianism;
  • In Confucian scheme of things, the suicides of Jiao and his wife represent as the heroic act of (殉情): dying for love rather than obeying the orders of the wicked Mother who abuses her authority as the surrogate patriarch, (her husband had died); normally speaking, family elders are not to be disobeyed, as the female Confucian Ban Zhao had succinctly put it: “when the mother-in-law says, ‘do not do that,’ and if what she says is right, unquestionably the daughter-in-law obeys; whenever the mother-in-law says, ‘do that,’ even if what she says is wrong, still the daughter-in-law submits unfailingly to the command;” but in this dramatic situation, nothing is normal: the young couple is from two families unequal in wealth and background, against the traditional belief of (门当户对) marriage between people of comparable family backgrounds; as talented and diligent as she is, the wife is still considered married up, which is one strike against her; secondly, she has not produced a child for the Jiao family, which is another strike against her since marriage is for the purpose of procreation to continue the patrilineal line through a male heir; thirdly, according to the Mother, Liu Lanzhi is indolent and disobedient (“本自无教训”“举动自专由”), a charge that could result in her being dismissed; according to the Book of Rituals (礼记), a woman shall be divorced for any of the following seven reasons: (1) disobedience to her father-in-law or mother-in-law, 不顺父母; (2) failure to bear children, 无子; (3) lewdness 淫; (4) jealousy 妒嫉; (5) leprosy or like foul diseases, 恶疾; (6) talking too much, 多言; (7) stealing, 盗窃.
  • Hers is thus a typical situation for many wives in traditional China who feel powerless and find it impossible to carry out their duties and obligations as wife and daugher; after coming back to her own home humiliated, Liu Lanzhi is confronted with a second marriage to an official (县令太守) arranged and staged by her own mother and brother to avoid further embarrassment; she then commits another act of disobedience against the elders of her own family when she refuses to honor such an arranged marriage; as a virtuous woman she declines to remarry (一妇不嫁二夫) and must exercise “whole-hearted devotion” to her husband who is still alive; her moral choice or preference of death to a (re)marriage of convenience and wealth shows not only the stupidity and cruelty of her mother-in-law now faced with growing old without the care and love of her son and daughter-in-law, but also the moral dignity and integrity of this young woman;
  • This drama, though sad, is not morally ambiguous; sympathy is expected to go to the heroine who is apparently beyond blame and holding tenaciously onto the love of her husband; she is seen surrounded by people with questionable morals; from within the Confucian perspective, Liu Lanzhi comes across a female martyr (烈女) who honors her husband’s love with nothing less than her own dear life; in other words, the moral magnitude of this story correlates with the extraordinary length the heroine goes in order to overcome the odds in her life as a perfect woman.
Yang Guifei (杨贵妃)

  • As a real person, Yang Yuhuan (杨玉环) lived in A.D. 719-756 during Tang dynasty; one of the four beauties in ancient China, she was the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (唐玄宗) for many years; “guifei” simply means the highest rank for imperial consorts; in many versions of Yang Guifei, including Bai Juyi’s (白居易) poem “The Song of Last Regret,” (Columbia Anthology p.478-485), we find essentially a love story, but what is also significant about the life of this woman (not a paper being in fiction and myth) is the circumstances surrounding her death as a femme fatale figure; during the Anshi Rebellion and insurrection, Yang Guozhong, her powerful cousin who fell a scapegoat victim and was put to death for allegedly socializing with the rebels; as Emperor Xuanzong was fleeing from the capital Chang’an (now Xi’an), the loyalist army refused to follow the Emperor unless he would also kill Guifei guilty by association with Yang Guozhong (her cousin) and responsible for interference with the state affairs; with the emperor’s acquiescing the troop’s request, Guifei hanged herself, removing herself from state politics and from the life of the emperor; if anything, her brief life in the limelight of Chinese history, while regrettable, delineates the domain of feminine power;
  • By all accounts, Yang Yuhuan was a failure when it comes to female conduct, although very few women ever found themselves in the position of an imperial consort who nearly got the undivided attention of the emperor for as long as four years; her tragedy results when imperial affection disarmed all her guards and defense mechanism as a woman without much power; as the emperor piled favor after favor on her and her extended family, she gradually lost her sense of reality, alienating those around her, throwing temper tantrum, and totally oblivious to the risks of being the emperor’s favorite concubine and perceived as interfering with the state affairs by trying to keep the emperor all to herself; her ascent to power was never matched with a sound political mind as the one Ban Zhao had; Yang never quite realized, as Ban Zhao was keenly aware at all times, that a woman’s relation to her husband was always political, subject to moral interpretations as are all her actions in life, whether a daughter, mother or wife/lover;
  • Perhaps to some extent her life, so extraordinarily fortunate in some ways and uniquely unfortunate in other ways, is typical in that female existence as always defined and judged by criteria protecting patriarchal interests is bound to be controversial, let alone this particular woman with very little knowledge of the femme fatale stereotype in which she was to meet her demise; she dared demand and at times successfully manipulated the favors of the emperor, using his affection as a leverage to advance the interests of her extended family; she was well known for her jealousy in her famous act (贵妃醉酒) of getting drunk the night that the emperor spent with consort Mei; she was also known for liking fresh lichees which the emperor had brought from southern China where the fruit grew; as the emperor treated her more lavishly the palace personnel for embroidering royal costumes grew to over 7 hundred; her pride as the emperor’s favorite consort and her beauty made her the envy of everyone in the capital where, for a moment, there were sayings that (生女勿悲酸,生男勿喜欢;男不封侯女为妃,看女却是门上媚) “no more sadness and disappointment if a girl is born, no more joy and elation if it’s a boy; for men are no longer appointed ministers while women are exulted as queen consorts, and women are the pride of the family”; to the extent she was conscious of her beauty and popularity as a political capital, she was also responsible for her bad choice of An Lushan (安禄山) as a close friend, a non-Han and able fighter who eventually rose up against the emperor and the Han army that he had served with valor and distinction;
  • Though tragic, her fate shows the raw primitive power of the feminine mystique that had to be brought in line with the interests of the patriarchal power; she stood and fell on how she behaved herself in the limelight she had no way of avoiding as the beloved to the emperor; in the end her fortune as a beauty became a curse when both her cousin and she fell scapegoat victims in a political crisis with which she had nothing to do, reinforcing the age-old saying that “beautiful women live short lives” (红颜薄命); a self-fulfilling prophecy and gender stereotype or bias came to another full circle; her story has many variations and different accounts; people praise her beauty, delight in the love she enjoyed by the emperor, and lament her tragic death which she died totally innocent of the crime she was accused of; the only crime for which she was truly guilty was not knowing the real nature of her relationship to the patriarchy represented and embodied by no one other than her beloved king.
The Story of Yingyingby Yuan Zhen (莺莺传,元稹著)

  • Remember what Lacan said about femininity as a masquerade? Yingying represents the art of Chinese femininity when masquerading herself left and right except telling Mr. Chang how she feels; of course most male readers loved this elegant show of femininity through the drama of devotion and betrayal;
  • Yuan Zhen created a very complex female character, perhaps doing some justice to the idea of the whole woman in an age in which women were by and large silenced. Yingying is a woman that Chinese men find irresistible. Her transgression (sleeping with Chang and premarital sex) offers a case for real understanding of Confucian moral philosophy. (Earlier we studied Mencius’ discussion of what is the sign of a true Confucian gentleman who would touch the hand of his sister-in-law without any hesitation because she is drowning when he knew very well the ordinarily men and women were not supposed to touch hand when interacting with one another.) In other words, Yuan Zhen created a female character that has depth and dimensions; her humanity is more complex and richer than, say, Meng Jiangnu, the perfect wife who wouldn’t want to live after the death of her husband; Yuan Zhen created a case that is problematic for the austere Confucian moral teachings; hang appears a phony and hypocritical when he abandons Yingying on the grounds that her indiscretion gives him no choice but to ditch her. This short prose story of the Tang Dynasty, which 4 centuries later became the famous drama entitled “The Romance of the Western Chamber” during the Yuan Dynasty, wants the reader to sympathize with the victim of hypocrisy. Yes, Yingying is a fallen woman but she happens to have more “ren”, kindness and integrity, than Chang, the one who appears to have moral superiority.
  • In fact the characterization of Yingying shows Yuan Zhen’s own dilemma and ambivalence toward Lessons for Women by Ban Zhao. Himself a poet and scholar, Yuan Zhen probably liked women who were talented and not afraid of letting their real feelings known. In other words, as an aberration to the classical view of female virtue, Yingying also does justice to what women were really like as Yuan Zhen understood or/and fantasized them to be: sexually liberated, smart, complex, and at the same time true. After rejecting Chang’s advances during the day, she comes to him at night and offers herself to him sexually. She knows the rules of the game perfectly but chooses to obey and disobey them at will, driven by her love for this man.
  • If we truly understand the dilemma of Yingying who cannot say how she really feels, then what she says here must be construed as, “you were the one who took away my dignity and made me unworthy.” Earlier she also says, “What begins in chaos must end in abandonment,” (始乱终弃) letting Chang know that she understood what he is up to;
  • I think he is saying more than that; by portraying Chang a heartless lover, Yuan Zhen prepares his reader for Chang’s final act of breaking faith with his lover. Chang is no real Confucian gentleman who would have also “compromised” his virtues to stay with his true love. In the later Yuan drama version of the story, we have a happy ending in which Chang returned to marry Yingying. At the core of Confucianism as a mode of wisdom is not a god or a set of abstract moral principles handed down from above, but the true human-heartedness like the kind Yingying has demonstrated when she knowingly does an immoral deed in order to love someone. In the Confucian Analects, there is the following: the Duke of She informed Confucius, saying: “Among us here are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.” Confucius said “Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” Analects, Book VIII, chapter XVIII (叶公语孔子曰、吾党有直躬者、其父攘羊而子证正之。孔子曰、吾党之直者异于是、父为子隐子为父隐、直在其中矣。) As is obvious, the core and essence of Confucianism is the kind of humanity, compassion, or frailty if you will, that exists among men. In a patriarchal society, Father is not a mere agent to carry out a set of moral principles to which he also has to subject himself; he is the ultimate moral principle itself; he is the moral absolute. By inference, Yingying’s transgression, though morally apprehensible, appeals to the type of moral quandary in which Confucians are most interested.
  • In his story, Yingying tries to appear “proper” and “womanly” for Chang. But the author wanted to show that Chang is a fake and phony who uses Confucian morality as an excuse for abandoning the girl he seduces, an immoral act on his part. Yingying is depicted as a fallen woman but also an authentic individual who gives Chang her love (her virginity), knowing full well that in so doing she compromises herself as a respectable young woman. To the author who probably purged his own guilt by way of his fictional character Chang, (sexual) love and virtue always co-exist in such a way that devotion to one necessarily diminishes the other, which is also true in French classicism and Jansenism. The Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记) The story in The Romance of the Western Chamber by Wang Shifu (王实甫) of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) directly came from the prose romance The Story of Yingying (英英传) by Yuan Shen (元稹) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Story of Yingying is a tragedy about the love, union and separation between Zhang Sheng (张生) and Cui Yingying (崔英英) in the first year of the Zhenyuan reign in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Several episodes in the story have certain influence on The Romance of the Western Chamber in terms of subject matter, dramatis personae and plots as well. The Romance of the Western Chamber tells that a young scholar Zhang Sheng went to the capital city to take the highest imperial examination. When he stayed in a temple, he met Cui Yingying, daughter of the then Prime Minister and fell in love with her. At that time, a group of robbers besieged them. Yingying’s mother declared that she would marry her daughter to whomever could save them. Zhang Sheng managed to do that with his friend’s help. But her mother refused to keep her words because he was poor. However, Yingying and Zhang Sheng loved each other very much, and with the help of Hong Niang (红娘), Yingying’s maid, they broke the traditional barrier. Since the appearance of this play in the thirteenth century, it has enjoyed unparalleled popularity. The play has given rise to innumerable sequels, parodies, and rewritings; it has influenced countless later plays, short stories, and novels and has played a crucial role in the development of drama criticism. The theme of the drama is an attack on feudal mores, supporting the longing of young people in those days for freedom of marriage, although it follows the timeworn pattern of a gifted scholar and a beautiful lady falling in love at first sight. According to the orthodox viewpoint of feudal society, love was not supposed to be a basis for marriage, as most marriages were arranged by the parents of the couples, but the happy ending of The Romance of the Western Chamber embodies the aspirations of people for more meaningful and happier lives. Thus, the biggest difference between The Story of Yingying and The Romance of the Western Chamber lies in their endings — the former has a sad ending while the latter has a happy ending. What’s more, The Romance of the Western Chamber carries a more profound meaning in its clou, and directly suggests to may all lovers in the world be settled down in a family union, with a more sharp-cut theme of attacking feudal mores and feudal marriage system.
The Shrew: Sharp-Tongued Ts’ui-lien, 《快嘴李翠连》洪子美,宋元作家

  • The twists and turns in the heroine’s life are developed at the expense of Tsuilien who is made the laughing stock, failing totally to behave herself in spite of the advice she receives; this story is meant to entertain the general audience while making fun of female rites and virtues, and the idea of matrimony; the line separating Secunda as a paragon of female virtue and Tsuilien as a chatter-box and fool that violated everything in the book of female etiquette is razor thin; both female protagonists are created to ridicule the lofty ideas and values;
  • In terms of genre, this is a satire of unwomanly behavior and conduct; the heroine is a laughing stock for the male reader because she possesses all unwanted feminine traits: excessive speeche, immodesty, egoism, and self-assertion, but at the same time it offers a rather realistic picture of what a woman could be like when possessed by the dark feminine and all bad female qualities; most traditional readers take Tsuilien’s final exit to the nunnery as punishment she deserves by violating all the rules of female decorum; as modern readers or dissidents of the Confucian values we can see in the story the fate of many women who because of their character, personality, or temperament were unfit for married life; on the one hand the story was written and passed on from generation to generation to affirm the established female virtues that Ban Zhao advocated, it also gives a vivid portrayal of the bitterness a woman endures when in an unsuccessful or unhappy marriage on the other; to laugh at Tsuilien would be a “politically correct” thing to do in Confucian cultural context because the story is written to deride women’s ignorance and foolishness as represented by the heroine;
  • Sometimes an anachronistic reading of the story could be useful; for example, we can ask why Tsuilien did not become a barber or Wal-Mart cashier if she finds married life stifling and unfulfilling? the answer is simple: because in an agricultural society, capital was scarce, trade and commerce were sluggish, and most jobs were low-skilled and labor-intensive and taken by men; so nunnery is the logical and realistic place for Tsuilien to go if she finds arranged marriage not her cup of tea; in Lovers Murdered at A Rendezvous and the Calamitous Golden Eel, we saw female characters work at odd jobs and we saw Tu Shih-niang make quite a lot of money by working as a courtesan in Beijing; for those interested in sociology and history, you might want to search for historical accounts on women’s economic lives in pre-modern China, so that you can adopt a sociological approach to Chinese literature.
  • 《清平山堂话本》中有不少值得注意的作品。如《快嘴李翠莲记》说一个富有反抗性的女子, 嫁给张狼为妻, 因为心直口快, 能说会道,不肯逆来顺受, 竟敢训斥丈夫, 顶撞公婆,终於被休回娘家, 又为父母兄嫂所不容, 只能出家当尼姑。话本中用李翠莲对话的方式,插入许多段快板式的唱词, 酣畅活泼, 为前所未见。这篇小说题材新颖,体裁特别,富有反封建精神, 很为人重视。
Tu shiniang sank her treasure box in angerby Feng Menglong; (《杜十娘怒沉百宝箱》冯梦龙,1574-1646)

  • One of the ten most famous Chinese prostitutes, Tu Shih-niang represents the difficulties of womanhood in Confucian China; her story as a beautiful courtesan shows, among other things, the ubiquity of Confucian moral philosophy and religion that governs even the conduct of prostitutes, marginalized by the patrilineal society (宗法社会); in other words, prostitutes also have a problem of following the code of conduct for virtuous women; for the heroine, the key to her redemption and womanhood is whole-hearted dedication to her husband, for which she would rather die as a chaste female martyr (烈女) rather than live disgraced and ashamed;
  • To a Chinese reader, this story immediately brings to mind the theme of “cong liang,” (从良) a prostitute becoming a good wife; it is not just a literary genre but an established social practice; normally it is very difficult for prostitutes to re-enter into a domestic life, given the premium Confucians put on women’s sexual fidelity; Ban Zhao already noted this double standard in her Lessons: men don’t mind their own sexual promiscuity while women are held responsible for keeping female chastity; Miss Tu is well liked and openly pursued by men as a sexual object but shunned as a source of scandal, wherein lies the dynamics of cong-liang theme: to which extent can a woman be a moral person who is a prostitute by profession;
  • As is often pointed out by scholars, Confucian moralism emphasizes man’s amelioration as opposed to his inborn personality; in the three-character classic or trimetric Classic (三字经), one of the Chinese classic texts and written in the 13th century and attributed to Wang Yinglin (王应麟, 1223-1296) during the Song Dynasty, it says that “people are all good at birth; by nature they are similar but by practice they become different” (人之出,性本善;性相近,习相远); the Confucians therefore put a premium on education and self-cultivation of everyone, including people such as prostitutes; Miss Tu, though a prostitute, comes out triumphant over scholar Li Jia who, born into wealth and privileged in education, goes down as a shameful villain who values money over loyalty; Miss Tu represents the eight core Confucian values (of loyalty, filial piety, virtue, integrity, kindness, faith, courtesy, and wisdom; 忠、孝、节、义、仁、信、礼、智) while Li Jia and Sun Fu act on expedience and treat human beings like a means to an end; this is the sense in which one can say that Confucian humanism empowers a prostitute to rise above her mean conditions and to judge the men without moral scruples; in this game or battle of the sexes where the rules are often in favor of man, Miss Tu outdoes Li Jia by sticking to her side of the bargain while the latter fails to hold out his end of the bargain by respecting and cherishing her as his wife;
  • Sometimes the logics in ethics also works as aesthetics enabling us to view moral acts as beautiful, which is perhaps why the audience usually finds it touching when at the end Miss Tu commits suicide, an act of true love and of protest against her husband’s shameful abandonment; she is the figure of the sublime when she throws herself and her treasures into the river; Li Jia who loves money and women ends losing both, a poetic justice for those who deviate from their ethical principles (义) in pursuit of profit (利) as in “gentleman minds righteousness while a mean person minds profit” (君子喻于义,小人喻于利); this drama of loyalty and betrayal perfectly illustrates this Confucian view of the world as a moral universe.
  • When it reaches its climax at the end, repeating female heroism (of tragedy) we have seen in Liu Lanzhi of Peacock Southeast Flew, Meng Jiangnu, and Yang Guifei who are all martyrs and paragons of Confucian values;
  • French thinker Michel Foucault, when discussing the disappearance of corporeal punishment, points out that it is because the work of those who administered bodily pain to the condemned has been more effectively carried out by an army of functionaries such as chaplains, psychiatrists, educators, medical doctors, etc. who know how to control the soul; he therefore argues against the popular Christian view that body is the prison of the soul; in the modern age, the soul is the prison of the body; in other words, the soul is being re-programmed by culture and education to imprison the body; this seems the case when it comes to traditional Chinese women whose internalized sense of femininity kept their female body pure by not giving it the freedom it requires to live.
Six Chapters of A Floating Life (浮生六记) by Shen Fu 沈复, 1763-

  • That Shen Fu was really a bohemian by heart, not very interested in either the officialdom or literary accomplishments, his intimate and detailed account of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Chen Yun (陈芸) offers authenticity to the literati life as it was lived during the Qing Dynasty; even though his father was a government official and he had a classical education, Shen Fu was never successful as a scholar and no good in holding public offices; in her book “Intellectuals in Chinese Fiction,” professor Dai-yun Yue (乐戴云) of Peking University calls Shen Fu a typical figure of the traditional intellectual to whom aesthetic experience and leisure were more important than money and power; his autobiography shows the kind of simple joy beyond the pale of Confucian patrilineal tradition; in this respect, theirs was a domestic life not without some attraction to both the aristocrats and bourgeoisie, under-privileged but relatively free of political strife, precarious but exemplified from industry and monotony;
  • Living in obscurity, the husband and wife enjoyed quietude unknown to austere and public-spirited moralists; they seemed playful if not outright defiant toward domestic rules and etiquette that would restrict the freedom of the individual; theirs was a love between the husband and wife as cousins, friends and equals; he was a true liberal in that he was never serious enough about his role as a filial son or about the “female virtues” to actually regulate Yun’s conduct by them; in fact he was quite negligent about his father’s high expectations of him and delighted in his wife’s little indiscretions or transgressions, encouraging her to dress as a man so that they could have a walk in the street; every time Yun was conscious of the female roles she was expected to play, Shen Fu would make light of such social conventions, finding a free-thinking woman much more interesting;
  • By all means, they were not free from the ubiquity of patrilineal obligations; Yun’s offenses of arranging a concubine for her father-in-law without telling her mother-in-law and of borrowing money from and socializing with people their parents did not approve of incurred their expulsions from the feudal family twice; but they transcended these family matters and their attitude made them discontents of Confucian values and ideals; Shen Fu was nearly always on her side when confronted with patriarchal tyranny; finally the candor itself with which A Floating Life was narrated, imperfect and even scandalous at times, was of great importance as far as literary biography is concerned; it is a true rarity considering that nearly all biographies had been conventionally written to exemplify moral ideals and/or reflections on social issues; Shen Fu’s is memoir dedicated to his private thoughts, sentiments, and reflections which, though trivial and lacking magnitude, authenticate and dignify the life of the individual; after all, it was written to honor the genuine affection and love between the two caring individuals;
  • As such, even modern readers resonate with the sentiments of the ups and downs in Shen family in that they bespeak a helplessness all people experience, whether living in ancient China or struggling in Mao’s new China; the famous modern woman writer and translator Yang Jiang (杨降, 1911) adopted this type of literary autobiography for her Six Chapters from my life down-under (干校六记) to record her private memories of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a literary genre that gives space and integrity to personal experiences and served well her purpose of writing a private rather than political history; in this sense people seem to have under-estimated the significance of this biography in which both Shen Fu and Chen Yun lived by and large primarily for themselves and each other before they were public personalities. Questions to think about
  • Is theirs the kind of marriage Pan Chao (班昭) had in mind or would steer women away from?
  • Similar to the love story (though ending tragically) of Lanzhi Liu (刘兰芝) and Zhongqing Jiao (焦仲卿) in Peacock Southeast Flew, the love between Shen Fu (沈复) and Yun (芸) is such that it began to demand space that was non-existent and challenge the hierarchy of Confucian values;
  • Do you consider Yün and/or Shen Fu to have been radical/revolutionary? Why or why not?
  • In what ways did the relationship between Shen Fu and Yün counter expected gender roles in a patrilineal society (宗法社会) and in what ways did it reinforce them?
  • What role did their status (or desired status) play in their relations to one another? What role did their poverty play in their relations to one another?
  • Examine Shen Fu’s relations with his family.
  • Examine how Shen Fu did or did not fulfill the role of a dutiful son and decide what kind of man he was.
  • Examine how Yün did or did not fulfill the role of a dutiful daughter-in-law.
  • Do you think that a marriage like the one between Yün and Shen Fu, apparently based on love (at least of the man for the woman), would result in higher status / power / authority for the woman, than in a purely arranged marriage?
  • In what ways is their relation as husband and wife (mates and lovers) any different from that of any bourgeois couple represented by such Western love stories as “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Anna Karenina,” “Effi Briest,” “Madam Bovary,” “Awakening,” “Tess of d’Urbervilles”?
  • What do the two people have in common that transcends the rigid gender roles and spousal etiquette and segregation?
Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai《 梁山伯与祝英台 》

  • Perhaps it should be stated that today the piece is better known not as a prose story but as a piece of music; Madame Mao, the wife of the late Mao Zedong, is believed to have said that she liked this piece of music the best
  • As a literary genre, this piece falls rightly into the “romance” category in the sense in which the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye uses the term in his Anatomy of Criticism; to him, romance first and foremost is a form of registering social protest, written to denounce outdated social practices, such as the romantic play by William Shakespeare entitled Romeo and Juliet, produced to shed a critical light on Medieval European feudal society; as such, the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet can be read with this question in mind: what are the social conventions being implicated in this romantic story?
  • It is not hard to see that gender bias in education is one of the things being bitterly protested against in this romance; Yingtai’s willfulness is perfectly justified because she wants nothing more than a classical education that all (rich) men take pride in having; Ban Zhao argued for nothing less than that earlier on;
  • Another social institution brought into question in this famous Chinese romantic story is that of arranged marriage, which comes through in very negative light because it is directly and largely responsible for Yingtai’s death, a symbolic act of protestation against her father’s arranged marriage; but how can such a piece of romance, with unambiguous messages against Confucian hierarchical values (male over female, and age over youth), be tolerated and even cherished in a society that is by and large very Confucian?
  • The key to this question lies in the fact that romantic love, which ranks far below filial piety and obedience in Confucian scheme of things, has been idealized the same as the Confucian notion of “ren” (仁、human-heartedness or humanity) for which life can and is expected to be sacrificed; “ren” is one of the corner stones of Confucianism and the highest value as in (舍身求仁) or as recorded in the Analects, “志士仁人,无求生以害仁,有杀身以成仁。” (“The man of will is a man of humanity who does not want to save his life at the expense of humanity but rather sacrifices his life to honor humanity.” ) What makes the love between Yingtai and Shanbo heroic rather than petty is their willingness to die for it; all over China, especially in southern China, there has been this practice known as (殉情) xun qing, to die for love, whereby young lovers kill themselves to honor their love and total devotion that is not socially accepted; the story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai unfolds along this theme, and therefore is well-liked by Confucian-minded people who want to see heroic exploits of sacrificing oneself for something one believes in;
  • Lastly, we need to pay attention to the aesthetics of Confucianism, namely what makes things beautiful and artistic within this moral perspective? The word is personal sacrifice; in Peacock Southeast Flew, we already see two young lovers commit suicide; the same can be said about the myth of Meng Jiangnu who dies after finding her husband underneath the great walls; we’ll soon see the aestheticization of female suicide (or self-sacrifice) in our next piece entitled “Tu Shih-niang sank her treasure box in anger”; these secular stories don’t rank very high in literary classics because they deal with both the sacred and profane at the same time;
  • Throughout this course, we need to remind ourselves again and again that we are essentially dealing with literature (fiction) and not history or sociology. By this I mean there never were Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai who loved each other so much that they became butterflies after committing suicide. All there was was this story, which is itself a product of Confucian culture or what you call Chinese “feudalism” that tried to raise questions about its own values and institutions such as arranged marriages as well as the “three ways of obedience”. In other words, we must give some credit to this “feudalism” (or Confucianism) for its ability to question its own ideals and values. Works such as Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, Story of Yingying, The Female Cheng-ping that saved her life with seven ruses, or Tu Shih-niang sank her treasure box in anger, were all written in and products of Chinese feudalism; they were not written by some Western feminists living outside the Confucian culture. So if we are really serious about the classical literature of pre-modern China, we perhaps should not argue that “Liang and Zhu are killed by feudalism” or that this or that stories “showed a hierarchal and sexist society;” it is this hierarchical and sexist society that has produced the antidote to its own moral excesses. The monolithic view of the Confucian China is not helpful because there have been many dissenting voices and outspoken critics in the history of this society. Those of you who have taken Chinese 220 on modern Chinese literature need to respect the complexity and richness of pre-modern Chinese literature, which the May Fourth generation of writers, an elite group of intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s, indeed rejected in total, no different from their predecessors who were also dissidents of Confucianism.
  • Insightful discussion; this romance elevates the sexual attraction to the level of morality, just like Confucius tried to idealize kinship to the level of the sublime. This romantic tale enables the reader to enter into an imagined space where it is possible to re-prioritize values such as filial piety and individual love choice, with the latter on top of the former. The same space for thinking freely and critically is also created by stories such as Peacock Southeast Flew in which sexual passion seems almost worthy of risking disobeying moral authority (parents). As a whole these fictional tales help people living in a Confucian society to negotiate between order and civil disobedience, between rule and rebellion; they help readers reach that delicate point at which obedience is a virtue and rebellion criminal, but beyond which compliance seems cowardly and revolt heroic.
  • Good discussion; but next time you encounter this type of romantic stories that seem to debunk the existing social mores and values, you don’t have to jump into moral conclusion that it is either for or against the dominant ideology. This is because often times the message is much more nuanced and subtle. In the Analects, Confucius was discussing how in his moral universe, it is hard to practice both filial piety and loyalty (忠孝不能两全) because loyalty to your king (or the love for another person) often gets into the way of filial piety. This ubiquitous moral dilemma is also at work in this love story where Yingtai finds it impossible to practice obedience to Father and total devotion to Shanbo at the same time. In this sense, the love story, very much like Peacock Southeast Flew, exemplifies the Confucian value of ren (compassion, kindness, and love). In other words, the story does not immediately strike the reader as foreign or Taoist or Buddhist. Although it is very hard, we need, or at least try, to separate the theory as developed and articulated by Confucius from the various interpretations of it by different Confucians who wanted to revise the theory to fit the needs of social change.
The Female Ch’en Ping saves her life with seven ruses, by Li Yu (女陈平计生七出;作者:李渔, 1611-1680 清)

  • It is important to become sophisticated about the ways people, especially literary writers, express their changing attitudes and values; while almost everyone openly agreed to Confucian views on women and established female virtues, it is not clear what is actually involved when the practitioners of these views carry out their beliefs and values like Secunda Keng; Li Yu’s story brings the actual practice of female virtues up and close, and in so doing shows the absurdity of it; he shows us how ridiculous it is for most women to carry out these virtues; he is not trying to glorify or proselytize these virtues; instead; he is trivializing and ridiculing them, making fun of the whole idea of female chastity;
  • Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal and discussed quite matter-of-factly how Ireland’s social problems of stagnation, poverty and starvation at the hand of the British can be solved by killing Irish new-born and selling their flesh and skin for money; such a ‘modest” proposal, as it turns out, is meant to be a dark iron showing the author’s strongest protestation of the British government who occupied Ireland but did nothing to improve the lives of the colonized Irish people after taking all their natural resources to the mother-country; Swift meant the opposite of what he was saying, similar to what Li Yu is doing here, which seems to moralize and judge the heroic exploits of Secunda and condemn the other female captives who willingly slept with the bandits without trying to defend their chastity; the rhetoric of female chastity is only a scheme on the part of Li Yu to write his secular entertaining stories of sex and violence without sanction and censorship; (his “Prayer Mat of Flesh” 《肉蒲团》is a piece of sexual comedy about a guy with an enormous penis traveling from village to village fornicating with many housewives, undressing a hypocritical Confucian society; very likely, Secunda Keng (耿二娘) story is a dark and scathing social criticism leveled against moral hypocrisy in the form of female chastity, for if it takes such a resourceful and sagely woman to perfect female chastity and if the majority of women are dying to have sex with even their captors, then the purpose of female chastity is called into question; each trial and tribulation Secunda goes through by making her vulva swollen or creating loose bowls and diarrhea for herself and her captor only trivializes morality and liquidates or bankrupts the idea of female chastity;
  • As a woman who “cannot read or write”, Secunda Keng has that wonderful ability to work things out in ways other people (who talked about high-flown ideas of morality) did not or could not know how, wherein lies the key to this sexual comedy. On one level, the whole issue of morality as articulated in Confucian context is rendered almost irrelevant since, as Liyu points out, “If the people who claim to possess these four virtues are put to test, the false will survive and only the true will perish.” (p.934); in real life those true to their moral principles are the ones to perish whereas the hypocrites are the ones to survive. In other words, the only one able to remain a paragon of female virtues happens to be a total illiterate woman who knows how not to let her captor penetrate her on the grounds of technicality. To celebrate or rejoice in Secunda Keng is to realize the disconnectedness of cultural ideals (such as female chastity) and mundane realities. That she is a sage in a way excuses common women from the unreasonable expectations put on them to be virtuous and chaste. Emerging from this story is a common humanity with which ordinary people can identify and accept. In other words, Liyu shows the absurdity of female chastity by creating Secunda as the only woman who can live up to the idealized version or image of womanhood. All the others not only fail to resist the bandits but openly welcome their rapists as a form of liberation from sexual oppression, which is the same message from Liyu’s “The Carnal Prayer Mat.”
  • If you wish to take a look at Liyu’s piece from a comparative perspective, let me suggest Erasmus’ ironic encomium entitled Praise of Folly (1512) during the Renaissance period. It satirizes the way the Catholic Church operated in Medieval Europe. Liyu’s dry and black humor in this encomium of his is a part of his identity as a humanist just like Erasmus.
Calamitous Golden Eel by Feng Menglong (1574-1646) of Ming Dynasty “庆奴偷情勒死小孩子,周三窃财砍死岳父母”取自冯梦龙《警世通言》

  • Anne McLaren, the translator of the story, groups it with those works about “Wicked Women in Chinese Literature” and she calls them “the femme fatale” stories; she further introduces the literary convention or genre of “tales of the strange” (志怪) in which humans and ghosts interact, seemingly to illustrate some morals; but by and large these tales, though popular and well liked, were viewed as vulgar by literati trained in the classics who preferred the high literature of poetry, drama and history; even so, the over 200 such tales that Feng collected from a vast array of secular stories (“说话”“话本”) already in circulation during the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties reveal the real social conditions of the time, with such fictional subjects as bureaucrats, craftsmen, tradesmen, corrupted officials, failed scholars, prostitutes, disgruntled house wives, adulterers, and even criminals running from the law; perhaps the real value of these vulgar secular novels is not how faithful they stick to the Confucian moral principles, but how comprehensive they are in representing social realities that the literati writers often left out as not to demean literature;
  • People enjoy to high culture by way of principle but relate to vulgar and profane fiction because of its authenticity; the stories all try to follow the convention of moral history and paid lip service to Confucian morality, but they ultimately end up weakening the symbolic order and system of values by introducing into literature the sordid details of day-to-day life; thus the sacred became diluted by the profane;
  • In this story, Feng did not seem a moralist making a didactic case for the danger of female sexuality that must be controlled if families and society at large are to remain stable and safe; behind the supernatural and strange is a very realistic account of why and how Qingnu sinks into moral degradation; Feng seems to be telling a ghost story, with all the necessary ingredients of sex, violence, and mystery, to entertain his readers; but his fictional account also offers a primitive sociology; with the exception of why Qingnu is born nymphomaniac (because of the killing of the magic eel); everything else is described in realistic details as to why she behaves the way she does and how violence begets violence; the eel becomes a metaphor for unchecked female sexuality seen to have ruined many lives; but beyond this the story also offers many instances in which Qingnu is mistreated socially leading up to her killing people close to her; on page 30, the top line reads, “desperate people have no choice” revealing that Feng is really describing a case of social injustice rather than cruel fate; it is true that the slaughtered eel is seen as the source of bad karma setting into motion a series of misfortunes and murders; however, we can also interpret the eel as repressed female power which during Ming dynasty could not be articulated in any moral or political discourse at the time; in this femme fatal myth, human psychological forces are represented by animals or the supernaturals (Cupid made people fall in love);
  • The second story of Shuzhen is also preceded by an adulterous affair, the karmic origin of the current story in which Shuzhen behaves like a nymphomaniac woman; but there is a lot more than karmic retribution belief involved in this story; the novelist offers many small instances in which female virtues are seen as in direct conflict with lust and sexual passion; both femme fatale pieces have some misogynistic tendency as Anne McLaren argues; however, it is these dangerous and murderous women in fiction that bring to light the reality of women’s existence in China, perhaps totally unintended by the author; with all their failings and frailties, they prefigure more literary women to appear as living at the margins of the patrilineal society, rejected by the symbolic order of a male dominated world;
The Women’s Kingdom from The Romance of the Flowers in the Mirrorby Li Ju-zhen 《镜花缘》李汝珍著,1773-1830

  • Again, the novelist was a man living in a time in Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in which China was not yet invaded militarily by Western nations (to occur in 1840 during the first Opium War with Great Britain); but in the 19th century, China had already had trade with the West and Western Christian missionaries had worked and lived in many cities and towns in China;
  • The excerpt is from a very long book which documented the travels of a certain Tang Ao in China, much like Jonathan Swift’s full length novel Gulliver’s Travels (1735) in which the protagonist Gulliver travels to remote nations and encounters many cultural differences; Tang Ao’s sojourn in the land he called “women’s kingdom” seems to reveal, to male readers, the horrors of dated cultural customs such as foot-binding and arranged marriage when he was treated as a woman and had to go through the tribulation of foot-binding and becoming a concubine; just like Swift, Li created this none-existent female kingdom to satirize the backward customs of China (referred to as celestial land, 天国); in this respect, the author seems quite “liberal” even by today’s standard who was really writing critically about gender construction; gender identity was reduced to only the mask or clothes one wore; in the women’s kingdom, the roles for men and women were reversed; men lived like second class citizen while women enjoyed all the social and political privileges; tang is mortified and traumatized when he has to go through foot-binding process or forced to become a concubine; the author’s humor even led him to the game of deconstructing and reinventing some Chinese characters;
  • But because the author was a man, the power of his imagination fell short of revealing women’s real life, their suffering and powerlessness; he could only imagine a situation in which women man-handle men as women, and in which women acted like men and men women, which left out many real issues and interested related to gender as cultural construction; but in his satirical work the issue of gender equality is definitely implied; the attitude of iconoclasm is poorly hidden when Tang fails to make sense of this kingdom by referring to Confucian Analects; treated as a woman, Lin Zhiyang is told to have “her” ears pierced, foot bound, faced powdered, posterior washed and spanked to, perhaps, show the brutality and cruelty associated with female beauty and virtue that others (men mainly) tend to aestheticize in literature, the same way Li Yu showed the absurdity of female chastity in practice in his The Female Ch’en ping saved her life with seven ruses; at the risk of committing an act of anachronism, I’d still suggest that this playful work really shows that gender is performatively achieved rather than something we are born with;
  • That the “king” asked Tang Ao and his brother-in-law Lin Zhixiang to dredge rivers and waterways before “he” let them go might be an act of parodying Empress Wu (武则天,624-705) in Tang Dynasty who reigned for 15 years; the reader would not fail to remember the popular saying that women are flood water (女人是祸水) when he sees the women’s kingdom inflicted with flood problems, and the solution seems to be dredging the rivers; this work (and its author as well) is rich with literary allusions and references, and therefore almost recalcitrant to endeavors to read it as for or against Confucian doctrine or women.
Wooden Man’s Bride, a film directed by Jianxin Huang 1994 《验身》导演:黄建新

  • The director is at present the president of the League of Chinese Film Directors 中国电影导演协会主席;
  • If the death of Mao and the trial of the Gang of Four in 1976 mark the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), then Deng Xiaoping’s regaining of power as China’s paramount leader and his call for a new direction for Chinese socialism in 1978 signify the beginning of China’s economic reform; between then and 1994, “cultural fever” (文化热) happened in which intellectuals and artists were looking into and debating different kinds of worldviews and cultural values as possible alternatives to socialism or Confucianism;
  • The film’s immediate concern is that of women’s oppression in the name of female chastity; the issue, already identified and championed by many writers during the 1920s, is well choreographed when the tension between the young mistress and her mother-in-law Madame Liu, both widows living a relatively wealthy life by keeping their chastity intact, pushes the two women apart even though they had every reason to support one another in their efforts to remain chaste to their husbands;
  • They end up being bitter enemies because, as many details reveal, the young mistress’ marriage is never truly consummated since her husband died before the wedding takes place, whereas Mrs. Liu had a son before her husband died (so reasons for her chastity could be authentic); but as the drama of widowhood unfolds the two women are driven further apart by their differing attitudes to chastity;
  • Perhaps the most memorable scene is, at least according to some critics, when the young mistress stands fully nude, as Madame Liu administers a virginity test on her, with the young mistress made to sneeze while squatting over a tray of oil-lamp ashes; the title of the film is yan shen (验身) which literally means the physical examination or verification of the body; it is believed that young girls working in the imperial palace and royal chambers all had to go through similar virginity test; although there is no frontal nudity, the full naked figure of the young mistress seen from the back shocked the audience in 1994; it is also a moment when the theme of the film—female chastity—is presented in the strongest critical light, seen as a form of human indignity and great personal humiliation to widows; the young widow is also required to sleep with a wooden effigy of her dead husband;
  • The story unfolds mainly in two locations: the Liu family compound where the young widow lives a wretched and miserable life and Bai-Feng village where a group of bandits live a free but precarious life of the outlaws; or one can say that the story follows two threads: the civic and domestic life idealized by Confucians and the outlaw existence of the bandits that Wu Kui eventually joins after he is kicked out of the Liu compound; Wu Kui travels in between these two modes of existence, feeling ambivalent towards radically different values but finally capitulating to a life of revolt and crime, killing madame Liu in his pursuit of freedom and revenge;
  • Putting the film back into the 1990s, we can see how the issue of women’s liberation is recast in a new light: the choices now are as undesirable as they are irreconcilable; the cultural order (and tradition) is oppressive, and yet the alternative of breaking free from it seems unruly and criminal; after killing Mrs. Liu, Wu Kui orders to grant her a proper burial, with a tomb stone honoring her as a chaste female martyr, an homage to a cultural institution paid by its critics and dissidents.
New Year’s Sacrificeby Lu Xun (1881-1936) 《祝福》鲁迅著

  • The author, regarded as the father of modern Chinese literature, spent 7 years in Japan (1902-09) getting an education; like many who received an education abroad, Lu Xun returned with a changed view of Chinese culture as a form of cannibalism; by his own account, he felt useless to be a medical doctor for which he had gone to Japan to study science and now aspired to becoming the conscience and spirit of China; compelled by this moral burden and a strong sense of he duty as a patriot, he used his pen as his weapon and wrote literature as a vehicle for social change;
  • But as progressive in his thinking and iconoclastic in his fiction as he was, Lu Xun was tormented by his own ambivalence to modernity and tradition, and even pessimistic about the future of his nation that had been held back in stagnation for centuries by its own traditions and values; this feeling of intellectual impotence comes out most clearly in the figure of the narrator through whose perspective the story of Sister Xianglin is told; he is the author’s literary persona, totally unable to save the poor, uneducated, and powerless like Sister Xianglin;
  • Critics agree that in this 1924 short story, the social conditions of women are dramatized and addressed; Sister Xianglin’s death reveals what many progressive thinkers viewed as a system of victimization; she is a victim of four powers: political, tribal/familial, male, and religious (政权、族权、夫权、神权); Sister Xianglin has no political representation; other than her services, no one pays attention to her; she is disposed of by the heads of the family and Lu village/tribe, with no say in her own affairs; she is also passed from one man to another like a piece of property; lastly, she is kept powerless by religion and theology, by the fear of a after-life where she would be sawed in halves by her dead husbands;
  • The them of female chastity occupies a prominent place; she is sold on the popular belief that, for women, starvation is a secondary matter to chastity (“饿死事小,失节事大”); she cannot live with herself as a woman who is married twice and tries to kill herself in order to “live” up to the patriarchal ideal of chastity that says, “a good woman does not serve two men” (“一女不事二夫”); because she is a pious woman, she is convinced of her own sin and spends her hard-earned money to buy a piece of threshold for the local Buddhist Temple in the hope of redemption as pilgrims step over the threshold daily; her victim-hood is in her conviction that she needs to let people walk all over her (like the threshold) in order to be a good woman again;
  • What befalls Sister Xianglin is nothing less than the feudal culture as a system that devours women who work their entire life only to end up human sacrifices offered to the various gods, hence the title “New Year’s Sacrifice” (祝福); she dies on the day of Chinese new year when the rich and pious offer sacrifices to the deities in order to have a prosperous future; what they offer is in fact human lives if we understand Lu Xun’s literary imagination, so shaped by his progressive thinking and liberal values;
  • Lu Xun’s other works also convey a dire need for China to transform itself as well as a thinly-veiled skepticism about the ability of the Chinese people to change their culture and society which Lu Xun once compared to an iron house with no doors and with people inside suffocating to death; Chinese literary modernity is born with the realization that people, women especially, need to wake up from their benighted existence; like the works written by those “pre-modern” authors, his are also negotiations and interrogations of values.
JuDou, directed by Yimou Zhang 1990 电影《菊豆》张艺谋

  • “Ju Dou” is the name of the young woman and the female protagonist in this story;
  • produced roughly at the same time as Wooden Man’s Bride (1994) with paralleling themes; both films feature the life of a tragic woman who transgresses and meets her downfall; audience seemed able to relate to the issue of cultural order and individual fate; Chinese viewers resonate with these tragic women because they best bring out the tension between the universals and the particulars;
  • transgression can be heroic or criminal; that is why the issue of female chastity is a recurring theme in many works of imagination; in the Chinese situation, women have become almost a trope in discourse on modernity; their oppression and transgression help negotiate the extent to which revolt is heroic and obedience shameful, but beyond which defiance is criminal and compliance is justified;
  • there is a saying that ten thousands evil deeds originate in lust and hundred acts of kindness begin in filial piety (万恶淫为首、百善孝当先); this Confucian belief underscores the film in which JuDou and Tianqing are united by their passion and lust and go down in disgrace, because they betray Yang Jinshan, JuDou’s husband and Tianqing’s adoptive uncle; at the funeral of Jinshan, JuDou and Tian-Qing are required to block the funeral procession 49 times to show their loyalty and piety to the dead; the drama describes a situation of moral ambiguity where authority is abused by those in power, and where love and kindness are found in the criminals and transgressors who are disloyal to the symbolic order; the evil that befalls JuDou, TianQing, as well as Yang Jinshan and TianBai, originates in human desire (lust) represented by the bright colors in the dye mill, an emblem of human society driven by greed and lust;
  • emerging from this chaos is an age-old worldview that man cannot improve on his own nature, symbolized by the cloth dye shop; the philosophy that man is but a product of his environment goes like this: one who nears vermilion becomes red and one who nears ink becomes black (近朱者赤、近墨者黑); the dye mill symbolizes the social process through which human beings gradually lose their innocence and become corrupted by their desires and lust; the names of Tianqing (天青) and Tianbai (天白) form the compound or aggregate-word “purity” (清白), which is ironic, considering the promiscuity and adultery that have tinted the birth of the bastard son; at one time, Jinshan tells Tianqing to go easy on the red dye (color of desire), but the latter still pours all red dye into the vat near which Tianqing makes love to JuDou, in which he later drowns, murdered by his son;
  • Confucian morality is still seen as having teeth in it; after Jinshan finds out his wife’s adulterous affair, he being the patriarch of the Yang family is unable to do anything about it because he does not want to be a party to this chaos; he does not wish to expose the lie that is nonetheless his life; gradually his patience pays off when the bastard son calls him “Daddy” legitimizing him as the patriarch and making Tianqing an adulterer; the plan to masquerade the affair backfires when Tianbai grows up to hate Tianqing as one that ruins his mother’s reputation;
  • the tragedy ends with both fathers are eliminated, a disaster that has its seeds in greed and lust; in other words, human nature dooms all three in the love triangle and limits their ability to exercise loyalty and filial piety; the end where JuDou torches the dye mill reiterates the age-old Confucian belief that that which begins in chaos ends in abandonment(始乱终弃), deeply rooted in Chinese consciousness; Yingying knows this only too well and views Mr. Chang’s abandonment of her as a matter of course; social progress in China is driven by a deep intellectual preoccupation with Cultural Order and by a deep anxiety about Chaos and abandonment.
Miss Sophie’s Diaryby Ding Ling (1904-1986) 《莎菲女士的日记》丁玲著

  • The first thing to register while reading this short story is that the author is a woman; the fact is important in that this story of a woman is written by a woman · When reading this epistolary story, it is important to keep in mind that confession as a literary genre is often used, not as admission of one’s guilt, but as a challenge to existing social mores; the person telling everyone his or her frailties and failings is actually defying established ethical beliefs; (“yes I did this and that, come to judge and condemn me if you dare and think what I did is not part of what you also secretly want to do;”) what Sophie confesses to is far from what is normally considered to be morally righteous or gender appropriate; she is, by her own admission, selfish, “eccentric;”
  • Sophie is a new woman; she is an educated woman (知识女性) with a complex interior world; previously it is the man that has the luxury or privilege of duality; Mr. Chang seduced Yingying and then abandoned her because he no longer felt torn between lust and scholarly pursuit; the Tang emperor felt tormented by his love for Yang Guifei and his role as the king; Secunda’s resourcefulness would not have been a wonderful quality if she had not been a faithful wife; and Li Jia is the one unable to please both his father and his wife, Tu-shihniang; now perhaps for the first time in Chinese literary history a woman has a complex inner world, a three-dimensional character who can think and has psychological depth just like men do;
  • When you have a thinking and talking woman like Sophie, she is nothing like the stereotypical and conventional women such as good mother, virtuous wife, or devoted lover; Sophie is consumed by her sexual passion and attraction to a married man, Ling Jishi who likes to womanize and frequents brothels; Sophie likes Ling out of her deep contempt for conventional marriage represented by Wei who proclaims he is in love and plans to marry Sophie; in her diary she has no problem talking about herself as a sexual being; she views female etiquette as too restrictive and repressive; she enjoys playing both Ling Jishi and Wei like toys; at times she is bitter, resentful, angry, and even anti-social or self-destructive; charged with negative female psychic energies that Ereshkigal represents;
  • As a woman writer, Ding Ling is keenly aware of gender issues, especially the impossibility of men and women understanding one another; she dramatizes this by having Wei fail to understand Sophie after she lets him read her diary; her private thoughts on Ling Jishi strike Wei as admitting her love for him when in fact her feelings are far more complex; Wei can comprehend Sophie only from his male perspective and fails miserably to appreciate Sophie’s despair, hopelessness and frustration; the failure for a man to understand a woman occurs even when the woman gives the man her diary to read;
  • Also, this epistolary fiction gives a voice to women’s experiences as women themselves experience them; what’s given expression in this diary are the negatives of so many traditional romance stories involving women in love; rather than women being docile, subservient, and reticent, Sophie represents a subversive voice with which Yang Guifei, Yingying, Tu Shih-niang, Ts’ui-lien can all identify; in the past it’s always the male gaze to which women have to adapt themselves, but now men appear in the female gaze as sexual objects or laughing stock; instead of a traditional woman who would die to keep herself chaste for her husband, Sophie is perfectly content with the idea of sex outside marriage.
New Woman, a 1934 silent film directed by Chusheng Cai; 《新女性》蔡楚生 (1906-68)

  • Like many progressive thinkers in the 1920s and 1930s, the director felt that the only way for China to be strong was through thorough-going social change and reform; because of his leftist view and pro-communist political stand, he was referred to as “so red it’s purple” (红得发紫); after 1949 when the CCP took control of China, he became one of the key directors in the national film industry;
  • http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/denton2/courses/c505/temp/newwoman.html contains useful information about the director, actress, and production of the film;
  • while the message is bordering on calling for armed struggle to overthrow China’s ruling class that represented only the rich, the film nonetheless respects the complex reality in which educated women like Wei-ming found themselves debilitated by their feminine roles; what was new about the twentieth-century Chinese women was that increasing number of them had become educated in big cities and began to enjoy some financial independence like Miss Sophie; these “modern women” (摩登女性) idolized and emulated Nora, the heroine in Ibsen’s famous drama “A Doll’s House” widely known in China as (《玩偶之家》1909), who walks out on her husband and finds married life stifling; meantime, the social and cultural conditions in China were far from ripe for bourgeois liberalism these new women embraced to opt out of Confucian conservatism and such values as female chastity and filial piety;
  • Wei-ming is new in more ways than one: she refuses arranged marriage, rebelling against her parents, receiving an education and dating men of her own choice, having a child out of wedlock, working as a music teacher to become financially independent, and frowning the idea of marriage; because of her controversial stands, she becomes the object of vicious and malicious gossips which assassinated her; her story is based on a real life of Ai Xia (艾霞), a young woman in Shanghai whose struggle to find free love (自由恋爱) only scandalized herself and who killed herself by taking poison in 1934; touched and outraged by her suicide, Cai decided to make a film to call public attention to women’s conditions in China (especially those living in the cities and educated), conditions in which Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉) also fell, the actress who played Wei-ming, committing suicide in 1935 and repeating the tragedy of her stage persona;
  • the Chinese title, like most nouns, could be singular or plural; in the film there are several women who represent diverse views and different attitudes to new reality in Shanghai where capitalism as well as bourgeois liberalism were taking roots; all of these women are “new women” and offer options for twentieth-century Chinese women; the tragedy that befalls Wei-ming reveals multiple temporalities and cultural trajectories in which many women were caught and entangled; she is unaware that the press (the apparatuses of capitalism and commercialism) can reinvent her as easily as it can destroy her; it exploits women no less than the debilitating traditional femininity that cuts life short for Liu Lanzhi, Yang Guifei, Tu Shih-niang, etc.
  • the film is a modern classic, relatable thematically and literally to many real women who did not see their interests as women reflected in the way modern society operated; feminist ideas were everywhere, juxtaposed to Confucian ideas of chastity, but they did not readily translate into freedom; the more Wei-ming acts like a new woman, the more vulnerable she becomes to the pressure of social conformity; people around her, including her parents and admirers, treat her as a piece of commodity and property.
The Rouge of the North, by Eileen Chang (1920-1995); 《怨女》张爱玲

  • Born and raised in Shanghai, Chang went to the same Saint Maria Girls School 上海圣玛利亚女校 that my mother attended; according to Mother, she was timid and shy, eccentric and bad at economics but good in Chinese classics; her grandfather was the son-in-law of an influential Qing Official Li Hongzhang (李鸿章); father divorced and remarried as was she; after the fall of China to the CCP in 1949, she moved to Hong Kong in 1951 and came to the U.S. as the wife of Ferdinand Reyher in 1956; taught briefly in Radcliff College and UC Berkeley and died in California;
  • Not very interested in political activism, she was nonetheless quite familiar with the tenets of the May Fourth movement; appearing at the margins of modern Chinese fiction, she is best studied as a woman writer in that “Alongside her descriptions of Yindi’s or Qiqiao’s adventure, she sought within the May Fourth realist discourse a voice of her own, a voice that turned the programmatic enunciations about nation, humanity, and revolution into something else: she has blurred the nation, making it appear as alienation, making humanity show itself as femininity, making revolution develop into involution;” (David Der-Wei Wang’s preface to her Rouge of the North, a longer version of her earlier work entitled The Golden Cangue,《金锁记》
  • Although subject matters of her novels may seem trivial (romance or domestic strife) the author demonstrates encyclopedic knowledge of Shanghai life, with minute details (Shanghai dialect, popular idioms, mannerism, and local customs) very meaningful to city dwellers like herself; in addition, she rarely consciously engaged cultural or feminist issues because she believed that her readers resonate more with the hopelessness of her fictional characters who are small-time businessmen or nobles from impoverished families faced with social and cultural conditions over which they have no control; such was her philosophy for writing the story in question;
  • Yindi is from the family of a small sesame oil merchant; her personal tragedy brings to light general social conditions for many women from humble origins to whom the only way to change their life for better is through marriage; in Yindi’s case, although she is married up into the wealthy Yao family, she in so doing also commits herself to a life of pain living with a cripple whom she does not care, pain only opium-smoking could alleviate; worse, she finds herself flirting with her brother-in-law, the second young master; she has to forget her only chance at happiness because such a scandalous affair threatens her status as a rich widow (after her husband dies) with inheritance; her misery also poisons her relation with her son, whom she quickly marries off as a way to keep him away from opium addiction, gambling and prostitution, which easily drain family wealth;
  • As she mellows down and settles into her old age, her dreams and passion as a young girl are all shattered and forgotten; she finds herself lonely, estranged from her brother and sister-in-law because of her own stinginess and parsimony, hated by her children whose lives she ruins with her perverted view of money as the only thing she could hold onto in life; hers thus is the abject existence of women reduced to slaves to wealth; the story does not prescribe; it merely describes the actual conditions under which some women meet their spiritual death in their pursuit of a husband; like Chang once said, “men are afraid of not finding a job, and women a husband” (男怕失业、女怕失嫁) ; in the tiny space in which women have to make a life for themselves, Yindi makes hers, and what a wretched life that is.
  • Through Yindi, Eileen Chang shows the reader the types of hardship a woman routinely encounters through life, as a young girl, a wife, a mother. At no point is there a real and good choice ever for Yindi. She does the best she could; and she could have done worse and died a needless but heroic death like Liu Lanzhi in Peacock Southeast Flew, Tu shi-niang, Xianglin’s wife, Yingying, Wei Ming in New Women, etc..
  • Sometimes to be ideologically neutral is a form of resistance whereas to be politically correct means jumping on the band wagon of revolution or social change. Ban Zhao jumped on the band wagon of Confucianism and wrote Lessons for Women which was politically correct for her time. Lu Xun, Cai Chusheng, and Zhang Yimou were leaning to the views of the left and promoting progressive values the way Eileen Chang was ideologically neutral in her works. She was not quickly sold to a larger political discourse such as communism or bourgeois liberalism, which explains her obscurity in the history of modern Chinese literature as written in Mainland China.
  • However, that does not mean what she wrote was less true. Yindi is a creature beyond the salvation through social reform or political revolution. Her existence happens, for the large part, outside the domain of the patriarchal order, whether it is the Confucian humanism or Western liberalism. She is not interested in the issues of female chastity, nor under protest against a debilitating and oppressive femininity. David Wang characterises her condition with the term Julia Kristeva uses, “the abject”, something degraded and self-abasing. The hope is, on the part of David Wang, that it is in the abject that we find the true condition and location of the dark feminine, as Perera calls it. Ban Zhao personifies the daughter of the Father, moving herself into the center of a system of signification whereas Eileen Chang resists the temptation to be the signifier and remains ideologically neutral. Her Yindi reflects the abject conditions of women as the subaltern.
Raise the Red Lanterns(大红灯笼高高挂) a film directed by Zhang Yimou

  • Since Zhang Yimou, the director, is sympathetic with modern day feminism, discourse within which to interrogatd traditional modes of being a woman, he shows how female etiquette goes against the way women really feel; the second wife is said to have a Buddha’s face but a scorpion’s heart; she talks nice but is willing to poison the third wife’s unborn in order to give birth first in order to be considered favorably in the future for inheritance; behind the nice “womanly speech” there are all kinds of vicious intents. It is the unwomanly speech that reveals the real stories of these wives; when Songlian is drunk, she told the second wife the rendezvous place where the third wife is dating the family medical doctor; etc.
  • On the wedding night, when the master, whose face we never see, goes to bed with his new bride, Songlian asks that the light be turned off, a perfect sign of female modesty; but the master declines and says that (seeing her) is part of the pleasure; so “raise the red lanterns” means that women need to subject themselves to the male gaze. Lanterns hung in front of each wife’s quarters signify male consciousness or sexuality to which women remain modest and welcoming at the same time. As Lacan says, the desire is a masquerade whereby women misrepresent themselves only as wanted objects rather than wanting subjects. Man wants to love whereas woman wants to be loved; man wants to see whereas woman wants to be seen. · At the beginning, Songlian is seen making a decision to marry for money and not for love. She is depicted as an educated young woman, although in this case her educated decision backfires terribly, leaving her an insane woman at the end of the film
  • To indict Confucian morality, Zhang Yimou displays it physically as an enclosure, the compound where all the wives live; Songlian thought she is above all the silly rules and regulations of female etiquette, but she is quite mistaken. Inside this family compound (of Confucian values) women have little choice and no freedom but to subject themselves to the rules and regulations made to privilege the patriarch; it is a machine from which none of these women can escape, where transgression is met promptly with severe punishment and female subservience rewarded by foot massages and prerogatives to order food. The compound ultimately becomes a prison house for these married women, held captive by the patrilineal system;
  • The profiles of all four wives also show how Zhang Yimou, the film director, understands concubinage; the first wife, the oldest whose quarters was full of dust, gives the master a son to carry on the family’s name, which secures her place in the compound; the second wife, much younger than the first wife, only bore one daughter; she has to compete for attention by being subservient and by being a closet masseuse; the third wife is attractive because she used to be an actress, pretty and talented, only to be surpassed by the fourth wife, a college student; women exist solely for the man’s whims and fantasies in a patriarchal and phallacentric society. Female virtues are seen at work to put women in their “proper” places and leave them in a series of in-fights for limited rewards for good behaviors; even the maid has her dream of one day becoming a concubine to the master;
  • At one scene, Songlian and third wife are talking on the roof, standing in front of a big wooden sign post that says, “光前裕后” (guāng qián yù hòu), meaning to glorify ancestors and benefit posterities, which is ironic men and women are driven by lust and eroticism, utterly unconcerned with filial piety and female chastity.
The Butcher’s Wife by Li Ang (1952 – ); 《杀夫》李昂

  • Again the author is a woman, born and raised in Taiwan, with an M.A. degree from University of Oregon in 1977; her novel was written and published in 1982;
  • Here in this story gender relationship (war) is depicted on the level of human biology or physiology rather than in the realms of politics and morality. The brutality perpetrated against and by the woman, the heroine, is not so much a show of animosity or hatred as an expression of libido or hunger for food. The book begins with the mother in a rape scene that offers no resistance simply because the soldier rapist is feeding her rice-balls to eat; the daughter does not know what to believe about her mother who shows no sign of struggle; some say that her mother later eloped with her rapists while others say that they (mother and her rapist) were chased out of the village; the ambiguity itself foregrounds the issue of female chastity, virtue, and decorum not in the context of morality (as satirist Li Yu did) but rather in inner drives over which man has no control. The obscure beginning not only foreshadows what befalls Lin Shi later on when she finds herself also in a similar situation in which she is raped repeated by her savage and abusive husband on whom she relies for food, but also elucidates and illuminates the heroine’s fate as a misunderstood woman: her cries of pain are construed by other women as signs of sexual ecstasy, and her killing of her husband is viewed as the behavior of an adulterous woman having an illicit affair. Likewise, her husband Chen Jiangshui, brutish and savage as he is, possesses redeeming qualities or at least traits of civility that make him a complex character. He is capable of great tenderness and compassion when with his prostitute friend. His sadism toward Lin Shi is “explained” when the author makes his sexual pleasure (of making Lin Shi scream during sex) analogous to his satisfaction as a butcher used to pigs’ squeals as he slaughters them daily. The analogy of male aggression and male orgasm to butchering animals reveals the violence against women as originating from something much deeper than incorrect morals. That violence originates in human genes and DNA which also drive Lin Shi to butcher her husband when in despair. Here the gender gap is not be narrowed by intellectual understanding or moral precepts. The author is exploring the something more profound than institutionalized gender discrimination that is often viewed as hurdles to gender equality. As a man, Chen Jiangshui is, to a degree, psychologically and physiologically predisposed to be aggressive and even abusive, which in turn also brings out Lin Shi’s aggression kept in the subconscious and which kills Chen in the end. To a less extent, Li Yu’s Seven Ruses also depicts men and women as driven by their sexual desires and inner aggressions.
  • What sets this fictional work aside from the convention of writing about “women’s issues” or “feminist literature” (女性文学、妇女文学) is an apparent lack of ambition or moral burden on the part of the author to address “social” or “gender” problems in which many writers show interests by examining cultural values and the construction of gender identity, which has become a tradition since the May Fourth new culture movement (五四新文化运动, 1919), an intellectual enlightenment that tried to indict Confucian traditions; the story, which is about the conflict between two illiterate peasants in rural Taiwan, takes the reader away from the May Fourth rhetoric and into a very different direction, one in which cultural or intellectual issues hardly exist; for the most part, the butcher and his wife live a life in which they are driven basically by their primitive instincts and impulses; in other words, if an abusive situation develops in which women seem to suffer, it does not involve cultured and educated figures, men as well as women, whose conscious values and attitudes are ultimately responsible for the situation of victimization; like New Year’s Sacrifice, Wooden Man’s Bride, New Women, or even The Rouge of the North where there is always someone or “society” as a whole culpable for crimes against women;
  • As the source of Linshi’s misery, her husband Chen Jiangshui is a pig-butcher who starts working as early as when he is only ten; the story thus does not allow the reader to say that the oppression of women results in gender biases or inequalities in a dominant culture; to where does the author direct the reader’s attention and moral judgment? the domestic rape that goes on almost every day, described quite graphically, gives Chen Jiangshui pleasure not because he has a reason to hate Linshi but because when she cries in pain it subconsciously gives him the satisfaction he always feels hearing the squeals from the pig he is slaughtering; for this butcher, making Linshi suffer and cry is but a reflex prior to his orgasm, just like savage animals devour their prey because of their survival instinct; Chen jiangshui blurs the line between beasts and human (as does Linshi’s impulse to kill him); therefore: how men and women relate is determined by the way they are psychologically and physiologically predisposed to interact with one another, rather than totally dictated by cultural values; this does not necessarily make feminism obsolete or irrelevant but rather deepens it by forcing feminists to think beyond cultural terms;
  • Only to a limited extent does the book lend itself to cultural interpretations along the issue of female chastity that has a role to play in the development of the story, beginning with Linshi’s mother caught in the act of adultery with a soldier that gives her rice to eat, contradicting the popular belief that (for women) “starvation is secondary to chastity” (饿死事小, 失节事大); society is reified mainly by a group of women villagers who, even more than Chen Jiangshui, are interested in Linshi’s identity as a chaste woman; their gossips around the village well make it impossible for Linshi to tell her own story; when the murder takes place, the moral majority speaks in one voice that it must be because Linshi is having an affair, which is the language of female chastity that is so far-off from real women’s experiences that it totally misses many simple reasons leading up to her murder; her actions as a woman revolve around her basic needs as a human being to eat, to not be beaten and raped.
Virgin Widowsby Gu Hua (1942 – ); 《贞女》1985 古华著

  • The author is better known for Hibiscus Town,《芙蓉镇》1981, a popular novel, which later was made into a movie by the same title, that was one of the first literary works dealing with the atrocity and absurdity of Mao’s revolutionary excesses in the 1960s and 1970s; the hero and heroine are a young couple treated as the enemies of the state in many political campaigns and suffer many indignities in Hibiscus town that epitomizes the Chinese society at large; the young couple end up representing the humanity as well as sanity nearly made extinct during the revolutionary era;
  • In the spirit of critical self-reflection that would pave the way for China’s economic transformation already in progress under Deng Xiaoping (since 1978), Virgin Widows reintroduces and reexamines the issue of women’s liberation as articulated and promoted during the 1920s in the wake of the May Fourth movement; the two young widows, although living nearly a century apart, find themselves confronted with issues only too familiar to women, begging the question: has there been intellectual progress? the reader is made cognizant of such ideas as female chastity, widowhood, the temptation of adultery, subservience to men who are possessive, controlling and abusive, which are the bedrocks of female experience in China; the continuity of these problems or recurring themes seems to decry any view of history as progressive;
  • As the narrator jumps backward and forward to present the two paralleling stories of widowhood, the reader is reminded of how slow change would come to women; the story of Yang Qingyu takes place in the declining years of the Qing Dynasty under the reign of emperor Guangxu (光绪, 1874-1907), and the story of Yao Guihua unfolds in the beginning of the reforming era (1983), with many historical events in between that are supposed to be earth-shattering and have far-reaching effects on people’s lives: the Republic Revolution (辛亥革命, 1911) that moved China out of feudalism and into the Republic era, May Fourth new culture movement (五四新文化运动, 1919), the northern expedition against the warlords (1926), the war against Japanese aggression (抗日战争, 1931-45), the land reform (土地改革, 1941-8), the civil war (国共内战, 1945-9), the collectivization of communes (农业集体化, 1956-7), the Great Leap forward in socialist era (大跃进, 1957-8), and Cultural Revolution (文化大革命, 1966-76), the economic reform (改革开放, 1978- ); yet, none of these social and political upheavals seems to have significantly changed the lives of women;
  • The lack of change is made all the more apparent by the fact that the two stories take place in the same locality, with the circumstances of the later event repeating those of the earlier one, producing a sense of time standing still in that location for over a century; the Xiaos and Wus of the Love Goose Shoals may label their time differently but their lived reality remains roughly the same;
  • However, some small positive changes do happen piecemeal; Xiao Hanchu, the chairman of the village, has begun calling into question traditional values and views of women that many of his fellow villagers still take for granted even today, views that the fourth master Xiao holds dear a century ago; history is understood anew; moreover, the parallelism of the two widows’ lives finally collapses when Guihua, the modern counterpart of Qingyu who commits suicide a century ago to avoid a sexual scandal with tutor Wu, manages to get a divorce and remarry to Che Ganzi, a man she loves.
Waitingby Ha Jin

  • Manna Wu’s first real boyfriend named Mai Dong decides to transfer back to Shanghai and marry his cousin in order to get a Shanghai resident card (p.28); here the details are important, showing the concerns, issues and matters much more important than love that is always enmeshed in the socialist economic and political structure; what Ha Jin does in this drama is to pit the idea of individual choice (in love and marriage) against many social and moral issues that complicate it in ways true to the experience of many Chinese in the post-Mao era;
  • Chapter One the judge dismisses Lin Kong’s request for a divorce because it is unbecoming for an army officer to abandon his family (wife and kids) in the pursuit of happiness or freedom from seventeen years of sexless and loveless marriage; throughout the twentieth century when the educated Chinese began to opt for the ideals of Western individualism and liberal tradition, artists and intellectual writers became interested in and began writing about the dichotomy or antithesis between traditional marriage and free love; Ha Jin’s story offers yet another elaboration or variation of this antithesis, since Miss Sophie’s Diary, Rouge of the North, Love Must Not Be Forgotten, New Women, JuDou, Raise the Red Lantern, Virgin Widow;
  • Here we see a mosaic of womanhood, romance, and marriage; the issues of sexual passion, finance, and moral duties and obligations are inextricably connected and delicately interwoven with human desires for freedom and self-autonomy; in fact the balance between the collective (moral majority) and individual free will is such that it necessitates nearly two decades of waiting for two people in love to exercise their right of self-determination and individual autonomy. The end is bittersweet when the existential meaning of waiting changes the significance of the divorce and new marriage after 18 years; the difference between Manna Wu and Shuyu becomes almost insignificant. What started out as a genuine choice between free love and loveless marriage has dragged out to be something that no longer excites and inspires Lin Kong, apathetic, noncommittal, indifferent, drained off any sexual passion. In other words, the price individuals must pay for romantic love is too high even for those yearning to be free. If viewed as a sequel to Love Must Not Be Forgotten, this story shows that what has become of Manna Wu and Lin Kong would happen to Zhongyu and her lover as well should they decide to pursue what they cannot forget.
  • The idea of self-autonomy and the free will of the individual has lost its luster when applied and acted upon in China in which there are so many overriding issues: for Lin Kong, they include duties to his wife, children, parents, in-laws, army superiors, friends, and village heads who constitute the mosaic of his very identity as a rational man and who are all (except Geng Yang) opposed to his desire for a divorce. (p.59 He has to promise to his army superior to keep his relationship with Manna “normal”.) For Manna Wu, the matters pitted against her belief in personal happiness with Lin Kong include the language and the modern-day practice of female chastity and female virtues, which do not tolerate her status and role as a single woman and free moral agent.
  • As already dramatized in Zhang Jie’s short story, remaining single was not a viable option for young women in China during the 1970 and 1980s; in this story Manna Wu does not have a right to wait for Lin Kong as a single woman; so long as Lin Kong remains married, other men can pursue her romantically and even get away with raping her (like Geng Yang); her love and resolve wait for a married man are not legitimate choices and therefore not respected; and her inability to show her affection for Lin Kong is automatically misconstrued as her availability as a legitimate bachelorette in the eyes of society. (Just like butcher’s wife Lin Shi’s squeals when brutalized by her husband are always construed as cries of sexual ecstasy and enjoyment.) Her reputation as a young virgin becomes her shackle limiting her chance at personal happiness just like social and moral concerns are straightjacket for Lin Kong. 18 years pass in which Lin Kong and Manna wait for these issues to work themselves out only to find bitterness rather than happiness. The waiting drains all the joy from the two in love and brings very little hope or happiness to the parties who waited. (p.72 > p.248 sexual fantasy and married reality)
  • Shuyu and Manna are two women who couldn’t be more different, but what happens to them represents more their commonality as women rather than the differing attitudes and values that they embody. One is old fashioned and traditional (signified by her bond feet), totally unaware of such ideas as free choice and sexual love. 17 years of physical separation and celibacy strikes Shuyu as normal who was betrothed to Lin Kong through arranged marriage by his parents. As a housewife, Shuyu knows only her duties toward her parents-in-laws, obedience to her husband even when he wants a divorce (a word she does not understand), and her commitment to raising her children. She does not have a self in the modern sense of the word, willing to wait for her husband even when he is already married to Manna. Manna on the other hand is college educated and a medical professional; she appreciates Lin Kong for his knowledge and as his equal. Yet she lacks Shuyu’s steadfast and unwavering commitment to Lin Kong. In the end the choice Lin Kong has to make between the two women, between his wife of 20 years and lover of 17 years, has lost its real meaning when it appears that the friendship and affection of a young woman seem to fall short in comparison to the loyalty and fidelity of a wife. In short, waiting registers the reasons why people cannot have what they want when they want them.
  • Why does Manna, during her painful deliberation in the hospital as a middle aged woman giving birth, call her husband Lin Kong “Miser!”? p.270. > pp.171-5 reference to Geng Yang’s suggestion that if Lin is to bribe the judge and village heads, then a speedy divorce is possible, an advise or suggestion that Lin Kong fails to take because he wants to save money.
Kitchen by Xu Kun (1965- ) 《厨房》徐坤Attended Liao Ning University in northeastern China, with a B.A. and M.A. degree in Chinese literature; began writing fiction in 1992; now working in the Department of Literature in Chinese Academy of Social sciences; she has won Women’s Literary Achievement Award and Lu Xun Literary Award (女性文学成就奖,鲁迅文学奖);this English translation was done by a Canadian academic who was a friend of my mother’s student at Peking University;
  • Right off the bad, it is necessary to point out that, in the 1990s when this novella was published, fictional writing itself was becoming increasingly problematic in that more and more people, writers as well as readers, became disillusioned and disenchanted with the aesthetics of literary realism, a privileged mode of writing that had been promoted by the government almost as an official discourse on history and society; people were sick and tired of propaganda and politics disguised as literature; artists and writers who called themselves “modernists” were borrowing literary aesthetics from the West as new modes of writing and new ways of seeing; literature became all the more critically self-conscious as fiction that lays no claims to reality and history; contrary to realist works, the modernist fiction consciously removes itself from any references to real events, names of real places, no more verisimilitude in which earlier fiction prides itself; the experimental art and literature dissolves its ties to history or real life; art for art’s sake, no more a vehicle for social change
  • Such is the literary and intellectual climate in which Kitchen was written, with no specific location, time period; even names such as Song Ze and Zhi Zi are later removed and replaced by simply the more generic identifiers such as the man and the woman; it is hoped that by so doing the modernist art and literature would liberate people from their own regional “realities,” cultural biases, political prejudices, and historical limitations, so that they are able to see what is universal and perennial in the way human beings everywhere tend to act (as opposed to how the Chinese people constructed their experiences during Mao era); the story is created out of many gender stereotypes and the generic man and woman behave as what Carl Jung would call male and female archetypes (animus versus anima), driven by the needs in the collective unconscious; the woman wants to speak the language of the kitchen where women always dominate, and the man plays the mating game by its rules of engagement only to disengage the woman; the story thus represents no real feelings of any particular individual (Miss Sophie, Yindi, etc.) but possibilities and cultural expectations of which we are all aware as men and women; when Zhi Zi is frustrated and finally disappointed, the myth of the kitchen (of women as nurturers) is declared dead; she wants to return to the tradition of being a proper and good woman to Song Ze only to realize, at the last minute, that it is but a myth (or trash she is still carrying in her hand); her disillusionment is thus the necessary condition for awakening or new consciousness: modern women cannot live with an archaic passion for myth;
  • A lot of what we read is about gender stereotypes but no fictional work is perhaps more self-conscious of its own fictionality and more deliberate than this one in demythologizing the beliefs behind the conventions of heterosexual relationship that enable women to feel heroic in their daily lives.