Paper Assignments

Before writing the papers, please remember the following:

(1) you must have a meaningful working title that sums up your views like a synopsis

(2) develop a good thesis (focus on an issue or an intellectual concern) in the opening paragraph. In the opening paragraph which is like the abstract of a book or dissertation, you must introduce what you want to focus on; name the works and authors you shall include in this paper and discuss; give a very brief analysis of each work, and point out possible limits to your interpretive approach or possible countervailing arguments. To do all these requires a full paragraph (half a page); the scholarly substance of your paper is all in here; don’t present a weak or non-existent thesis in a couple of sentences that are inane and too general

(3) as you deal with each work, don’t lose your thematic focus and don’t lose sight of the point you want to clarify by discussing a group of works. Otherwise your discussion of the works in question would seem fragmented and even incoherent, without a thematic threat running through all the paragraphs. Also it is not necessary to deal with literary works one at a time; you can develop your argument or thesis paragraph by paragraph in each of which simultaneously dealing with several works whose parts seem to support your interpretation and viewpoint. Meanwhile, try to respect the integrity, richness and complexity of each work and resist the temptation to reduce a literary work to a couple of ideas.

(4) it’s a sign of good scholarship to do textual analysis, to quote from the literary text, and to always mention the name of the author whose work shapes the reader’s views and values. Discuss what the author is doing rather than what the fictional characters are doing in the story. Otherwise you don’t know the first thing about literary criticism, which is having a conversation with the creator/author by interpreting his or her work, even when the author is synonymous. If you treat fictional characters as if they were real people, you entirely miss the point of reading literature, which is to understand the values and attitudes of the writer who is often ambivalent about culture and society.

First Assignment for 4-page paper, due Tuesday, 2/14

Women in Chinese myth, legend and history

When we read such stories as Nu Wa, Chang E, Mengjiang Nu, Liu Lanzhi (in Peacock Southeast Flew) or Lessons for Women by Ban Zhao, we are actually dealing with various modes of writing about women’s experience. The images of these legendary as well as historical women are elaborations and idealizations of femininity. Discuss no fewer than four women (in songs, poems, legends, myths, moral/philosophical treatise, fiction, and history) as ways to construct female identity and naturalize or normalize social hierarchy. If this topic seems too abstract and not immediately meaningful to you, think of the following questions and issues:

  • What is the woman’s relation to Nature? Does she appear less or more capable than men? · What is her social status as woman compared to that of men? In what social roles and positions do you find her?
  • What cultural ideals and moral values are represented and embodied by the woman;
  • Is she idealized, glorified and bigger than life, or trivialized, ridiculed, and incriminated against? What or whose interests are being served by her stories?
  • What are the aspects of social life in which she appears with a meaningful presence or from which she remains conspicuously absent? Is there a space in which she is meant to be?
  • What are the (feminine) qualities with which she becomes associated in the course of the story?

Assignment for second paper, due March 1st

Among other things, Confucianism is an influential mode of moral awareness in which to reflect critically on human actions and interactions, and to interpret and judge in terms of man’s conscious choices and attitudes. In Confucian China (some even think in terms of a Confucian East Asia and Southeast Asia), art and literature are but branches of Confucianism in which the artist or writer offers his or her own interpretations of this state religion. For example, when Pan Chao wrote her Lessons, she offered her personal interpretation of how Confucian values ought to apply to women, namely, women ought to be humble but must be educated. While accepting the basic premise and assumptions of this moral philosophy, she nonetheless developed, modified, and revised it in ways that reflect her own humanity.

In a 4-page paper predicated on the assumption that all literary works are in fact in dialogue or conversation with the established cultural mores and moral conventions, discuss no fewer than four literary works as elaborations and variations of Confucian humanism on the part of the author. In other words, discuss how literary writers interpret human events in their texts so as to advance their understanding of Confucianism. You must refer to Confucian texts (excerpts) found in the Anthology, in classroom handouts, and/or on the web-page devoted to Confucianism that also includes remarks by such Confucians as Mencius and Pan Chao. By your interpretation and analysis of the dramatic and fictional details in each work, you show your insights into and understanding of the attitudes and views of the author on Confucianism as a moral compass for women.

  • Does the writer view the ideal of female chastity as unattainable?
  • Does s/he try to delineate room in which Confucian morality is defective or deficient for social complexities?
  • Does s/he think critically or favorably of the female virtues as defined at the time in China? In what ways are fictional woman characters seen as subversive to the established order and mores? As far as the author is concerned, are their transgressions of and/or adherence to the female moral codes laudable or ridiculous?
  • What is the point at which women’s moral transgressions are truly unforgivable but beyond which frailties of women help usher in a new humanity?
  • Does he consider female etiquette in accordance with Confucian teachings a joke and fundamentally against how women as well as men would act? In other words, the artist, dramatist, or the novelist is also a Confucian who uses his works to express his moral views and attitudes, through satire, tragedy, comedy, irony, or bleak realism.

Discuss what s/he satirizes, subverts, exalts, holds in contempt, or despises.

Third Assignment, due April 4.


As cultural construction, female chastity (along with such female virtues as whole-hearted devotion, reticence, or obedience) significantly shapes and conditions the life and conduct of a woman. Discuss no less than four literary women characters from four different works as elaborations of the author’s understanding of female chastity. Interpret if s/he is critical or supportive of the way women are exercised by this moral issue and trying to achieve it as an important part of her identity. In other words, the paper is an exercise of your knowledge of and insights into the subtlety and ambivalence on the part of the Chinese authors with regard to female chastity as a cultural phenomenon. You need to see the point, established and understood in the work, at which female chastity is something necessary and heroic for women to uphold and honor, but beyond which it becomes inappropriate and deserves contempt or warrants rebellion. Treat each work as a dialogue in which the author endorses, negotiates with and/or interrogates the cultural ideal of female chastity.

To narrow the topic, you may want to examine the ways the female body is controlled by the ideals of womanhood and femininity. In his article “The Body of the Condemned,” the French educator and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) briefly discusses the history of penal justice in the West. In it, he points out the disappearance of the body as the major target of the penal repression, as well as the advent of a new economy of punishment in which, “a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists.” Preoccupied with the relationship between knowledge and power, Foucault argues that knowledge is not pure and abstract but is implicated in a network of power relations. What he says below, of the soul as the effect of punishments, seems also relevant to the formation or construction of femininity in China. In other words, female chastity is a part of the knowledge that reinforces the male power that has created it in the first place. There is a sense in which femininity exercises or imprisons the female body the way Foucault talks about below; elaborate your ideas by analyzing at least four of the following works: Ju Dou, Wooden Man’s Bride, The Female Ch’en Ping who saved her life with seven ruses, Story of Yingying, New Year’s Sacrifice, Lessons for Women, Tu Shih-niang sank her jewel box in anger, the film The New Woman, Miss Sophia’s Diary, etc.


If the surplus power possessed by the king gives rise to the duplication of his body, has not the surplus power exercised on the subjected body of the condemned man given rise to another type of duplication? That of a “non-corporal,” a “soul.” The history of this “microphysics” of the punitive power would then be a genealogy or an element in a genealogy of the modern “soul.” Rather than seeing this soul as the reactivated remnants of an ideology, one would see it as the present correlative of a certain technology of power over the body. It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished—and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains, and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives. This is the historical reality of this soul, which, unlike the soul represented in Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint. This real, non-corporal soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power. On this reality-reference, various concepts have been constructed and domains of analysis carved out: psyche, subjectivity, personality, consciousness, etc.; on it have been built scientific techniques and discourses, and the moral claims of humanism. But, let there be no misunderstanding: it is not that a real man, the object of knowledge, philosophical reflection, or technical intervention, has been substituted for the soul, the illusion of the theologians. The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection much more profound than himself. A “soul” inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.


As is apparent, men and women in Chinese literature observe certain code of conduct (written as well as unwritten and tacit) when expressing and pursuing their desire. According to psychoanalysts and critics like Jacque Lacan and Rene Girard, human desire (not to be confused with appetite) is mimetic; we want only what other people want. As such, desire tends to generate competition and rivalry and becomes a platform for sadism and masochism when expressed and pursued. Discuss no less than four stories of romance as elaborations of theatrical sadomasochism and analyze the ways sexual passion becomes sublimated into “desire” through culture so that both the man and woman appear to enjoy and delight in the pain of self-denial, driven by hidden rules on how to desire and be desired, almost always at their own expense. For example, some women seem to relish the glory of their moment of female martyrdom as the ultimate measure of their devotion to the loved one, and others seem to enjoy the pleasure of denying the sexual advances of those whose company they truly enjoy. Likewise, men don’t appear any wiser when it comes to their labor of love, often pursuing women to their detriment. Be very mindful of the underlying reasons for and the extent of such cultured behavior done in the name of love.

Fourth and last paper, due May 3

As China embarked on its modern stage, criteria for female fulfillment seem to have gone through some important changes as well. Many novels and films produced from the last century elaborate the struggle of the modern woman to have a right to marry for love. Yet in these fictional works of romantic love as female fulfillment, the picture is far from being rosy. In a 4-page paper, discuss no less than four stories in which modern women pursue free love and romance seemingly to their own detriment. Interpret the meaning of their failed and tragic romantic love. (One of the works you might want to include in your paper is Lu Xun’s novella Regret for the Past). Think along these issues as you settle on the works you want to discuss:

  • Is the author/director in favor of freedom of choice for women or critical of the notion of the new and independent woman? In what respect, if any, does the work play a role in the general negotiation or cultural dialogues between Western liberalism (individualism) and Chinese (Confucian) traditionalism?
  • What traditional cultural institutions are challenged and threatened by the idea of women free to structure their own love life? To what degree is the idea supported and/or limited by the socioeconomic realities in China? Is it (the idea of free love) a part of modern Chinese identity?
  • What prove to be the tumbling blocks to freedom of choice for women? Is the heroine making bad choices? Is the author/director critical of or even trying to indict a social or cultural system in which women are but victims not really free to choose what they want in life?
  • In these stories, what is presented, identified and revealed as the contributing factors responsible for the downfall of these heroines in love? To what degree are they morally responsible for what happens to them as women?
  • How do these writers and directors use fictional plots to negotiate what appears to be a debilitating traditional femininity on the one hand and what seems an impractical idealism (of social progress and woman’s rights) on the other? Is love presented as the quality that dignifies human existence or as illusory and superfluous?
  • What is the overall meaning of the story in which the heroine goes bad and suffers for the sake of love? Are women in these stories a trope to subvert, call into question, or negotiate the convention of gender differences?
  • What light has been shed on the problem of gender inequality by the disgrace, infamy, indignity and death that the heroine suffers? Is the message one of the need for gender equality or greater respect for woman’s right to live as women rather than as an extension of men?
  • Are there significant differences in the way men and women write about female experience in fiction? You must at least use two (if not all) works by women writers who seem to understand women’s existence differently from men. Please respect the complexity, integrity and nuance in each individual work and author.
  • As depicted in these fictional texts, are the failed women capable of speaking about and understanding the truth of their experience as mother, wife, daughter and lover? Is there truth as real and meaningful to men as to women, or is truth always gendered and cannot mean the same thing to men and women alike?