This post has been a very long time in coming because Huang Baogu’s story is so rich with issues to discuss that it keeps threatening to turn itself into an article or a book chapter. Which, in fact, it may end up becoming if I get one of the postdoctoral or faculty positions that I’ve spent the past two months applying for.
If this post seems to come out of nowhere for you, please refer to the above two links for the first two posts in this drawn out series.
At last, back to Huang Baogu (Maiden Huang). The following version of the story should be treated as a melange of historical fact and ahistorical embroidery, pieced together from the many versions of Huang’s life that I’ve read in the past few years.
In 1862, 20 year old Maiden Huang, a resident of Tainan, was engaged to marry a young man. Tragically, though an innocent bystander, he was killed in Changhwa during one of the many uprisings that plagued Taiwan at the time. Having grown up near Mother Gu’s shrine, Maiden Huang was inspired by her example to remain chaste to his memory. But, in spite of her objections, her parents planned to betroth her to another man. Taking seriously the idea that a woman should be joined to only one man during her life, she drowned herself in a temple pond rather than violate her chastity vow and forever damage her reputation.
After confirming the particulars of her death, the local government and gentlemen placed a commemorative tablet to Maiden Huang on the wall in Mother Gu’s temple in 1862. Then, in 1867, Tainan suffered a great drought. The local magistrate offered incense at the Confucian Temple, including the wing dedicated to chaste women. Maiden Huang then appeared to the magistrate in a dream, thanking him for his incense offered to the chaste women and identifying herself and her background tale. She reported that in three days, it would be Gu Fuma’s birthday, and on that day it would surely rain. Also, his sick child would be healed. The magistrate promised her that if these things came to pass, he would petition for an altar to be raised in her honor so she could regularly receive incense offerings. Once awake, he found documentation supporting her tale, and three days later, it did indeed rain, and his child recovered from his illness. Elated, he had a shrine built for her in the court behind Mother Gu’s temple. In a later remodeling of the temple, Maiden Huang was moved to the front room with Mother Gu, where you will find her still today.
In the mid-19th century, young women grew up in an environment that strongly emphasized that their value as women was tied to a strict social construction of chastity. As Janet Theiss explores in Disgraceful Matters, female chastity came increasingly into focus during the Qing as an expression of the exemplary loyalty that everyone should aspire to: wife to husband; subject to empire. This focus had the effect of legitimating and honoring female suicide as a response to threats to one’s chastity, in a sense overdetermining it as the most appropriate response.
In comparison with Mother Gu’s life story – decades of faithful widowhood and respect from her neighbors – Maiden Huang’s is an exceptionally lonely tale. By some standards a widow even before her marriage, by nature of the broken betrothal, Maiden Huang alone stood against her parents’ wishes and demanded the right to remain a widow, and she alone threw herself into the pool at the Buddhist temple when they refused her. Her suicide, as it was for many of these faithful maidens, seemed to be the most powerful thing she could do. And according to these stories, in death she was no longer alone.
Her death got the attention of the local government and gentlemen, who attached her tale to Mother Gu’s shrine. She was commemorated in poems written on that tablet and more composed in 1864 and 1870 by Yilan poet Lee Feng-shi (1829-1876). In the follow-up story, as a benevolent spirit, she possessed the power to appear in dreams and bring rain and health to the city’s suffering inhabitants.
Maiden Huang’s tale raises questions about how the chastity cult was transmitted and represented in the 19th century and written into Tainan’s history. Everything about Maiden Huang has been preserved because of the male attention she attracted because of her suicide, filtered through the official narrative framework of what was expected of chaste virgins, reemphasizing to the local community the values that sent Maiden Huang running for the temple pond. What kind of valor is being celebrated in these commemorations? Who were these poems for? What is the social difference between the earlier poetic memorials and the later construction of an altar and a shrine?
The concept of faithful maiden suicide may seem incredibly removed from contemporary issues, but think about this again. What does society now overemphasize as identity-defining to young women today? How are girls socialized to define their place in the world in relation to these qualities?
Sources for further reading:
Lu, Weijing, True To Her Word: The Faithful Maiden Cult in Late Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008. (read the fantastic introduction online here)
李逢時:<弔烈女黃寶姑>《泰階詩稿》 – Poem about 黃寶姑 written in 1864.
Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth. Seal Press, 2009.
 The expression “every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion,” was coined at the time to describe this unruly frontier. Qing authority was not well respected, nor were Qing officials eager to take hardship postings on the island. Online Source: http://www.fapa.org/generalinfo/Taiwan’s_history.htm Print Source: Kerr, George H. Formosa Betrayed. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1965. p. 4.
 Theiss, Janet. Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 171.