Didactic literature that no longer seems edifying: what’s the point?

Lienü zhuan is a collective biography of exemplary Chinese women compiled at the end of the 1st century BCE. It was, according to Ban Gu, a 1st century CE historian, intended to counteract the influence of lower-class, immoral women who destabilized the dynasty and to provide the emperor with positive examples of female virtue so he could better judge and instruct the women of his court. For 2000 years after its publication, it stood as the epitome of Confucian educational texts for women.

Today, different perspectives on the text, as exemplified by how its most recent translator, Anne Behnke Kinney, and the reviewer from Chinet, Oliver Weingarten, (the Czech site that functions as a forum for Europe-based Sinologists) approach its non-contemporary moral framework, demonstrate that the issues that faced Chinese gender studies and women’s history in the 1970s and 80s, as described by Emma Teng in her 1996 article “The Construction of the “Traditional Chinese Woman” in the Western Academy: A Critical Review,” continue to affect scholarship today.

Huai Ying, Wife of Yu of Jin - Illustration from  烈女傳,卷二, 42b-43a.

Huai Ying, Wife of Yu of Jin – Illustration from
烈女傳,卷二, 42b-43a.

Kinney talks about a “dynastic” ideology that serves as a unifying theme for the work, justifying and legitimizing the actions of the women in the biographies for the audiences of the time. This is an ideology “for reinforcing habits of deference to a family-based hierarchy for the sake of its ongoing continuity and prestige… Dynastics incorporates those individuals included in the most capacious definition of filial piety, promoting not only the flourishing of the enduring family or dynastic unit but also a concern for family or dynasty on the part of nonfamily members.” (xvii)

She is careful to differentiate this dynastic ideology from a patriarchal one, which is the ideological system commonly used to explain the exemplarity of the self-sacrificing women in Lienü zhuan. Rather than take the subordinate status of women in the text as a clear indication of an oppressive patriarchal system, Kinney examines the power structures governing social and gender relations more closely. “In contrast to the gender-based notion of patriarchy, dynastics focuses on the transmission and perpetuation of a specific power structure. Dynastics is thus more concerned with maintaining continuity than with shoring up masculine power. Because patriarchy often monopolizes power, the two converge on a regular basis. Dynastics, however, is concerned with perpetuating and rationalizing hegemony that is already entrenched. It is a verbal and behavioral mechanism for perpetuating power, whether it is masculine or not. We therefore see narratives in the Lienü zhuan and elsewhere in early Chinese literature not just women subordinating themselves to men but also husbands, sons, and brothers who are directed to defer to women as a means to sustain dynastic power or family prestige.” (xvii)

Illustration in 列女傳,卷一,37b -38a.

The Lump-necked woman of Qi – illustration in 列女傳,卷一,37b -38a.

The reviewer, Weingarten, however, largely ignores this aspect of Kinney’s analysis in her Introduction (apart from a brief nod), instead taking a quote from Kinney’s Acknowledgments, where she writes that she was, “at turns fascinated, inspired and appalled” to support his own reading of the text. His review begins by imagining a modern reader encountering the story of “The Principled Aunt of Liang” as if it was a newspaper report, expressing the mix of admiration for the woman’s heroism, followed by horror at her self sacrifice based on adherence to principles that seem incomprehensible in the 21st century. In his words, “The story is certainly not intended to relate actions and motivations in a psychologically plausible manner. Instead, it inculcates a highly constraining value system in which abstract principles often matter more than a woman’s life. … This narrative, like many others in this book, promotes uncompromising behavioural norms which were, one suspects, mainly supported by men in a male-dominated society.” This entirely misses Kinney’s point about how the tales were intended to show how both men and women supported a dynastic ideology (and inculcate those values in future readers, as is the purpose of didactic morality literature), which yes, was dominated by men, but more importantly was built around the preservation of power by those who were benefiting from the stability of the existing hierarchy, whether they were male or female.

Wife of Qi Liang of Qi - Illustration from 列女傳,卷二,49b -50a.

Wife of Qi Liang of Qi – Illustration from 列女傳,卷一,49b -50a.

Weingarten, after describing the majority of the tales of these virtuous women in such terms as “absurd,” “pious ritual pedantry,” “oppressive grimness,” and “specious displays of ritual literal-mindedness,” finds solace in a few biographies that describe women with traits he actually believes to be virtuous. “It comes as a relief, then, that one also finds independent and strong-willed women in these pages who break the mould of the chaste, self-sacrificing female with a fixation on ritual correctness.” and “It is no less refreshing to come across women who refuse to fulfil [sic] the expectation of female self-sacrifice.” But these are not enough to save the Lienü zhuan, in his opinion. “The number of episodes featuring such admirable and intriguing protagonists is fairly limited. Sadly, not even the “Depraved and Favored”, whose stories make up the seventh chapter, are remotely as interesting as the eloquent women.” and “Much worse, many of them play only a bit part in their own stories and don’t exhibit any particular signs of agency, motivation, or character.” and finally “On the whole, however, the Lienü zhuan makes for dreary reading.” Having roundly panned the original text, he is left then asking why Kinney bothered to issue a new translation of it, given that there was a “competent” translation of it published in the 1940s. In the final paragraph of his review, he concedes that Kinney has made a valuable contribution to students and scholars with her new translation and its detailed introduction, but I am left wondering what room he has left in which a contribution might be made by Lienü zhuan.

What value is Weingarten’s review of Lienü zhuan? With his perspective firmly planted in the rightness of 21st century morals and the backwardness of 1st century BCE Chinese morals, the sense of the text’s actual didactic purpose is lost in his strident condemnation of its lack of women with things we now hope to see in representations of them – agency, individualism, motivation and character. The fact that these characteristics are often lacking in contemporary popular film, television, and fiction is absolutely worth getting upset over. The fact that these are lacking in 2000 year old Chinese texts is not. In a review where the value of reading ancient morality literature could have been explained, to help readers get beyond their initial disgust with or alienation from the Lienü zhuan, Weingarten instead maintains the structure of power that elevates 21st century enlightenment by contrasting it with the benightedness of the past, a fiction that blinds us to the sins of our own time.

Further Reading
Kinney, Anne Behnke. Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.: Interesting to note how the reviews listed here state the work’s value.
Traditions of Exemplary Women: Though this site unfortunately seems to have been abandoned half finished, what’s there is useful and interesting.
列女傳: 1779 edition, with illustrations. For some reason, all the stories are in a different order here than in the more canonical version of the text translated by Kinney. It’s also been scanned in reverse by Google, so scroll to the bottom for the actual start of the text.


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