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Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang

Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang

Martin Lavicka03 Dec 2014Leave a comment

Written by Oliver Weingarten

Kinney, Anne Behnke. 2014. Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN:  978-0231163095. $35.

The following episode can be considered fairly representative of numerous moralising narratives in the imperial librarian Liu Xiang’s 劉向 (79–8 BCE) collection of anecdotes about – mostly exemplary – women, the Lienü zhuan 列女傳. Finding that her house is on fire, a woman tries to rescue the two children inside, her son and her nephew. She manages to wrest the son from the flames, but then realises that the fire already burns too hot for her to go back inside. Yet, she tries. As she explains to a friend attempting to hold her back, she cannot live with the shame of letting her nephew die. “I would like to cast my own child into the fire”, she exclaims, “but that would be a breach of maternal love.” So she throws herself into the flames (ch. 5.12: pp. 103–104).

The woman does whatever is in her powers to save two lives, but for no fault of her own fails to rescue one of them. If anyone encountered the first part of the narrative under the heading “Miscellaneous” in a newspaper, they would undoubtedly agree that this is a terrible tragedy. But what is one to make of the woman’s subsequent behaviour? Perhaps, one may reason, the lady is so stricken with grief that she cannot think clearly. Such a psychological reading is tempting, but it is to miss the point entirely. 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. The concluding verse appraisal spells this out very clearly. The woman is to be lauded because she “[u]pheld righteousness and cherished moral principles”, and because “she threw herself into the fire,/ Wishing to make clear her unselfish intentions” (p. 104). 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.

Anne Behnke Kinney, the translator of this new English version of the Lienü zhuan, confesses about her first encounter with the book that she felt “at turns fascinated, inspired, and appalled” (p. XIV). Like her, many other contemporary readers will doubtless be puzzled as well, regardless of whether they read the book in the original, in Albert O’Hara’s competent translation from the 1940s, or in Kinney’s new fluent and carefully annotated rendering.[1] There is more than a hint of absurdity in the narrative expositions of female virtue which Liu Xiang compiled in order to help Emperor Cheng 成 (33–7 BCE) judge more accurately the true qualities of the women around him, and the didactic impact of which was probably enhanced by pictorial representations of the stories.[2] Cases of suicide and self-sacrifice abound, children are left to die for the higher good, and pious ritual pedantry is rife. The illustrations of how a decent woman should behave are capped by appraisals in tetrasyllabic verse, which summarise the contents of the narrative and the lessons to be drawn from them in a form that is easy to memorise.[3] There is an oppressive grimness to many of the stories, which praise most highly women who drown, burn, and hang themselves, who condemn their children to death because this is what is called for by some higher principle, and who waste their lives as chaste widows or engage in specious displays of ritual literal-mindedness.[4]

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. In a series of Daoist-inspired stories, for instance, wives berate their husbands for their seeming interest in public office. Rather than being tainted by any perceived association with official life, they urge them to retreat to the safety of the wilderness (ch. 2.13–2.15). The entire chapter 6 on “Accomplished Rhetoricians”[5] is worth reading for its portraits of skilled, outspoken, and courageous women. Here, the wife of an artisan saves her husband from the wrath of a clumsy duke by showing him how to operate the deluxe bow he had made to order but lacked the requisite skills to use (ch. 6.3). Or take what must be one of the earliest reports of a traffic accident in world literature. A grandee in a hurry bumps into the cart of a woman, who sets him straight on the fact of the accident just when he is about to angrily whip her. Stunned and impressed by her spirits, he proposes to her on the spot, only to find himself rejected by the lady, who leaves in a huff to return to her husband, Mr. Zhao (ch. 6.5).

It is no less refreshing to come across women who refuse to fulfil the expectation of female self-sacrifice. When a powerful noble prepares to execute the mother of a rebel, she refuses to take responsibility for her son’s infractions. He was, after all, a well-brought up youth and turned to rebellion after entering the service of said nobleman: “You have a violent minister. I don’t have a violent son”. Somewhat ironically, the verse appraisal applauds her for having “set forth a mother’s duties” (mu zhi 母職) in front of the noble (ch. 6.8: p. 121). Evidently, knowing when to wash one’s hands of wayward offspring is very much in line with such duties.

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. This is not only because they merely engage in the familiar and predictable business of being evil seductresses, bringing down states, jumbling the legitimate order of succession, and indulging in incestuous relationships. 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. Among the few truly interesting characters in this chapter is the consort of a duke of Lu 魯, who, in a rare expression of contrition, repents of her actions when she realises the magnitude of her misdeeds (ch. 7.8). One may argue that this ultimately reduces her to the trite cliché of the obedient female which patriarchal society had so far failed to force upon her. Yet, her feelings of regret add a tragic dimension to her portrait that seems to be seldom expressed in early Chinese narratives.

On the whole, however, the Lienü zhuan makes for dreary reading. Furthermore, only few of the narratives are unique to this book. Most are likewise attested in other extant works, and the Lienü zhuan usually quotes from those writings. A number of the narratives on the “depraved and favoured” women for instance are from the Zuozhuan 左傳, and Liu Xiang does not appear to have reworked them stylistically to any significant degree, as Sima Qian 司馬遷 did for his Shiji 史記.[6] These narratives are written in the telegraphic language of the Zuozhuan with its high density of unexplained names and summary accounts of events, a style which Liu Xiang, in contrast to Sima Qian, did not care to make more accessible.

The Lienü zhuan is of interest mainly for two reasons. It can be read as a collection of narratives about women judged to be either good or, more rarely, bad from the point of view of a patriarchal value system and dynastic political order.[7] It can also be read for its topical organisation, which allows for insight into gendered norms and expectations among male members of the political and social elites. Whether, or to what extent, one should consult this book as a source on “the position of woman in early China”, as Albert O’Hara put it, is, however, a different question. Its didacticism and prescriptive character would suggest that it can only be used with great caution as a source on actual social practices. As Kinney sensibly argues with regard to examples of self-sacrifice and suicide, “most people in ancient China probably viewed the extreme behavior lauded in some of these stories as acts that were to be admired but not followed to the letter” (p. XLII).

Lastly, one may ask what sets Kinney’s work apart from O’Hara’s earlier translation. Unfortunately, she mentions neither her personal motivation nor her scholarly reasons for retranslating the Lienü zhuan, though one may surmise that the comparative sparsity of references and explanatory footnotes in O’Hara’s book as well as the general progress in the study of early Chinese history, culture, and texts have something to do with it. So does, possibly, the fact that O’Hara’s book is long out of print and not easily available even from antiquarian bookshops.

On the whole, however, there is nothing wrong with O’Hara’s work. In some instances, his translations may even be preferable. In ch. 2.9 for instance a wife observes her mediocre husband returning from an official appointment with a fantastically oversized retinue. Seeing that his merits do not match the wealth he has accumulated, she immediately senses that this will not end well and begins to cry in the courtyard. Her annoyed mother-in-law hisses at her: He qi bu xiang ye 何其不祥也?, which O’Hara renders as: “Why this unpropitious omen?”[8] Kinney, by contrast, goes for the wordier “Why are you behaving in such an inauspicious manner?” (p. 36). Despite the slightly stilted “unpropitious”, the brevity of O’Hara’s translation captures more aptly the indignation of the old lady whose pride and joy about her son’s triumphant return sour when she is confronted by the sight of her daughter-in-law acting as if she were facing her husband’s funeral procession.

In order to explain her uneasiness, the wife gives a sober assessment of her husband’s talents: Fuzi neng bo er guan da 夫子能薄而官大, in O’Hara’s straightforward translation: “My husband’s ability is small and his position great”.[9] In Kinney’s book, one finds instead: “My husband’s talents are meager, yet the official position he holds is very important” (p. 36). The sentence has now grown by one relative clause and one adverb, and the neat parallelism of the two clauses neng bo and guan da with their antonymous stative verbs in corresponding syntactic positions has been needlessly watered down.

But this is, at most, a very minor stylistic quibble. Elsewhere, Kinney finds an ingenious way to render a pun which is difficult to reproduce with consistency in English. The widow of a man from Lu treated as an exemplary recluse in later traditions lays him out in state in the main hall of their home. But the shroud is too short, and either his head or his feet are left exposed. Master Zeng 曾子, who visits to express his condolences, flinches at such impropriety. He advises the widow: Xie yin qi bei ze lian yi 斜引其被則斂矣, in Kinney’s translation: “Place the quilt on the bias and then it will cover him completely.” The wife, however, argues successfully: “Placing the shroud on the bias in death, when he was never biased in life, would not be in accord with the master’s disposition” 生時不邪, 死而邪之, 非先生意也 (p. 39). The exchange hinges on the characters xie 斜 / 邪, which stand for the same word and were both pronounced *ja according to Axel Schuessler’s reconstruction of Late Han Chinese.[10] Both mean “oblique, crooked”, and xie 邪 in particular is often used to express emphatic moral condemnation in the sense of “perverted” or “evil”. Kinney’s “bias” has exactly the same literal and figurative meanings. In addition to “one-sided, prejudiced”, it also refers to a diagonal cut or fold in fabric. The word hence allows for the most accurate and economic translation possible. O’Hara, by comparison, switches between two different words. In his rendering, Master Zeng recommends: “Place the coverlet obliquely, then it will enshroud him”, whilst the widow responds: “When he was living he did not like crooked things, and when he is dead, to cover him crookedly would not be [in accord] with the Teacher’s intention.”[11] In this case, succinctness is no doubt on the side of Kinney’s translation.

With her extensive and meticulously presented introduction, with her precise and readable translation, and with her careful annotation of historical and textual references, Kinney has done both students and scholars of early China a great favour. Her work makes an important source on women’s history available to a wider audience in a reliable and affordable English edition.

[1] See Albert Richard O’Hara, The Position of Woman in Early China: According to the Lieh Nü Chuan, “The Biographies of Eminent Chinese Women” (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1945).

[2] See Kinney’s discussion on p. XXXV as well as O’Hara, Position of Woman, p. 9.

[3] Propagandistically motivated stories on filial piety also present extreme behaviour of a similar kind as praiseworthy. See Keith N. Knapp, Selfless Offspring: Filial Children and Social Order in Medieval China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005).

[4] On gruelling cases of women abandoning their own offspring, see above, ch. 5.12, but also ch. 5.1, 5.6, 5.8.

[5] This is Kinney’s translation of bian tong 辯通. Given the contents of the chapter, one may ponder whether “The Eloquent and the Understanding” would not be more to the point or, alternatively “Those Who Succeeded Through Their Eloquence”.

[6] See the monograph-length comparative study by He Leshi 何樂士 in Cheng Xiangqing 程湘清, ed., Liang-Han hanyu yanjiu 兩漢漢語研究 (Jinan: Shandong jiaoyu, 1992), pp. 1–261.

[7] On the norms and interests promoted by the Lienü zhuan see Kinney’s discussion on pp. XXVI–XXXI.

[8] O’Hara, Position of Woman, p. 63.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Axel Schuessler, Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), pp. 1–42 and 1–47.

[11] O’Hara, Position of Woman, p. 67.

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