Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang (Translations from the Asian Classics)
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In early China, was it correct for a woman to disobey her father, contradict her husband, or shape the public policy of a son who ruled over a dynasty or state? According to the Lienü zhuan, or Categorized Biographies of Women, it was not only appropriate but necessary for women to step in with wise counsel when fathers, husbands, or rulers strayed from the path of virtue.
Compiled toward the end of the Former Han dynasty (202 BCE-9 CE) by Liu Xiang (79-8 BCE), the Lienü zhuan is the earliest extant book in the Chinese tradition solely devoted to the education of women. Far from providing a unified vision of women's roles, the text promotes a diverse and sometimes contradictory range of practices. At one extreme are exemplars resorting to suicide and self-mutilation as a means to preserve chastity and ritual orthodoxy. At the other are bold and outspoken women whose rhetorical mastery helps correct erring rulers, sons, and husbands. The text provides a fascinating overview of the representation of women's roles in early legends, formal speeches on statecraft, and highly fictionalized historical accounts during this foundational period of Chinese history.
Over time, the biographies of women became a regular feature of dynastic and local histories and a vehicle for expressing and transmitting concerns about women's social, political, and domestic roles. The Lienü zhuan is also rich in information about the daily life, rituals, and domestic concerns of early China. Inspired by its accounts, artists across the millennia have depicted its stories on screens, paintings, lacquer ware, murals, and stone relief sculpture, extending its reach to literate and illiterate audiences alike.
women mentioned by Shen Yue (502–557 CE) in his annotations to the Bamboo Annals passage concerning Jie’s downfall. See Zhushu jinian, “Di Gui”; translated in Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 3, “Prolegomena,” 125–126. 9. There is a great deal of debate over the identification of the place where Jie ended his days. Shiji 2, 88, claims that he died in Mingtiao, where he had been exiled. Nanchao is associated with Chaoxian in present-day Anhui province. Compare this account with the Shangshu,
China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. ——. Records of the Grand Historian of China: Translated from the Shi chi of Ssu-ma Ch’ien. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961. ——. Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. ——. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. ——. Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China: Selections from the History of the Former Han by Pan Ku. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974. ——.
the Yousong lineage.20 In the time of Yao, she went bathing with her sister in the waters at Xuanqiu.21 A dark-colored bird carrying an egg in its mouth passed by and dropped the egg, which was multicolored and very fine. When Jiandi and her sister raced to get the egg, Jiandi got it first and put it in her mouth. She mistakenly swallowed it, and as a result, gave birth to Xie.22 By nature Jiandi was skilled at managing human relationships. She also understood the patterns of the stars on high
when he issues an order to summon someone from the palace, it must be accompanied with a tally. Now, because you did not bring a tally, I do not dare to follow you.” The messenger replied, saying, “The waters have begun to rise. If I return to get the tally, I’m afraid it will be too late!” The lady said, “I have heard that it is the duty of a chaste woman to abide by an agreement, and that the brave are not afraid to die. They maintain their principles under all circumstances. I know that if I
betrothal gifts.127 The Senior Tutor, the Chancellor, and the Imperial Counselor, along with forty of their subordinates, donning deerskin caps and white robes, then announced the betrothal in the ancestral temple. The next year in spring, the Chancellor, the Imperial Counselor, and the Generals of the Right and Left were commissioned to escort the emperor’s carriage to fetch the empress at the residence of the Duke Giving Tranquility to the Han. The Chancellor conferred upon [the empress] a