Exemplary Women

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:13 am

A new translation of the Lienu zhuan is out, under the title Exemplary Women of Early China The book was compiled by Liu Xiang, mostly from older sources, so it is both an anthology of Pre-Han stories about women and one of the most important influences on post-Han women’s education.

The translator, Anne Behnke Kinney, says that the organizing principle of the book is dynastics, “an ideology for reinforcing habits of deference to a family-based hierarchy for the sake of its ongoing continuity and prestige.” It is thus broader than the usual understanding of filial piety and is not the same as patriarchy, although it often overlaps with it. Most of the stories portray women dealing with some sort of crisis that threatens the family or dynasty.

Sometimes of course women -are- a threat to the family and dynasty, as in this story from the section on the Depraved and the Favored.

The Songstress Queen of King Dao of Zhao

The Songstress Queen was a singer from Handan and the queen of King Daoxiang of Zhao. At an earlier time, she had brought disorder to an entire clan. When she became widowed, King Daoxiang was struck by her beauty and married her. Li Mu remonstrated with him, saying, “This won’t do. A woman’s impropriety is the means by which state and family are turned upside down and made unstable. This woman has brought disorder to her clan. Shouldn’t Your Majesty be alarmed ?”The king said, “Whether there is disorder or not depends on how I govern.” He then proceeded to marry her.

Earlier, King Daoxiang’s queen had given birth to a son named Jia who became heir apparent. After the Songstress Queen entered the court at the rank of consort, she gave birth to a son named Qian. The Songstress Queen then became a great favorite of the king and secretly slandered the queen and the heir apparent to the king. She [also] arranged for someone to offend the heir apparent and thus provoke him into committing a crime. The king thereupon dismissed Jia and set up Qian [in his place], and deposed the queen and established the songstress as queen. When King Daoxiang died, Qian was enthroned as King Youmin.

The Songstress Queen was dissolute and immoral. She developed an illicit connection with the Lord of Chunping and frequently received bribes from Qin. She made the king execute his great general, the Lord of Wuan, Li Mu. Afterward, when Qin troops marched in, no one could stop them. Qian was then taken prisoner by Qin, and Zhao was destroyed. The grandees, resentful that th eSongstress Queen had slandered the heir apparent and killed Li Mu had her killed and exterminated her family. Together they enthroned Jia at Dai. After seven years they could not defeat Qin. Zhao was then annihilated and became a commandery [of Qin].

The Odes says, “If a man have not dignity of demeanor /What should he do but die. These words apply well to her.

The Verse Summary says,

The Songstress Queen of King Daoxiang of Zhao

Was insatiably covetous.

She destroyed the true queen and heir,

Working her deceit with guile.

She was debauched with Lord Chunping,

And ruthlessly pursued what she desired.

She received bribes, ravaged Zhao,

And died in the kingdom she destroyed

This story gives a nice sample of both court politics in the Warring States and pretty traditional views about the dangers of marrying beautiful women. It also reflects one of the reasons the book was complied, since Liu Xiang seems to have been worried that too many Han emperors were marrying low-born women who did not understand proper family behaviour. These women needed to be either avoided or educated, and this book could help with either. We also get a sample of one of the verse summaries that one can memorize to keep the lessons of the story in mind.

Much different is this story, from the section on Accomplished Rhetoricians

The Wife of the Bow Maker of Jin

The bow maker’s wife was the daughter of an armor craftsman of Jin. In the time of Duke Ping, the duke ordered her husband to make a bow. After three years it was finished. When the duke drew the bow and shot, the arrow did not pierce even one layer of armor. The duke was angry and was about to execute the bow maker.

The bow maker’s wife thereupon begged for an audience, saying, “I am the daughter of an armor craftsman and the wife of the bow maker. I would like to be granted an audience.” When Duke Ping met with her she said, “Have you heard of Gong Liu’s conduct in former times ? Whenever the sheep and oxen trampled their rushes and reeds, he felt great pity for the common people, and his concern even extended to plants and trees. Would he have countenanced the killing of an innocent person? Duke Mu of Qin encountered bandits who ate the meat of his fine steed, but he gave them wine to drink. When an officer of King Zhuang of Chu tugged at his consort’s robe, she tore off his hat tassel. But the king later drank with him quite happily. As for these three rulers, their benevolence became known to the entire world. Eventually each one was requited [for their kindness], and their names have been passed down to present times.

“Formerly, Yao did not trim the thatch of his roof or carve its mottled beams. He had earthen steps of only three levels.Even so, he felt that his workmen had toiled hard and that he was living in great comfort. Now, when my husband made this bow, his efforts were also laborious. The bow’s shaft came from wood grown on the slopes of Mount Tai, and each day he would examine it three times in both the sunlight and the shade. It is decorated with the horn of oxen from Yan, bound with the tendons of deer from Jing, and glued together with adhesive derived from Yellow River fish. Since these four things are among the most select and extraordinary materials in the world, your inability to pierce even one layer of armor must be due to your inability to shoot. Yet you want to kill my husband. Isn’t this mistaken?

“I have heard that in the Way of Archery, one’s left hand should be held as firm as a rock, while the right hand should be held like a diagonal support beam. When the right hand releases the arrow, the left hand should not be aware of it. This is the Way of Archery.”

When Duke Ping did what she said and shot, the arrow pierced seven layers of armor. The woman’s husband was immediately set free and given three yi in cash. A man of discernment would say, “The bow maker’s wife was able to offer assistance in difficulty.” The Odes says, “The ornamented bows are strong;’ and “They discharge the arrows and all hit.”This phrase describes the methods of archery.

The Verse Summary says,

Duke Ping Jin commissioned a bow,

Which took three years to complete.

But he became angry with the bow maker

And was on the verge of punishing him.

The wife went and spoke tothe duke,

And explained what materials were used in the bow.

She set forth the labor and difficulty involved,

And the duke thereupon released him.

So we have another commoner woman, but this one is an expert on bows, archery, rare materials and persuading rulers. She also has the courage to tell the Duke he is lousy at one of the Six Arts (Archery) and is eloquent enough to both get away with it and improve him. Even men could take her as an example!

As a result this is a really useful book to use when teaching about Chinese women. Students come in with a lot of ideas about women in traditional China being powerless and oppressed. That’s not wrong, but getting them to go beyond that is often pretty hard. These stories mostly deal with female agency, but always in a family or dynastic context, so we are getting neither Passive Lady Plum Blossom nor Disney’s Mulan. It is also a good book for Early China. It’s always had to find something to do for the early part of a China class, given that a lot of the secondary stuff is pretty technical and the translated primary sources tend to be philosophical texts that are hard for undergrads to deal with. This seems just about perfect.

Of course, even if you are not going to teach with it, you could still read it. Its a good book.


What if it’s a fake? What if it isn’t?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:56 am

Jeremiah Jenne pointed me to this most wonderful bit of French nonsense: Jean Levi’s claim that the terracotta army is a modern forgery.

These famous clay sentinels, which protect the sleep of the despot eternally as is insistently and pompously proclaimed by journalists, do not date back from the 3rd century B.C., the time when the Great Emperor was buried, but from the 20th century, at the end of the Cultural Revolution when the struggle between factions was raging with the “Gang of Four”. As you’ve pointed out, it is nonetheless surprising that this “new wonder of the world”, which has crowds from the four corners of the planet gape with admiration, was inscribed on the World Heritage List without being assessed by international experts as is usually the case when a country officially asks for an artistic or architectural place or property to be listed. The Chinese authorities purely and simply refused the UNESCO experts access to the archeological site, although those same experts apparently did not take much offence as Lingtong’s buried army was added to the list anyway.



Monumental Histories

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:46 pm

Quite by coincidence, I ended up reading three books on Chinese monuments, but not until the third did I realize that what I was reading was a history of modern monuments. The first two books I picked up relatively recently – as my “to read” stack goes – but since they were related to my Early China course this last semester they moved to the front of the line.1 The third was a review copy sent by Cornell UP to “Jonathan Dresner, Frog In A Well Blog.”2 The books are

  • John Man, The Terracotta Army: China’s First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation, Bantam Press, 2007
  • Julia Lovell, The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC – AD 2000, Grove Press, 2006.
  • Chang-Tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic

Why do I say these are modern monuments? The terracotta warriors, while a monumental work, were unknown until 1974, and did not become “monuments of China” for several years after. The Great Wall was a fairly obscure remnant until foreign visitors, mistranslations and reporters (including Ripley himself) raised so much interest that the Chinese government refurbished and made it accessible primarily as a nationalist beacon and tourist attraction. Though they have older stories to tell as well, they actually fit quite well into the discussion Chang-tai Hung presents of the artistic and aesthetic politics in the first decade of the PRC.

  1. If memory serves, they were both bought at Daedalus Books in Maryland. Great prices, if they’ve got what you’re looking for; dangerous place for book-hounds. []
  2. Yes, the rest of the address was there, too, but that’s boring. []



Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:01 am

Columbia University Press is publishing a complete translation of the Huainanzi, a Han-dynasty compendium of philosophy and statecraft which has been of great interest to scholars for many years but is only now receiving a full English translation

We are lucky enough to have John Major, one of the translators here for a guest post on the process of translation and also to answer a few questions.

In March of this year Columbia University Press published The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, a translation of a classic work of early Chinese philosophy written under the general editorship of Liu An, King of Huainan, and presented to the Han imperial throne in 139 BCE. My colleagues and I in the translation team hope and expect that this first-ever translation of The Huainanzi into English will make an important contribution to the study of Chinese intellectual history by opening a fascinating window into currents of thought in the early Han dynasty.

The process of translating this massive and challenging work may be of interest.

In about 1994 I mentioned to my friend Hal Roth (Harold D. Roth, Brown University) that I was thinking of doing a full Huainanzi translation, and he replied that he was thinking of doing the same. So we decided to join forces; that’s how the project got started. Both of us had already devoted large amounts of our professional attention to the Huainanzi. We believed that it was under-appreciated in the field of early China studies; everyone in the field knew of Liu An’s great work and perhaps consulted it for comparative purposes when working on other texts, but few people at that time had made The Huainanzi the focus of their research. It was the last really major work of Chinese philosophy from the early imperial period that still lacked a complete English translation. (A Paris-based group beat us to the distinction of publishing the first Western-language translation; their French translation was published in 2002.)

We landed a Chiang Ching-kuo fellowship to begin the work in 1996-98. Jay Sailey, an independent scholar who also had a longstanding interest in The Huainanzi was initially part of the project but later dropped out; a few years into the project two additional participants came on board. The final team consisted of John Major, Sarah Queen (Connecticut College), Andrew Meyer (Brooklyn College) and Hal Roth. Michael Puett (Harvard) participated in the translation of chapter 13, and Judson Murray (Wright State U.) participated in the translation of chapter 21. But the core team was the four of us.

The project took so long — about fifteen years — partly because the text is quite large (the published translation runs to just over 1000 pages) and also quite difficult (it is in standard Classical Chinese but there are many textual issues to deal with and some of the language and the technical terminology is far from transparent). Also all of the participants had other ongoing obligations; it was never possible for everyone on the team to work on the project full-time, all the time. The last three years or so were very intense and we all basically put aside as much as possible of our other research and writing to concentrate on the Huainanzi, but even so, there were courses to prepare and teach, administrative work to be done, other research and writing commitments to honor, and so on. But we were determined to work as a team rather than simply dividing up and parceling out the work (as the French group had done); we were convinced that approaching the text in a truly collaborative fashion was the key to making the translation as accurate and graceful as possible. The procedure that we adopted was complicated. We began by dividing up responsibility for doing first-draft translations of all of the 21 chapters. Then each draft was read and critiqued by all other members of the team, revised, read and critiqued again, and further revised. The aim was to make the final versions as complete, accurate, and seamless as possible, no matter who did the initial draft. From 1998 to 2009 we met for four or five very hard-working weekends per year at Brown to hash out difficult passages and discuss, for example, uniform ways of translating important terms. The last stage of translation consisted of reading the entire work aloud — taking turns, one person would read while the other three followed along in the classical Chinese text, looking for errors. That took many, many hours, but it proved to be extremely worthwhile.

Manuscript preparation itself was a big job that took about two years: peer review, revision; copy-editing, more revision; page proofs, corrections; appendices, index, etc. It was a huge undertaking just in the physical sense; the final typescript ran to over 1600 double-spaced pages.

Working as a team was really essential to the project; it was a much more complicated way of doing the task than a solo effort might have been, but the result is much better than any of us could have done alone. Intensive, long-term collaborative work is quite common in the natural sciences but relatively rare in other fields; I think that the success of this project demonstrates the merits of such close collaboration in the humanities despite its complexity and the hard work required to implement it.

The Huainanzi is full of fascinating material, and the effort of translating it was more than repaid by the intellectual challenge of doing the work and the satisfaction of having it turn out well. And we are delighted with the actual published volume, which was extremely handsomely produced by Columbia University Press. It is gratifying that the first printing sold out within three months, and the book is already in its second printing. It is very satisfying to have this work finally out in the world.

John S. Major


Weird Orientalism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:24 pm

The kids and I have been playing a game called Great Wall of China, which is a German board game1 (actually a card game) designed by Reiner Knizia, who judging from the prominence of his name on the box is a big wheel in the game biz. It’s a fun game you can play with 2 or more, and like a lot of games they have dressed it up with a bit of history, connecting it to the building of the Great Wall. The connection is a bit odd at first. You are supposed to be a Chinese nobleman helping build the Great Wall, which is a little odd, since Qin Shihuang prefered to work through the buraucracy. The really odd thing, however, is that if you are about to win and want to declare this the last round you have to inform the other players that this is the last round by shouting out “Guangzhou!” I can think of  a few reasons for this.

1. The game box says it was made in China. Maybe it was made in Guangzhou.

2. Most historical atlases say that the Guangzhou region first became part of the empire in the Qin, so since the game is about the North part of the Qin empire you should bring in the South part at the end.

3. Asian words and history are just cute ways of making things seem exotic, and so you don’t need to worry too much about what things actually mean.

P.S. It is a cool game. Maybe not as good as Wasabi!, or Munchkin, or Settlers of Catan, but well worth getting.

  1. Wikipedia rules []


Student Protests in Han China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:47 am

June is the month to blog about student protests in China. There have been a lot of them, and like other types of protesters Chinese students often consciously or unconsciously use scripts. American protesters want to occupy an administration building, French students want to go on strike (or whatever) and they do these things because the students are embedded in a political culture where these are the proper ways for students to protest. This is not to say that new forms of protest are not developed, but  that students, like everyone else, tend to choose a their actions from a set of roles that they are familiar with. Jeffery Wasserstrom’s book on student protest is probably the best source on the patterns of student protest in 20th century China. How far back do Chinese traditions of student protest go? To a certain extent they can’t go back too far, since China did not get its first modern university until 1898. On the other hand there have been students and schools in China for a very long time. The most interesting of the early protests come from the Latter Han dynasty. In the decade of the 160’s, during the reigns of Emperors Huan and Ling, students at the Imperial University (太學) were noted for their political activism. Like most university students, these were in an anomalous position in society. Imperial University students were members of the elite, but not elite enough to get government jobs just based on their family. Like later students they were also frustrated by their prospects. By the Later Han the curriculum at the University was considered hopelessly out of date and attending was no longer a reliable route to office. Students were deeply concerned with the problems of the state, which is not surprising, and they were particularly concerned with the problem of corruption and favoritism in official appointments, which is also not surprising, given that they were the ones most likely to be passed over if jobs were not given on merit. During this period the student’s enemies were not the Communist Party, but the eunuchs and their faction, who were rivals of the great aristocratic families. The emperors tried, without much success in the Later Han, to balance and stay above these factions.

In the first years of Emperor Huan, the fashion of student debate and criticism had taken the form of seven-character slogans, arranged in rhyming couplets, which were chanted in unison, shouted in the streets, and frequently written on walls…Short, pithy opinion combined with a good beat and rhyme made slogans such as these popular and influential. In a comparatively short time, under the name of “pure judgments” (qingyi 清義) they developed into a style of criticism that could be applied to any official or scholar and, as the name would indicate, such assessments were regarded as impartial and accurate summaries of character. Their most [20] effective practitioners, notably the student leader Guo Tai 郭泰, a man of humble birth but considerable intelligence and literary skill, gained immense prestige and a large following.1

So basically they were student-rappers. And, like later Chinese student protesters they looked to reformist officials with rhymes like this

A model for the empire,
Li Yuanli;
Fearless of powerful enemies,
Chen Zhongju

Hmm. I guess it worked better in the Han pronunciation. Of course the students lost, and many of them and many of those they supported in the regular bureaucracy were purged in 169. As became normal in Chinese politics the losers were accused of forming a faction (部黨). This was a serious accusation, since there was no tradition of loyal dissent in China. Just as there was little hope that Zhao Ziyang and the student protesters at Tiananmen would be able to work out a compromise that would preserve both the party and the students’ principles there was not much possibility that that bureaucracy and the eunuchs were going to work out an accommodation. Both were competing to be the exemplars of virtue for the empire, and there could be only one of them.

Also like Tiananmen, the aftermath of the purge was not what you might expect. Although people were in fact fired and executed and exiled, in practice the witch hunt did not and could not go very far. In part this was because the dispute was between two factions of the elite, and the eunuchs could not massacre the entire bureaucracy. In part this was because many government officials were unwilling to hunt people down, and many not connected with the Faction were eager to give them shelter. Sima Guang tells a number of stories of men like Zhang Jian, who managed to escape capture with the help of many people he had never even met. Many members of the local elite were eager to associate themselves with a certified Man of Virtue like Zhang, and many of these helpers suffered severely because of it. Eventually Zhang found his way back into government, becoming Captain of the Guards.

Zhang Jian was crticized for his escape and its costs by Xia Fu, who said “He brought this misfortune upon himself, and then he pointlessly caused the involvement of other good and honest people. In order the one man might escape death, ten thousand households suffered misfortune. How could one live with that?” Xia Fu hid himself on a mountain and became an ironworker, dying before he could return to office.2

Zhang Jian and Xia Fu demonstrated two of the ways that protesters could deal with defeat, and here too the Han figures were part of a developing tradition. Withdrawing from politics (into business in the 1990’s onto a mountaintop in the 170’s) was a standard option. Sima Guang approved

Your servant Sima Guang remarks:

If the empire is following the proper Way, true gentlemen assemble at the court of the ruler to correct the misbehavior by the men of mean spirit, and there on-one who dares not submit. When the empire has lost the Way, gentlemen retire into seclusion and do not speak out, hoping that they may avoid misfortune from the men of mean spirit, and yet still it happens that some of the fail to escape.

The men of Faction lived in a age of confusion and disorder, when all things were out of place and the four seas were in turmoil. They sought to solve problems by the words in their mouths, giving  judgments of good and bad so as to wipe out evil and restore purity. They sought to seize the snakes and vipers by the head, and trample on the tails of the tiger and the wolf. But it was they themselves who were injured and wrongfully punished, and the ill fortune reached their friends. Men of quality were destroyed, and the nation moved on to disaster. The pity of it! Only Guo Tai hand the insight and understanding to preserve his own life, while Shentu Pan (two men who retired from politics) realised what would happen and took appropriate action, not waiting till the final day. This is exceptional wisdom!

Obviously China has changed a lot in 2000 years, but it was odd for me to read some of this stuff and see some of the same roles and scripts being used that far back.

Pretty much all of the information in this post comes from Rafe de Crespigny’s work and translations, which are now available online

  1. from Political Protest in Imperial China: the Great Proscription of Later Han 167-184 Second edition [Internet] 2007. This is a revised version of an article first published in Papers on Far Eastern History, The Australian National University, Canberra, no. 11 [March 1975], pp. 1-36 []
  2. see Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling: being the Chronicle of Later Han for the years 157 to 189 AD as recorded in Chapters 54 to 59 of the Zizhi tongjian of Sima Guang, translated and annotated by Rafe de Crespigny. Asian Studies Monographs, New Series No. 12, Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra 1989 []


Male and female lightly engaged in erotic excess

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:12 am

The behavior of the people, the cosmic order, and the stability of the state were all linked in traditional Chinese political theory. Disorder in one would lead to disorder in the others. This cosmology had been pretty much worked out by the Han Dynasty. A good illustration of this principle comes from Commands and Admonitions for the Families of the Great Dao dating from 2551

Formerly, during the latter generations of the Han house, strong men began to carve up the empire. The mighty encroached upon the weak, and the people became deceitful and shrewd. Male and female lightly engaged in erotic excess. The government could not relieve the situation and families did not impose prohibitions. Cities were plundered and the common people were victims of injustice, even to the extent of being made slaves. The people were being devoured )ust as mulberry leaves are consumed by silkworms, and because of their grievances they began to consider revolt.

The pneumas [emanating from) their resistance blocked the heavens. This caused the five planets to depart from their measured movements, aphelial and parhelial comets to sweep the skies, and the fire star to depart from its position as adjunct. Then powerful ministers began to fight among themselves and hosts of treacherous people led one another [in rebellion].

After more than a hundred years, the Wei house received the mandate of Heaven and eradicated all of these evils. Calendrical signs showed that this was so. Their ascension was-recorded in the River [Chart} and the Luo [River Writings} and in other portents suspended in the heavens.  Conforming to the celestial dispensation and the propitious times, I received the mandate to be Master of the Kingdom. The Martial Thearch [Cao Cao] launched the empire.

If anyone is wondering, the reason I keep posting all these little quotes and stuff for use in class is so that future teachers of Chinese history will know where to find them. The main future person I want to be able to find them is me, since the web seems a better place to keep ones notes than a hard drive.

  1. translated Stephen Bokenkamp in Early Daoist Scriptures,  p.179 []

Powered by WordPress