Exemplary Women

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.

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