The Annals of Reading: Once a Classic, Always a Classic for Children?

“Stories Old & New”: The Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales : brightly-colored, color-printed dust jacket of  Blackie & Son’s edition for children from their “Stories Old & New” series (©1966).

The other day I spotted an interesting-looking book on the shelves of the Princeton Public Library’s ongoing “Friends of the Library” book sale (which prices most books at $1 or $2, just the right price to snare a casual browser!).  It was an edition of The Canterbury Tales in a brightly-colored, illustrated paper dust-jacket, published by Blackie & Son of London and Glasgow (©1966), which originally sold for 45 pence as a new book, the equivalent of a little over $1 — or roughly about £9 and $11, respectively, at today’s exchange rate, the British pound having declined in value from about $2.40 to $1.25 between 1966 and 2019.  Times change, currency exchange rates change, and literary tastes with them!

Even accounting for changing book-design and cover artwork over the last 50 years, the dust jacket looked a too colorful for an edition of “classic literature,” at least to my eye; the book itself also seemed rather thin to contain all twenty-four of Chaucer’s tales.  Looking a little more closely at the book, I saw found the explanation on the inside front dust jacket’s blurb: this edition was part of the publisher’s series of children’s books — “Stories Old & New” — “designed and written to appeal to children over the age of seven.”  And the table of contents listed just four tales: The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, The Man of Law’s Tale, and The Franklin’s Tale, preceded by a short Introduction by the credited adapter, Dulan Barker, who purposefully rendered his adaptation in “simple and straightforward” prose,” not verse as Chaucer’s original had been (and in modern English too, not Middle English — young readers rejoice!).

Barker adds that he selected these four tales as ones “most likely to appeal to children.” A quick survey of Cotsen copies of a number of Canterbury Tales adaptations from the 19th and 20th centuries tends to confirm his judgement about popularity, at least insofar as “appeal” is reflected by which tales are included in reprinted editions.  And The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Man of Law’s Tale are confirmed as the “most often retold” of the tales in the Victorian and Edwardian editions for children by Velma Bourgeois Richmond in her scholarly study, Chaucer as Children’s Literature, which includes several checklist tables, tallying exactly which tales are included in prominent editions, as well as how many illustrations each of these various editions contain.[i]

“Stories Old & New” series titles, as listed on the dust jacket’s inside flap.

Barker’s short but illuminating Introduction concludes by asserting that he hopes readers will be prompted by his short edition to then turn to the “unique and delightful tales … as Chaucer wrote them.” The goals of adapting literary “classics” for children in language that they can (and will!) read and enjoy, seeking to use these adaptations to cultivate readers’ interest in the canonical originals — and in literature generally — and also using these adaptations as a means of teaching moral lessons are all ones that children’s books publishers pursued from the 18th century on into the 20th century (when explicit moral lessons and heavily didactic “instruction” increasingly took a backseat to “delight,” pleasure, and cultivating imagination).  Like most generalizations, the one I just made greatly oversimplifies nuances and individual authorial styles, but overall, I’d say that’s the general trend in children’s books over this time span.

Other “Stories Old & New” series titles listed on the lower inside dust jacket indicate that adaptation included a combination of older literary “classics,” perennial children’s favorites, and collections of tales or stories: The Arabian Nights, The Golden Fleece, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tales from Shakespeare (the Lambs’ prose adaptation of Shakespeare plays, which itself became a children’s classic), Alice in Wonderland, Stories from Grimm, Sleeping Beauty, Lazy Jack & Other Stories.

Following the general practice in adaptations of literary classics for children — and in 19th and 20th century versions in particular — Blackie’s “Stories Old & New” edition of The Canterbury Tales features a number of illustrations: dramatic line-drawings by Geoffrey Fraser. Several highlight the action-and-adventure aspects of the world of medieval knights, era of chivalry, or fabled warriors from mythic epics or romances that publishers thought would appeal to young readers, but particularly to boys, I’d have to say.

Duke Theseus of Athens — depicted much like a medieval king — accosted on his erstwhile wedding day by the widowed queen of King Capaneus, who begs for justice against the murderous, usurper Creon of Thebes in The Knight’s Tale.

The Athenian Arcita (i.e. Arcite), depicted as a chivalric knight, with quasi-Greek helmet, as he goes into trial combat with Palamon for the hand of Emily (Emelye), sister-in-law of Duke Theseus, illustrating a subsequent scene in The Knight’s Tale.













Women are depicted in an almost equal number of Fraser’s illustrations, most stressing the pathos of their roles in the tales in which they appear (usually as victims of the ill-will or capriciousness of others, mostly men but sometimes women too). These illustrations have an emotional power and resonance that I think distinguishes them from the illustrations of noble knights or some of the other, more simply pictorial ones.

“Patient Griselda” weeping with happiness and hugging one of her children, after finding out that they had not been killed by her husband, who also pretended to divorce her, and did cast her out of the house in a series of Job-like trials (The Clerk’s Tale).

Tempest-tossed boat carrying Constance — wife of the Syrian sultan and daughter of the Roman emperor — after she was treacherously put to sea in a rudderless boat to be “blown on the seas” for years until her “virtue and goodness” are rewarded” (The Man of Law’s Tale).














Finding this illustrated edition fascinating, if quirky, I realized that I didn’t recall seeing — or cataloging — very many editions of The Canterbury Tales in Cotsen Library’s collection over the years, especially books from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.  A quick search of our catalog bore out that impression — there’s weren’t nearly as many as there were of comparable editions of “literary classics” for children, such as adaptations of Shakespeare plays, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, or even Pilgrim’s Progress, the latter once something of a “must read” for children and the object of a number of illustrated or abbreviated versions for children. Virtually all the adaptations for children were from the 19th century — and the latter part at that — with earlier adaptations of Chaucer’s tales or episodes from the tales definitely not kid stuff!

Title page of Gay’s Wife of Bath Comedy (London: 1713) [3751.5.397.11]

Among the adaptations of Chaucer I found in Princeton’s catalog was a 1730 theatrical adaptation of the Wife of Bath’s Tale by John Gay, perhaps best know as the playwright of The Beggar’s Opera (immortalizing the likes of Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum), which had been first produced just two years before. The Wife of Bath’s Tale, with its sexual content and the bawdy language used by the Wife herself, is decidedly not for children.  And Gay’s “Comedy” is it is not intended for children either; it features characters with names like Doggrell, Merit, Astrolabe, Grist, Spigot, and Busy, more akin to those of the madcap inhabitants infesting Ben Jonson’s wildly satiric London City Comedies. (Prior owners have made some personal annotations on the title page, including adding Gay’s first name in a print hand, apparently later than the inked script at the head of the page.)

Another 18th century “adaptation” of Chaucer that my catalog search turned up was: John Dryden’s Palamon & Arcite, or, The Knight’s Tale: in Three Books, contained in a 1713 volume of verse entitled, Fables Ancient and Modern…from Homer, Ovid, Boccace (i.e. Boccaccio) and Chaucer.  Again, not really children’s reading; I think they’d find three volumes of Dryden’s heroic couplets a bit taxing, and less than fully engaging, as the opening lines might suggest:

Dryden’s Palamon & Arcite, from Fables Ancient and Modern… (London: 1730) [PR3418 .F5 1713]

In days of old, there liv’d, of mighty fame
A valiant Prince; and Theseus was his name:
A chief, who more in feats of arms excell’d
The rising not setting sun beheld.

Finding my OPAC searches not yielding much in terms of earlier children’s adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, I turned to some standard bibliographies of children’s books: The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books: 1476-1910 (1975) and Laurence Darton’s The Dartons: An Annotated Checklist of Children’s Books… 1787-1876 (2004).  Both are magisterial classics.  But among Darton publications all I could find was a book, cover-titled Illustrious Characters… Ornamental Penmanship (1823), including an engraved plate statement about William Caxton, the first publisher of The Canterbury Tales.  Osborne listed A Treatise on the Astolabe, addressed to his son, Lowys, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1561?) and the 1882 title: Chaucer for Children: A Golden Key by Mrs. H.R. Havens , “a keen student of Chaucer,” also noted that she had previously published a 1880 title: Chaucer for Schools. 

I later turned up a number of other versions of Chaucer for children in Cotsen’s collection and elsewhere, most of them from the latter 19th century or the 20th century, when Chaucer adaptations for children really seemed to come into their own, in part due to the romantic allure of medievalism and medieval design. But many items were entered (properly) under their own title, not with “Canterbury Tale,”or “Chaucer” as part of their title, and some were published as part of broader collections of items within a book of a different title (cf. Dryden’s Fables…, which I mentioned above, which fortuitously mentioned Chaucer in its title and also included a cataloger’s note about the contents.  Thus, Chanticleer and the Fox (mentioned in the Nun Priest’s Tale), The Story of Patient Griselda (from the Knight’s Tale), or Pilgrim’s Tales from Chaucer, were among the books turning up in a revised search query.  So I got a small lesson in catalog searching!

Gilt-stamped pictorial cover of the search-evading title: The Story of Patient Griselda (London: Routledge, [1906]) [Cotsen 84718]

But the absence of earlier (17th-18th c.) adaptations was still a puzzle to me. Was Chaucer considered unsuitable fodder for children’s adaptations because of some of the Tales‘ inappropriate sexual, and sometimes reprehensible content, the sometimes-bawdy language used by some characters, or something about the subject matter related (drinking, warfare, quarreling, etc.)?  Or did this absence have something to do with religion?  The pilgrimage to Canterbury was made by the tale-tellers (like others) to venerate a Catholic saint, Thomas Beckett; pilgrimages and saints also continued to have distinctly Catholic overtones in assertively Anglican England after the Protestant Reformation and perhaps even more so in Puritan England and America.  Could this religious context have made the Tales content that a publisher would shy away from issuing for children?  Were fabliaux, fairy tales, and fantastical tales considered too racy or too tied to superstition, or wild imaginings and fantasies for some educators and proponents of children’s literature after the Enlightenment?  Or some combination of all of these?  This seemed possible to me, and Richmond’s introductory chapter — “Contexts and Criticisms” — confirmed this.

But this is a topic that I’d like to explore more — as well as looking more closely at some of the (often lavishly-illustrated) Canterbury Tale adaptations for children from the mid-nineteenth century onward in a future blog posting.  And all this because of a $2 book found in a library book sale!

“Dinner in the Olden Time” – Late 19th c. colored wood-engraving by Edmund Evans, depicting the Canterbury pilgrims at a tale-telling meal: Chaucer for Children (London: Chatto & Windus, 1877) [Cotsen 23643]

[i] Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. Chaucer as Children’s Literature: Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland & Co., 2004. 

According to Richmond, The Knight’s Tale comes in as the #1 tale, included in virtually all collections of Canterbury Tales reprints in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The Meaning of Being a Good Chinese Girl over Two Millennia–From Biographies of Consorts to “Little Princesses” Series

How do you define a “good” Chinese girl? What moral standards, behavior, and mentality have Chinese girls and women been exhorted to adopt? Biographical stories, moral instruction books, fictional narratives, and school textbooks are among the genres that shaped the conduct of Chinese women and girls through text and image for two millennia.

This enduring tradition can be traced as far back as to Lie nü zhuan列女传, a collective biography of female historical figures written by Liu Xiang刘向 (ca. 77 BCE-ca. 6 BCE) of the Western Han Dynasty. Liu’s original manuscript did not survive, but its contents have been preserved by hand-copying and printing throughout the ages. Because the original work predates the wide adoption of paper, let alone printing technology, it was possibly first inscribed on bamboo/wood slips (if not on the more expensive silk), like this narrow wood slip discovered in Dunhuang on the Silk Road. Dated 75 CE, less than a century after Liu Xiang’s completion of the collective biography, the wood scrap bears the characters “Lie nü zhuan” and is among the earliest extant references to the work (Kinney xxxiv).

The title “Lie nü zhuan” is mentioned on a wood slip dated 75 CE. (Image source: The International Dunhuang Project, British Library)

Lie nü zhuan contains biographies of over a hundred remarkable women in early China. People who are not familiar with the title will be surprised that the collection is not exclusively about exemplary historical figures. Liu organized individual profiles into six types of virtues and one category of evil women–presented as cautionary historical cases. The work underwent a complicated history of changes, with the addition of text and reorganization of chapters by writers, editors, compilers, annotators, and publishers.[i] Illustrations, surmised to be part of Liu Xiang’s manuscript based on historical records[ii], remain a prominent feature of later versions and variations. The essence of the book persevered through dynastic turnovers and revolutions, its values reincarnated into new moral instruction books for females. Collective biographies of women became a staple genre and a powerful tool for instilling the ideology of proper female behavior.

Princeton University Library is fortunate to own pre-modern, woodblock-printed, illustrated editions of Lie nü zhuan. This post will first pay tribute to the “grandmother”[iii] of Chinese moral education books for girls, featuring a 19th-century copy from Princeton’s East Asian Library Gest Collection. It will then highlight a few later publications in Cotsen’s Chinese collection and demonstrate how they continued with or departed from the tradition of Lie nü zhuan.

Lie Nü Zhuan: A Collective Biography of Women in Early China

Authorship and Contributors

The many named and unnamed writers, editors, artists, engravers, and printers who contributed to the two-volume Gest copy of Lie nü zhuan spanned more than eighteen centuries. Liu Xiang, a (male) politician and historian, is believed to be the author of the first seven chapters of the collective biography. It is noteworthy how often women, amid an otherwise male-dominated world of literati, took an active part in Lie nü zhuan projects. A supplementary, eighth chapter of twenty profiles, again including both positive role models and negative examples, was added by Ban Zhao (ca. 49-ca. 120), who was the first known female Chinese historian.

Lie nü zhuan inaugurated the genre of collective profiles of women in Chinese literature. Ban Zhao herself was portrayed in a poem collection titled Lie nü tu (列女图, or Portraits of famous women), composed by another female scholar Cao Zhenxiu曹贞秀 in 1799 during the Qing dynasty. (Image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Gest copy is estimated to be published in 1825, by Ruan Fu阮福, a book collector in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province. The Ruan family had a Southern Song edition of Lie nü zhuan, published by the Yu family in Jian’an, Fujian Province, likely during the thirteenth century. They produced this facsimile edition with woodblock printing technology. As stated in the publisher’s postface, Ruan Fu’s ninth younger sister Jilan季蘭 made a good duplicate of the illustrations with tracing paper, and her copy was transferred onto woodblocks for cutting and printing (Ruan 5)[iv].

The book states that the illustrations were originally done by Gu Kaizhi (顾恺之, ca. 344-ca. 405) of the Eastern Jin dynasty. One must not get overly excited by the prospect of seeing a great painter’s art in it, which I naively did. Gu Kaizhi, a resounding name in Chinese art history, no doubt lent attraction to the book to the advantage of publishers. Gu was known for having portrayed some, if not all, figures and stories from Lie nü zhuan, specifically the “benevolent and wise” women profiled in Chapter 3. Only an anonymous copy made of his original art, albeit considered a fairly faithful one, survives.

Illustration for “The Wife of Duke Ling of Wey” as found in–

(i) the anonymous scroll which duplicated Gu Kaizhi’s (lost) painting of “benevolent and wise” women profiled in Lie nü zhuan. (Image source: the Palace Museum in Beijing);

(ii) the 1825 edition book, which credits Gu Kaizhi as illustrator. (TB117/1078Q, courtesy of the East Asian Library)

Pictured above are Duke Ling of Wey and his wife having a conversation, one of the stories in Chapter 3. From the text we learn that Duke Ling of Wey and his wife were sitting together in their court dwelling one evening, but there is no textual description of the setting. The identical layout of the scene in the scroll and in the book was not coincidental. Either they shared the same source of inspiration or the latter was an imitation, a shadow of Gu’s detailed imagination materialized in fluid and elaborate brushstrokes.


As Kinney (xxxvii) pointed out in her authoritative study on Lie nü zhuan, Liu Xiang compiled the collective biography of virtuous and depraved women for a dual purpose. First, the book was presented to Emperor Chengdi, warning him how evil women favored by rulers could have a destructive impact on dynastic health. Secondly, Liu prefaced the stories of virtuous role models with direct messages to a female audience, exhorting them to follow the good examples. In Chapter 3 on “benevolent and wise” women, for example, he began with the promise, “Wives who cultivate these qualities/Will gain glory and renown” (Kinney 45).

The primary concern of Lie nü zhuan is to regulate the conduct of women close to imperial rulers, and a prominent portion of the historical figures profiled in the book are thus queens, empresses, and royal consorts; however, stories have been drawn from all levels of society. Unlike biographies of men, which clearly state a biographee’s name in the title of each story, only some of the exemplary women’s full names are provided. They are more likely to be identified by their family names and how they were related to a male figure who is named–wife, mother, sister, and daughter–in consistent with their peripheral position in the patriarchal society.

“The ‘Exalted-Conduct’ Widow of Liang” (Liu ch. 4) (East Asian Library TB117/1078Q)

Lie nü zhuan espouses six categories of female virtues as specified in chapter titles: The Maternal Models, The Worthy and Enlightened, The Sympathetic and Wise, The Chaste and Compliant, The Principled and Righteous, and The Accomplished Rhetoricians. Many stories glorify women who committed suicide and self-mutilation as means to preserve chastity. In “The ‘Exalted-Conduct’ Widow of Liang,” a beautiful young widow cut off her nose to repel pursuers and to be able to remain loyal to her dead husband after receiving a marriage proposal from the King of Liang (Kinney 83; Liu ch. 4).

In a polygamous China fidelity was a moral standard demanded from the female gender alone. Consort Fan earned a place in the chapter on “Worthy and Enlightened” women in part by actively scouring beauties near and far to present to her husband, King Zhuang of Chu. She did not let her self-interest get in the way of the benefit of the king, and presumably, that of the kingdom as well (Kinney 31; Liu ch. 2).

“The Principled Aunt of Liang” (Liu ch. 5) (East Asian Library TB117/1078Q)

Two thirds of the stories in “The Principled and Righteous” (Liu ch. 5) end with death. A wife willingly let herself be murdered to save her husband. A nurse let her own child die in place of the prince under her care. A consort committed suicide as her king was nearing the end his life, because she had made a promise to die with him. Another consort took her own life to demonstrate to the king that her advice was not motivated by self-interest. In two cases, wives killed themselves because they could not live with the shame brought on by their husbands’ moral failure. Women were bound by Confucian teaching to be loyal to masters, fathers, brothers, and husbands. When principled women were caught in dilemmas, they would rather extricate themselves by death than run the risk of betraying any of the parties.

The wife of the bow maker of Jin reasoned with the Duke and persuaded him to spare her husband’s life. She even taught the ruler a thing or two about how to shoot an arrow (Liu ch. 6). (East Asian Library TB117/1078Q)

Even though Lie nü zhuan earned notoriety for its female martyr stories, the book is not all about dead and good women. Plenty of women, including a girl as young as twelve and named Zhuang Zhi (Liu ch. 6), offered brave criticisms and sage advices to rulers. By articulating moral principles, using clever metaphors, and citing persuasive historical lessons they were able to exert moral influence on rulers, brought them to senses, helped them recruit better people and enact more benevolent policies. Some of the women managed to rescue their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, and themselves from unjust punishments in the process. Stories like those, as empowering as they could be within Confucian constraints on females, explain part of the appeal of the book to women intellectuals and readers in premodern China.

Lie nü zhuan also pioneered the notion of “fetal education” (胎教), modeling how to be a good mother during pregnancy. When Consort Ren was pregnant with King Wen, founder of the Zhou dynasty, she would not gaze upon evil sights or listen to depraved sounds, exposing the fetus to good stimuli only (Kinney 7; Liu ch. 1).

Impact: The Case of Yuan Ji

Lie nü zhuan was a major title recommended for girls’ moral education, as demonstrated in Instructions Within Females’ Quarters闺门女训[v]. Written in the accessible rhyming texts and vernacular style, this book advised females to learn Lie nü zhuan and the chapter “Pattern of the Family” (内则) in Record of Rites, a Confucian classic. It cites the famous exemplary women featured in Lie nü zhuan, teaches how to treat family members (with a section on harmonious concubine relations), and emphasizes the value of filial piety, chastity, and fidelity. The impact of Lie nü zhuan on female conduct was pervasive, with a trickling effect on people who had never even been exposed to the book directly.

Instructions Within Females’ Quarters 閨門女訓 is written in rhymes. Late 19th century. (Cotsen 153017)

One of the tragic victims of the kind of sacrificial values internalized by Chinese women was Yuan Ji袁機, who died at age 39 in 1759. We know about her short life thanks to her brother Yuan Mei袁枚 (1716-1797), a scholar of the Qing dynasty and an affectionate sibling to his sisters. After Yuan Ji’s death, he wrote a biographical essay and an elegy in memory of her. When she was still a toddler, Yuan Ji was prearranged to marry into the Gao family, a friend of her father’s. When the friend realized that his son had grown into a violent monster, he wrote to the Yuan family to annul the arrangement, intending to spare Ji of harm. Ji, however, refused to break the agreement and willingly entered the doomed marriage. Ji was physically abused and tortured in the hands of her psychopathic husband, no matter how compliant a wife she strove to be. She was nearly sold to pay off his gambling debt when Ji’s father intervened and rescued her by obtaining a divorce. She lived a depressed life afterwards but still paid filial piety to her former-mother-in-law by sending clothing and food. When she became ill she would not seek cure.

Literacy and education do not equate immediate emancipation, and can be a tool for indoctrination. Yuan Mei wrote that when they were children his sister used to take lessons on classics with him. She loved stories of the “principled and righteous” (節義事) from ancient times and thus diligently emulated as an adult. The brother lamented in the elegy that, if his sister had not learned Odes–an authoritative work frequently quoted in Lie nü zhuan–and Book of Documents, she might not have subjected herself so resolutely to harsh circumstances. He found three chapters of collective biography of women she had compiled, as well as poems she wrote.

Yuan Mei did not elaborate on his sister’s depression. On top of the traumatic experience, Ji perhaps felt like a failure, not being able to morally convert a cruel monster into a gentleman of decency, which any of the worthy and courageous role models in Lie nü zhuan would had achieved. Short of taking her own life swiftly like those martyrs, Ji gave up her life in a slower fashion to disease.

The practice of honoring women who exemplified Confucian standards of chastity and fidelity died hard. In a bitter irony, Yuan Ji’s abridged life was profiled among exemplary women of the Qing dynasty in Draft History of Qing (清史稿 ch. 509). The book was published in 1928, when those inhumane restrictions imposed on female conduct were already under attack by the New Culture Movement in early Republican China.

Another sticky legacy of the book is Chinese society’s impulse to scapegoat the “seductive, manipulative, and evil” wives of political rulers when things go terribly wrong. Imperial Consort Yang Yuhuan and Empress Dowager Cixi were famously blamed for the corruption of the Tang dynasty and the decline of the Qing Empire, respectively. First Lady Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) was made to shoulder the main responsibility for the damage of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which her husband started and led. As late as the twenty-first century, public opinion and gossip would still casually cite the “crazy wife” of a disgraced authority figure as the cause of his downfall.

Radical Moral Teachings for Girls in the Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century China experienced the upheaval of revolutions, civil wars, world wars, changing political regimes, and cultural movements. Girls were exposed to radical moral instructions during this tumultuous time, as we shall see in the two examples below. They must not be viewed in isolation and mistaken for evidence of a linear social progress because progressive and conservative messages have been found cohabitating in the same book. As new ideas spread, old familiar teachings could linger or make a comeback, sending competing messages to young minds.

The Newest Textbook on Girls’ Moral Cultivation 最新女子脩身教科書 compiled by Xu Jiaxing 許家惺. Shanghai: Qun xue she, 1907. (Cotsen 91129203)

The Newest Textbook on Girls’ Moral Cultivation (1907), compiled by journalist and translator Xu Jiaxing (许家惺, 1873-1925), was intended for upper-elementary school girls and female teachers schools (equivalent to no higher than middle school) and to be taught over a span of two academic years. The name of its illustrator was not listed. By the publication of the textbook, a declining Qing dynasty–traumatized by a series of foreign invasions, peasants’ uprisings, forced war reparations, and cessions of territories–was only several years away from its demise. A nation in crisis and desperation wedged open the door to let in some refreshing or rebellious ideas. Xu wrote in the introduction that he had selected materials from girls’ moral instruction books in multiple countries in the East and the West.

The textbook adheres to the traditional linkage between female conduct of life and dynastic health, but it injects whole new meanings into how the linkage works. Chaste, principled, compliant, filial, and suicidal women still figure prominently in the book, although Xu dropped prenatal education and maternal models–two of the topics covered in Lie nü zhuan–deciding that they were not imperative for the intended age group (Xu 2). The lessons begin by stressing that women should get educated. Xu looked to the United States, other Western countries, and Japan as models of success, arguing that when both genders were educated the countries prospered. He considered females naturally good at teaching, so they should not only offer family education but also take up teaching posts in schools. Lesson 4 boldly dispels the myth that female brains are inferior than males’, as it also introduces stereotypes of what each gender excels at.

Women should get educated; plus, they are naturally good at teaching so should teach in schools. In The Newest Textbook on Girls’ Moral Cultivation. (Cotsen 91129203)

The study of physics allows humans to harness nature, explained in Lesson 114 “Dispelling puzzlement” (祛惑). (Cotsen 91129203)

In two lessons titled “Dispelling Puzzlement,” girls were taught that natural phenomena like lightening and solar eclipse are governed by physics, not by Heaven’s will as people used to believe. To illustrate how humans can harness nature with the knowledge of physics, the book depicts one girl driving an automobile and the other riding a hot air balloon. The fantastic image makes one wonder, by 2019, how close Chinese women are to the vision of freedom as imagined in the century-old textbook.

Lesson 5: Women are mothers of citizens of a country. Whether our compatriots are strong or weak depends on the fitness of the female gender. (Cotsen 91129203)

No fewer than eight lessons are devoted to women’s physical strength and exercise. Girls’ health and fitness assumed paramount importance as part of a solution to national defense. The science of human reproduction had just begun to be introduced to China. Enlightened intellectuals made the connection between reproductive health and the birth of strong babies who must grow into strong soldiers for the survival of the nation. Xu subverted traditional aesthetic standards for females, who, especially for those from the upper-class, were valued for a delicate and fragile look. He urged girls to take physical education and linked foot binding and other unhealthy practices to the peril of a weakened race and a nation awaiting its defeat by conquerors. In the above illustration for Lesson 5, a girl stands on her tiny crippling bound foot in the back, unable to join other girls who are lifting dumbbells. (Foot-binding would be officially banned in 1912, five years after the publication of the book.)

The book offered its most radical teaching by gently pointing out the deficiency of the “Three Obediences” rule, which are among the pillars of Confucian code of behavior for girls and women. Females are to obey: first, her father as a daughter; second, her husband as a chaste wife; and third, her sons as a widow. In a lesson titled “Self-Reliance,” Xu wrote,

Although the “Three Obediences” are not wrong they only cultivate Eastern women into good daughters, wives, and mothers. Women are just as smart and capable as men. Relying on the latter prevents women from achieving independence. In this increasingly competitive and warring world, many women are left without fathers, husbands, or sons. How could women survive without a profession of her own to be self-reliant? (Lesson 55)

Xu did not perceive any conflict between being a compliant wife and having her own career to support herself; but, by acknowledging women’s right to live–something for which Lie nü zhuan was never particularly concerned–he made a big departure from traditional principles.

A Clever Fight 智斗 written by Mou Huaike牟怀柯 and illustrated by Lü Jingren吕敬人. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1976. (Cotsen 32669)

Fast forward to the latter half of the twentieth century. A Clever Fight is a lianhuanhua (a format akin to comic books and with text-image layout aligned with the tradition of woodblock printed books) title published in December 1976, when the Cultural Revolution began to wind down. In the fictional story, the girl protagonist Little Red has a visitor, a great-uncle who has returned home from overseas. By Chinese custom Little Red addresses him as “grandpa” but she is instantly alarmed by the suspicious old man. With vigilance, cleverness, and courage, she manages to intercept the evidence of Grandpa’s espionage activities and turns him in.

Little Red tiptoed to the balcony and watched what Grandpa was doing. In A Clever Fight 智斗. (Cotsen 32669)

Politically precocious children versus reactionary or treacherous adults is a familiar tension found in children’s stories published during the Cultural Revolution. Little Red models at least two qualities for her fellow “Little Red Guards.” First, she turns the historically low social status of being a female and a child into an advantage in her clever fight against the old man–a traditionally revered status. Grandpa greatly underestimates her intelligence and political savvy, and Little Red gathers valuable information and evidence by running errands for him, even occasionally feigning childish and girlish peevishness.

Grandpa was arrested. In A Clever Fight 智斗. (Cotsen 32669)

Second, she exemplifies how the younger generation is purer and more progressive than adults, free from the baggage of traditional teachings. Little Red is immediately disgusted when Grandpa tries to gift her with a golden necklace, as if it were an insult to the red scarf she is wearing, symbolizing her membership in “Little Red Guards.” Her father, a university researcher, chats with Grandpa about the project he is working on even though he is not supposed to. Little Red, who is in the third grade, deliberately interrupts the conversation and gives her father a look. (Notably, her mother is just as alert and, too, steps in.) The father still wishes to carry on, contending that Grandpa is a family member, thus can be trusted. Unlike her father, Little Red has never for a second let traditional loyalty to family cloud her political vision, or let male authority figures bend her principle. Throughout the story she is never even troubled by the slightest discomfort of reporting a blood relation to the police. A Clever Fight replaces Three Obediences to male family members with allegiance to Chairman Mao, the government, and the country.

Little Princesses Series of the Twenty-First Century

Cultivating an Awareness of Self-Protection in Little Princesses series小公主自我保护意识培养, written by Gong Fangfang龚房芳 and illustrated by Liang Ximan 梁熙曼. Changchun: Jilin Fine Arts Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen)

You Cannot Bully Me as You Like, written by Gong Fangfang in 2016, is part of a picture book series titled “Cultivating an Awareness of Self-Protection in Little Princesses” and specifically targets little girl readers. Other titles in the series are No Casual Kisses for Me, Do Not Unscrupulously Accept Food from Others, Do Not Let Yourself Be Duped, Do Not Go with a Stranger, and No Casual Touching of Me. Each title provides three fictional scenarios in which a girl protagonist gets herself out of danger or an unpleasant situation. Chinese girls have been taught many principles over two millennia: how to readily kill themselves to defend their reputation, how to sacrifice family for rulers and the state without a moment’s hesitation when the two are in conflict, and how to take care of their health for the sake of the nation’s military strength. A focus on girls’ bodies, their safety, and emotional well-being for their own sake is short of a revolution in Chinese books that regulate girls’ conduct.

You Cannot Bully Me as You Like 不要随便欺负我 written by Gong Fangfang and illustrated by Liang Ximan. Changchun: Jilin Fine Arts Publishing House, 2016. (Cotsen 92740701)

In each scenario in You Cannot Bully Me as You Like, Xixi, a young girl, encounters an unwelcome bully on the playground. She never engages in any physical confrontation but is the first to speak up. Other children quickly follow her lead, and a vocal group effectively turns the dynamics around, creating enough pressure to deflate the troublemakers. Xixi’s words are simple but powerful enough to bring some sense to the bullies. In one scenario she says,

“Stop it! We are playing a game together and it should have been a fun thing. Why must you create trouble?”

“That’s right, that’s right!” Kids echoed, and the boys shamefully retreated. (Gong 7)

In another episode, the bully boy is speechless and ashamed when Xixi demands, “Why did you treat me this way?” (Gong 29)

In Little Princesses series, girls like Xixi find out that both tears and compliance are useless to repel bullies. They learn to be assertive and vocal. They lead by being a positive influence on others. They utilize language as their first line of defense, saving themselves and friends from kidnappers, bullies, and unwanted touches.

From biographies of royal consorts to safety education for “little princesses,” Chinese moral education books for girls have come a long way. They have also come full circle. Lie nü zhuan has long been overshadowed by its portrayal of seductive evil women and virtuous suicidal widows, and one chapter that is least remembered is “The Accomplished Rhetoricians.” It features women who used reasoning and rhetorical skills to get their points across to powerful men. In fact, many other women outside this chapter appeared to be eloquent speakers too. Though both books stress females’ communication skills and the power of words, they do so with different preoccupations. In Lie nü zhuan good speakers helped men become better rulers, if very occasionally the women happened to save their own skin in the process. In Little Princesses girls develop verbal skills and a confident mentality that help to acquire a safe childhood and will serve their adulthood well too. If the girls also give a few good lessons to bullies — all the better.

(Edited by Dr. Mary F. Zawadzki, Cotsen Children’s Library)


[i] Anne Kinney (xxxii) analyzed how Liu Xiang’s Lie nü zhuan transformed over time.

[ii] See Kinney’s (xxxiii) discussion on how the title appeared in variations in History of the Former Han汉书. The lack of punctuation in classical Chinese texts also contributed to uncertain interpretations of whether the manuscript was originally illustrated or not, based on the way the title was recorded in China’s earliest extant bibliography, Yi wen zhi艺文志.

[iii] An even earlier text on female conduct, known by its conventional title “Instructions to Women” (教女), has been discovered on bamboo slips dating from the Qin dynasty. Thank Yuzhou Bai for informing me of its existence.

[iv] The Gest copy is missing the publisher’s postface, but the section is available in other institutional copies printed from the same woodblock.

[v] Undated. The copy was printed in lithography, a technology introduced to China in the late nineteenth century.


Kinney, Anne Behnke. Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Liu, Xiang劉向. 新刊古列女傳. 揚州: 阮福, 1825.

Ruan, Fu阮福. “摹刊宋本列女傳跋.” 新刊古列女傳, 1825. 1-7.

Yuan, Mei袁枚. “女弟素文傳.” 小倉山房文集. Vol. 7.女弟素文傳

—. “祭妹文.” 小倉山房文集. Vol. 14.祭妹文

Titles of Interest:

何艳荣, and 杨苡. 我来学着把事做. 第1版. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1959. (Cotsen 92741998)

信誼藥廠, ed. 女子二十四孝彩圖. 上海: 信誼藥廠, 1941. (Cotsen 75832)

姜元琴. 姐姐的日記. 初版. 上海: 商務印書館, 1934. (Cotsen 18500)

戴克敦. 訂正高等小學女子國文教科書. 上海: 商務印書館, 1914. (Cotsen 94967)

抱娃娃的妈妈. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 198-. (Cotsen 91129732)

柯岩, and 何艳荣 (illustrator). 照镜子. 第1版. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1965. (Cotsen 83099)

楊晉豪. 清潔的姐姐. 初版. 上海: 商務印書館, 1935. (Cotsen 94416789)

牟怀柯, and 吕敬人 (illustrator). 智斗. 第1版. 上海: 上海人民出版社, 1976. (Cotsen 32669)

王叔暉. 木蘭從軍. 第三版. 北京: 朝花美術出版社, 1956. (Princeton 5797/1126)

王惠. 禮儀概説. 上海: 商務印書館, 1947. (Cotsen 71723)

繪圖典故列女全傳. 上海: 埽葉山房, 1924. (Cotsen 30445)

許家惺. 最新女子脩身教科書. 三版. 上海: 羣學社, 1907. (Cotsen 91129203)

閨門女訓. 黄文正堂, 19–. (Cotsen 153017)

龚房芳, and 梁熙曼 (illustrator). 不要随便欺负我. 第1版. 长春: 吉林美术出版社, 2016. (Cotsen 92740701)