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).
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.
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–
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=gb&file=83149&page=42&remap=gb
Yuan, Mei袁枚. “女弟素文傳.” 小倉山房文集. Vol. 7. https://zh.wikisource.org/wiki/女弟素文傳
—. “祭妹文.” 小倉山房文集. Vol. 14. https://zh.wikisource.org/wiki/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)