Feb. 13-26, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 3
Back Issues
A Bold Plan
Turner: ‘The journey continues’
Raising the Bar
Headlines @ U.Va.
Research yields insight into working families
Team designs computer model to predict pathways of blood vessels
Yvonne Hubbard levels the playing field
Board discusses diversity, tuition and more
Faculty Actions
‘Traditions of Exemplary Women’
U.Va. Health System reaches out to uninsured
Linda Layne discusses pregnancy, feminism and health
Poet-critic Alan Williamson here as Rea Visiting Writer
‘Dada DJ’ and friends spin the vinyl Feb. 17
Manned Mars missions on the horizon
‘Traditions of Exemplary Women’
Online project will examine history of gender roles in China
Anne Behnke Kinney
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Soon, scholars and students will be able to explore more closely the forces that shaped gender roles, politics and culture in China as part of an online project, directed by U.Va. professor Anne Behnke Kinney (above.)

By Robert Brickhouse

Jiang, the wife of the king, was alone on the terrace when the river began to rise. The king sent one of his men to take her to a safer place, but the aide forgot to bring his official seal signifying the king’s approval. So Jiang chose to stay and drown rather than break palace rules and leave dishonorably.

Such models of chaste and obedient behavior by women, a key element in Chinese cultural history, are portrayed in a famous textbook for female education in early China — “Traditions of Exemplary Women” (Leinü zhuan) by Liu Xiang — that influenced the status of women for 2,000 years.

Chinese porcelain plate
This Chinese porcelain plate illustrates one of the stories in the core text of Professor Kinney’s project. It shows a woman fleeing as her village is being attacked. Too weak to protect two children in the calamity, she abandons her own son to save her brother’s son — for this was in line with the moral ideal of keeping others’ interests before one’s own.

Soon, scholars and students will be able to explore more closely the forces that shaped gender roles, politics and culture in China as part of a University of Virginia project, “Traditions of Exemplary Women: A Digital Research Collection,” that focuses on the book’s neglected history.

Directed by Anne Behnke Kinney, professor of Chinese and director of U.Va.’s East Asia Center, the bilingual project now under development is the first large-scale study of women in early China and the first of such size to employ state-of-the-art information technology to study Chinese history. The Web project will present electronic versions of rare Chinese texts and an authoritative new translation by Kinney of “Traditions,” as well as important early sources, extensive annotations, essays, maps and images.

Compiled in the first century B.C., “Traditions” is the earliest extant book solely devoted to women’s moral education in China. Featuring biographical stories of women who were noted for various Confucian virtues, such as filial piety and maternal kindness, much of the book could be taken as conventional sound advice for anyone, said Kinney. But it also promoted oppressive ideals of female submissiveness and even practices such as suicide and self-mutilation to preserve chastity, she said. In one such tale, the beautiful widow and mother, Gaoxing, cuts off her nose to stop her suitors, including the king, from trying to persuade her to re-marry.

Despite its astonishing influence, remaining part of the curriculum in China until 1911, the book has been neglected by scholars and exists in English only in one out-dated translation, Kinney said. “Modern feminists in Asia who have only recently escaped its influence have understandably distanced themselves from it. It’s an area of China’s cultural history that is still almost entirely unexplored.”

Kinney, author of “Representations of Children and Youth in Early Chinese Literature” (Stanford), hopes the digital project (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/xwomen/) will stimulate new study of early China and will become a model for bilingual investigations into cultural issues.

A key part of the project will be to examine how representations of women have evolved over time in China and to look at historical events that prompted powerful men to prescribe certain forms of behavior for women. Kinney has found, for example, that illustrations of women in Chinese texts have tended to portray them actually as smaller and less powerful figures in each succeeding era.

Women played crucial roles in shaping the imperial Han state from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., she said. A new emphasis on Confucian education and filial duty at that time contributed to female influence in the court, with strong mothers being able to demand obedience from adult sons, even kings.

The number of uneducated women at court also was a cause of concern to male elites because many such women in harems and retinues were upwardly mobile, with even former slaves becoming empresses. This power among uneducated women reached a culmination when the emperor Cheng’s favorite concubine persuaded him to kill two infant sons borne by other court women, leaving the dynasty without heirs and in crisis. According to some accounts, it was this event that prompted Liu Xiang, a member of the royal family, to start compiling the scattered stories of famous women from early times “to
illustrate proper behavior to straighten out his somewhat confused family,” Kinney said.

Not only did the book remain influential for two millennia, but the issue of “controlling imperial women remained a hot topic” until the very end of China’s imperial period in 1911, she said.

The archive is the product of the collaborative energies and support of U.Va.’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, the University Library, the Department of Computer Science and the National Library of China, as well as major grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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