‘Traditions of Exemplary
Online project will examine history of gender roles in
by Andrew Shurtleff
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.)
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 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.
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
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.