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.
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 there for some 2,000 years. Soon, scholars and
students interested in China and comparative women’s studies
will be able to explore more closely the forces that shaped gender
roles, politics and culture there as part of a University of Virginia
project, “Traditions of Exemplary Women: A Digital Research
Collection,” that focuses on the book’s neglected history.
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.
and ambitious, the archive is the product of the collaborative energies
and support of many groups and people, including 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 to digitize rare materials in Chinese
and North American libraries. It will allow scholars to search by
key themes to follow the complex representations of women in China’s
many regions and the cultural forces that shaped gender roles.
an invasion of the State of Lu launched by the army of the State
of Qi, the soldiers who reached the Lu suburb saw a woman struggling
along the road with two children. When the army got closer to
her, she abandoned one of the children and grabbed the other,
moving towards the mountains. When the Qi general caught up
with her and asked her why she had abandoned one child and ran
away with the other. The woman explained, ‘I was too weak
to protect two children in this calamity. I had to part with
my own son in order to save my brother’s son for this
is in line with the moral ideal of keeping others’ interests
before one’s own. On hearing this, the general stopped
the army and sent a messenger back to persuade the king to pull
out believing that one could never beat a country in which even
an illiterate woman had such high moral standing.
Dr Yibin Ni
University Scholars Programme
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
virtues, much of the book could be taken as conventional sound advice
for anyone, said Kinney. But in addition to inspiring generations
of women to cultivate traditional Confucian virtues, such as filial
piety and maternal kindness, it 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.
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.
an area of China’s cultural history that is still almost entirely
Kinney, who has also recently published a new book, “Representations
of Children and Youth in Early Chinese Literature” (Stanford
University Press), hopes the digital project will stimulate new
study of early China, both in Asia and among scholars who know no
Chinese, and will become a model for bilingual investigations into
cultural issues. Visitors to the Web archive (a prototype can be
found at http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/xwomen/)
will be able to explore how male writers and philosophers in early
China shaped the roles and duties of women and what cultural and
political forces caused them to formulate these influential gender
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.
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.
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.
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
became so influential, in fact, that all subsequent writers to compile
a history of their dynasty (25 in all) included biographies of exemplary
women from their eras. And by late imperial China, virtually every
district in China had its own list of exemplary women. Kinney hopes
that eventually the U.Va. project can grow to become a model international
“information community,” drawing on the work of many
scholars and translators to include related material from throughout
is only when we begin to take into account the great variety of
ways the Chinese have traditionally read these stories that we can
begin to appreciate their full range of meaning,” she said.
who has taught Chinese language and culture at U.Va. since 1985,
became interested in the online possibilities for such a study when
teaching a class that included some of the stories. She saw that
there was much to be learned by comparing them, as conditions for
Chinese women became more and more oppressive.
National Library of China holds some 25 rare editions of “Traditions,”
many lavishly illustrated, which aren’t available anywhere
else. Kinney and project colleagues plan to go to China this spring,
to continue work with Chinese specialists in reproducing the texts.