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January 28, 2004

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.

Anne Kinney

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 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.

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.

Complex 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.

During 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.
By Dr Yibin Ni
University Scholars Programme

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 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.

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, 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 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 roles.

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.

“Traditions” 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 China.

“It 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.

Kinney, 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.

The 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.

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