What women’s stories tell about Chinese culture

For 2,000 years, Chinese women have traditionally modelled themselves on the biographies of 124 women first recorded in 34BC. They include exemplary mothers, chaste, obedient and faithful wives, and eloquent speakers. The original biographies were repeatedly revised over the centuries and historians such as York’s Joan Judge are mining the variations – and a treasure trove of other sources – for a mirror on the cultural preoccupations and values of different eras.

What they have unearthed so far can be found in Beyond Exemplar Tales: Women’s Biography in Chinese History, a volume of essays co-edited by Judge and Hu Ying, a professor of East Asian languages and literatures at the University of California, Irvine. The book was published last fall by the University of California Press.

Drawing upon a vast array of sources – from formal biography to poetry, letters and oral interviews – the authors examine how women’s biography served particular cultural, political and world-making projects. They also offer new strategies for reading, contextualizing and interpreting the long Chinese tradition of women’s biography.

Judge is cultural historian of modern China with a scholarly focus on print culture and women’s history at the turn of the 20th century. “I find it to be one of the most interesting periods,” says the history and humanities professor, “because this is when China had to come to terms with the West – its military power, political system and social values.” A previously isolated China had lost the Opium Wars with England and was forced to open its doors to the “Great Powers” in an unprecedented way.

Judge explored this transitional period in her book, The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China (Stanford University Press, 2008). (See YFile, June 3, 2008.) From 1890 to 1912, while still reappropriating traditional women’s biographies, the Chinese started to translate, publish and discuss biographies of Western women, including Joan of Arc; Madame Roland, politically active as a Girondist during the French Revolution; Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and Mary Lyon, an American pioneer of higher education for women. In trying to understand the West, the Japanese, then the Chinese, turned to a genre already central to their cultural repertoire – the life story narrative – and extended that repertoire to include biographies of Western women, says Judge. “This is why biographies were central to my research for The Precious Raft.”

As she researched The Precious Raft, Judge discovered that scholars of other eras were also discovering the ubiquity of traditional biographies of women in Chinese sources. “A colleague of mine also began to see that these biographies were an important way to understand women’s history in China,” said Judge. That colleague was Hu Ying.

It was 2006 when the two decided the time was ripe for a conference. They invited eminent scholars of Chinese women’s history to talk about their research. Their papers comprise Beyond Exemplar Tales. One scholar wrote about a woman who became a Taoist teacher, traditionally a man’s role, and uses the Taoist adept’s own writings to counter official criticisms of her. Another author pieces together a profile of a Sung Dynasty empress from references to her in the diary of a high official. Other scholars use epitaphs, fiction, women’s poetry and alternative sources to get closer to women’s lives, “because conventional sources only tell a fraction of the story,” says Judge.

Beyond Exemplar Tales spans two centuries, ending after the Second World War in China and Taiwan. “It is fascinating to see that communist labour models felt compelled to emulate many of the same female virtues – like chastity – lauded in 34BC,” says Judge. For scholars of Chinese and women’s history, “the book is a prism through which we can reach a better understanding of Chinese culture.”

Judge came to York from the University of California in 2005 as a history and humanities professor. She is also a faculty associate at the York Centre for Asian Research. Currently on sabbatical, she is creating an online database of Chinese women’s journals and wrapping up research on the journal Funü shibao (The Women’s Eastern Times) as part of an international collaborative project.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer