Women of a Certain Chinese Age ­ Articles ­ ISAA

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Women of a Certain Chinese Age

Women of a Certain Chinese Age

I have been working with Lily Xiao Hong Lee and Agnes Stefanowska for over a decade on The Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women (New York: M E Sharpe, 1998-). Three volumes have been published and we are now working on the final (fourth but in historical chronology third) volume. Without Agnes, who died suddenly just two years ago, Lily and I faltered somewhat and our progress slowed for a time but I think we've finally picked up the pieces and will finish in a year or so.

The Chinese value the written word and their history is incredibly well documented. However, we knew from the start that the official histories provide little insight into women's lives, recording only empresses, consorts and some other imperial women, as well as a few 'chaste' widows, i.e. widows who refused to remarry. Yet there are other sources-literary, philosophical and religious works, secondary (or private) histories that lack the imperial imprint, gazetteers-that we have been able to use.

China rightly lays claim to being the world's longest continuing civilisation and while present-day China does not look a lot like the China of five thousand years ago-even in the thirty years since I was in Shanghai people tell me it has changed almost beyond recognition-in many ways present-day China doesn't look a lot different from the China of about the time of Christ.

Then, you had an emperor and a court of male officials adhering to an official ideology: Confucianism. Now, you have a premier and a politburo of mostly male officials adhering to an official ideology: communism.

Then, you had a large settled population ruled by a bureaucracy that espoused a state orthodoxy (Confucianism) whose aim was to maintain harmony in society and keep the imperial house in power. Now, you have a large, increasingly urban, population ruled by a bureaucracy that espouses a state orthodoxy (communism) whose aim is to maintain harmony in society and keep the party in power.

Once China had been unified as an empire-by the terracotta-warrior emperor Qin Shihuangdi, in 221 BCE-it continued as an imperial system until the 1911 revolution. In the meantime, the dynastic cycle came into play: every few hundred years or so a dynasty would collapse, usually violently, battles would be fought, then a new dynasty would rise from the dust. After the 1911 revolution there was a period of unrest and civil war that lasted until 1949, when a new regime-some see it as a sort of dynasty-came into power. However, although China always seemed to be looking back to a golden age of antiquity, it rarely stagnated.

Instead of the story of the eternal dynastic struggle for military and political power I've chosen one or two or three women from five major periods. There are many similarities between them and I think there are many differences from our traditional Western view of the acquiescent, foot-bound Chinese woman. We have today a warrior queen, three empresses / empress dowagers, two lots of scholars, a hydrologist / land reclaimer and a revolutionary.

But I'd like to start with one woman from the period before dynasties, when the foundations of imperial China were laid.


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity through Sui, pp. 19-25)

Fu Zi lived around 1400 BCE, in northern China, in the area of present-day Henan Province just south of the Yellow River. What we know of her comes from oracle bone and bronze inscriptions; some 1,600 burial objects were found in her tomb when her burial site was excavated in the mid 1970s.

She died from wounds suffered during a hunting expedition, and inscriptions reveal she personally led successful military campaigns against hostile states in all quarters, at least one of her armies being 13,000 strong. In her tomb were found bronze mirrors, adzes and knives thought to have been martial booty, as well as 46 clearly well used ge daggers.

She paid her husband tribute, and she received tribute from conquered states and her subjects, in the form of decorated weapons, tripods, a musical stone chime (sheng) and some bells, and over 100 vessels of various types. In her tomb were 16 sacrificial victims, including five guardian dogs and human servants and guards.
She carried out sacrifices to dead ruling spirits; performed ritual sacrifices to royal kin and addressed sacrifices to her maternal ancestress, another queen; and she performed exorcism ceremonies. Queen mother, favourite consort of the king, heroic military leader, landowner and administrator, in military status and as an administrator Fu Zi ranked second only to her husband, King Wu Ding.


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity through Sui, pp. 174-78)

Empress Lü, 241-180 BCE, was the wife of the founder of the Han dynasty and the first of a number of female regents throughout Chinese history. She is vilified for her cruelty and ambition, but she brought a period of peace during which the country was able to recover from the long years of civil war of the Warring States period.

She was given in marriage to a local bravo who fought and negotiated his way onto the throne of the recently created empire. She is credited with helping him establish his sovereignty and was deeply involved in the machinations of government. She did not hesitate to advise her husband to kill men who looked like they posed a threat, and she has become infamous for the blood-curdling torture and murder of her husband's great love, Lady (or Concubine) Qi. When her 15-year-old son became emperor she was in her mid forties and she ruled for the next fifteen years, in his stead and after his death in her own right, as Empress Lü.

Empress Lü's good points were that she avoided friction with neighbouring states so that farmers could get on with their business of feeding the population. She declared amnesties, exempted the very young and the elderly from punishment, reduced crop taxes and abolished the punishment imposed on offenders' relatives who had not been involved in the crime. Hers is considered a government that extended benevolence to the people.


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity through Sui, pp. 103-06)

Ban Zhao, c. 40-c. 120, is a conundrum. She lived in northern China (Henan), born into a literary family of considerable prestige. She was married by the age of fourteen and she bore her husband several children. Still now recognised as China's foremost female scholar, she was extremely well educated in the Confucian classics, history and literature. She was knowledgeable in the areas of ethics and philology and tutored an empress in the Confucian classics, astronomy and mathematics. She composed literary works in a range of genres: rhapsodies (fu), eulogies (song), inscriptions (ming), annotations (zhu), treatises (lun), memorials (shangshu) . . . most of which are now lost, but several of her rhapsodies are extant.

Ban Zhao was also recognised, officially, by the emperor, as a scholar. Her oldest brother, Ban Gu, had been assigned the task of compiling the official history of the preceding dynasty, the History of the Han Dynasty, but he died before completing it. By imperial decree Ban Zhao was ordered to finish the work, along with a male scholar-a Mr Ma. She completed what was essentially a biographical section, of princes, meritorious subjects and other ancient and contemporary personages. She was in her late forties or early fifties when she undertook this work.

She travelled at least once that we know of, making a journey to the east (from Luoyang) to where one of her sons was stationed. Her acclaimed and influential Rhapsody on the Eastern Campaign told of this journey, describing the route she took and the scenery - she made apposite literary allusions as well, apparently.
She was a frequent visitor to the palace and wielded some influence there, such as having imperial decisions reversed. Here I shall digress briefly to introduce the young empress dowager of that time:


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity through Sui, pp. 122-26)

Deng Sui, 81-121, was from a prestigious family of officials on her father's side and through her mother was related to an earlier empress. Selected to enter the palace at the age of fifteen, she became an official concubine the following year. She apparently did not bear any children. She was twenty-one when she was made empress and twenty-three when her husband died and she became empress dowager. She placed a 3-month-old son of her husband on the throne and assumed the regency, enlisting the aid of paternal relatives as officials, and the eunuchs. This child died within the year and she placed a 12-year-old nephew of her husband on the throne, continuing to rule as regent for the next fifteen years, until her death.

While she is criticised by traditional historians for 'clinging to power', she is credited with several reforms - including restitution of civil rights for freed prisoners, curtailment of imperial expenses, cutting regional contributions to court and allowing elderly female servants to return to their native place - and she appointed able and virtuous men as officials.

Particularly relevant to us, however, is that she established a school for all members of the imperial family over the age of five, female and male. She had herself been very well educated as a child, preferring studying to needlework, and from the time she entered the palace at fifteen had received lessons on the Confucian classics, astronomy and mathematics from . . . Ban Zhao.

Empress Dowager Deng died, from illness, at the age of forty.

Now, back to BAN ZHAO. While she was completing the official history, or soon thereafter, possibly about the time her future pupil Deng Sui entered the palace, Ban Zhao wrote the work for which she is probably best known: Precepts for Women (Nüjie). There are seven chapters in this ultra-Confucian work: Humility; Husband and Wife; Respect and Caution; Womanly Qualifications; Devotion; Acquiescence; Harmonious Relations with Brothers- and Sisters-in-Law. She said in her preface that she wrote it for her 'girls', who were then of marriageable age, but perhaps her intention was to set moral standards for women in general. These moral standards were that they should not excel in anything but instead remain mediocre in all things: 'Women do not need to be brilliant, outstanding or unique and there is no need for a woman's work - even needlework and cooking - to be cleverer than that of anyone else.' While not effective immediately, this set the tone for women especially from about the thirteenth century on = neo-Confucianism.

Who knows how she lined up in her own mind what she had written with what she herself had achieved.


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang through Ming, forthcoming)

Empress Wu, 624-705, was the only female emperor to occupy the Chinese throne and rule in her own right; she declared her own dynasty and ruled as emperor (huangdi), not empress. Fourteen when she was selected into the palace of the 38-year-old emperor, she was twenty-five when he died (649). As were all the wives and concubines who had not borne sons, she was got to a Buddhist nunnery when he died, but it turns out she had already been getting it on with her husband's 21-year-old son, who now became emperor. Within a couple of years the new young emperor had her recalled from the nunnery and, after his incumbent empress succumbed to accusations of witchcraft, he installed Wu Zetian as empress (655). She bore him four sons and two daughters. The emperor was not a well man - eye problems and arthritis - and increasingly he deferred to her in decision making. When he died (683) she was nearly sixty and had thirty years of administrative experience under her belt. Within a year she had deposed the next emperor, her son, and exiled him and his entire family after he arrogantly tried to flex his independence, then installed her youngest son as emperor. But then she installed him in a separate hall where everybody could ignore him and she set about ruling as regent.

It has been suggested that her ministers accepted the situation because they recognised that she was far more able a ruler than either of her sons. Nevertheless, to gain legitimacy she had omens of a Confucian and a Buddhist flavour 'discovered'. A peasant found a stele that said: 'When the Holy Mother rules the people, the empire will flourish forever.' And a Buddhist sutra was reworded to explicitly connect Maitreya with the person of Empress Wu. By popular demand and with the support of further auspicious omens, Empress Wu agreed to establish her own dynasty (Zhou, 690-705) and become a female emperor, until her death at the age of eighty-one.

During her reign she selected able and trustworthy advisers - her most trusted consultant was Di Renjie, on whom the Judge Dee of Robert van Gulik's detective novels of the 1950s and 1960s was loosely based - and revised the examination system so that men of talent, instead of just men from influential noble families, might be taken into the bureaucracy. She listened to justified criticism, presided over sound foreign policy, encouraged agriculture and instituted reforms that benefited the people. The nation was at peace and prospered. She was shrewd, ruthless, decisive and she was an effective ruler.


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang through Ming, forthcoming)

In the mid Tang dynasty there lived five Song sisters who were renowned for their literary talent. These sisters - Song Ruoxin, Song Ruozhao, Song Ruoxian, Song Ruolun and Song Ruoxun - lived around about 770 to 835. They came from a family of Confucian scholars and were educated by their doting father in the classics and poetry. None of them wanted to marry and the family allowed them to follow their scholarly inclinations.

They were all five taken into the palace after being examined on poetry, the classics and the histories and they remained there as scholar teachers, not concubines. They were invited to join poetry gatherings with the emperor and his courtiers and three of them were appointed to official position: Ruoxin was in charge of records, accounts and books for thirty years; Ruozhao was a matron and taught princes, princesses and consorts; Ruoxian took over Ruoxin's job but was later ordered to commit suicide after being (wrongly) implicated in a power struggle.

Highly educated, free to choose not to marry, these sisters were appointed to official scholarly posts within the palace. Whether they belong to the same branch of the Song family as the famous three Song sisters of the twentieth century - Song Qingling, Song Meiling and Song Ailing - I cannot say.


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang through Ming, forthcoming)

Lady Wu, 1035-1093, was a southern Chinese (from present-day Jiangxi Province). A woman of the gentry, she married at twenty-one but within a year was widowed, and pregnant. Her brother asked her to remarry - so there can have been no opprobrium to young widows remarrying at that time - but she refused and returned to her natal home with her daughter. There she lived a simple and frugal life. About ten years later a series of reforms was instituted by the famous and controversial reformer Wang Anshi (1021-1086) that included the development of barren land, cultivation of waste slopes, and water projects. Lady Wu took it upon herself to fire up the local people to reclaim a nearby hillside. She moved out of her brother's house and went to live alone by Yellow Pond Dam. She organised the local peasants, several thousand of them at a time, to help her repair embankments to improve water storage and irrigation. She was widely praised, and recognised by the imperial court, for her community spirit and the fact that she refused to benefit personally from the reclaimed land.

MING, 1368-1644

As you say in your Bulletin, this talk is a work in progress, which allows me to say that since we haven't done the Ming dynasty yet I don't yet have any lives to share with you.

In broad generalities, however, this was initially a period of political stability and economic prosperity, a native Han-Chinese empire after the previous alien Yuan dynasty established by Mongols descended from Chingiz Khan / Genghis Khan. There was exploration - the mariner Zheng He (1371-1433) - there was high art - Ming vases. But essentially the Chinese continued to see the past as their future: they turned back to Han, Tang and Song for their models and first disliked then resented anything alien. China began to turn inwards and close its borders, to potential Mongol invaders and Japanese pirates. Eventually, excessive consumption / expenses took its toll, the emperor went AWOL and the bureaucracy failed to act responsibly. Chinese rebels gathered peasants and overran the government; the emperor hanged himself; then Manchu forces from the north conquered the fragmented defence of the capital.


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: the Qing Period, pp. 362-66)

Empress Dowager Cixi, 1835-1908, oversaw the final years of the Qing dynasty AND imperial China. She was of Manchu ethnicity, i.e. not Han Chinese. She was selected into the palace at sixteen and bore a son when she was twenty-one. She was twenty-seven when her husband (the emperor) died. Although she was not the empress she managed to get him (presumably on his deathbed) to declare her 6-year-old son heir apparent. This made her co-empress dowager and in 1861 she embarked upon her almost 50-year-long career, first as co-regent and eventually as regent and de facto ruler.

By this time (1861), China had lost the Opium Wars of 1839-1842, which gave Britain and other Western nations unwelcome trading and residential rights in China, and it had been seriously weakened by the Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864, which was eventually put down with the assistance of British and French forces.

During her first co-regency of about twelve years, Cixi received an education - she had been all but illiterate when she entered the palace - in the classics, literature and art and was not overtly involved in decision making. Her son took over the reins when he turned sixteen (1873) but died two years later (from smallpox, syphilis or murder). Incredibly, while the various cliques were sorting themselves out, Cixi moved in and appointed her husband's 4-year-old nephew as emperor. Even more incredibly, her unorthodox decision was accepted and she again became co-regent with the other (by now largely titular) empress dowager.

For the next fourteen years, until she was fifty-four (1889), Cixi was active as de facto ruler, administering state affairs from behind the silk screen, initially as co-regent then, after the other empress dowager died suddenly (1881; flu or murder), as sole regent. She was effective in a time of great change, balancing central and regional power, and managing the competing loyalties of conservatives and progressives, anti-modernisers and modernisers, Manchus and Chinese, northerners and southerners, as well as ethnic relations - Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans.

She retired in 1889 but stepped back into the fray nine years later, in 1898, to place the emperor (her husband's nephew, known as the Guangxu Emperor) under house arrest in order to curtail a reform movement involving parliamentary reform such as Japan had undertaken thirty years earlier. Over the next decade she presided over an imploding empire - licking the wounds of a humiliating defeat by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the Boxer Uprising (1900), patriots plotting rebellions and revolutions - compounded by foreign intrusions.

In 1908, two days before she died (dysentery, aged seventy-four), she appointed the Guangxu Emperor's nephew as emperor [the Last Emperor, Puyi]; the next day, the day before she died, the Guangxu Emperor died.

She is, of course, vilified for presiding over the demise of imperial China and for spending the naval budget on building a splendid marble boat in the Summer Palace lake, but she was a clever, initially uneducated, politician who did what she considered best for the nation in an impossible situation.


(Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: the Qing Period, pp. 174-77)

Qiu Jin, 1875? 1877?-1907, is a nice counterbalance to Empress Dowager Cixi. She was Han Chinese; she came from a family of officials, so she was educated from childhood; she had bound feet, but apparently undertaken later than usual and not tightly bound; she was more of a southerner; she arrived in Beijing with her husband, an official and a playboy, in 1903, just after the Boxer Uprising and the consequent influx of foreigners at a time when Chinese patriots were full of revolutionary fervour.

As a child she had taken up fencing and horse riding and had loved the traditional tales of heroes; as a young woman, after she arrived in Beijing, she began wearing (Western) male attire. In Beijing she discovered reform and activism. She left her husband and two children and, like many young women at that time, went to Tokyo to learn Japanese and to study at a women's college. She fell in with revolutionaries of various hues, including Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) and the writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), and after returning to China, to the south, she started a newspaper for women, taught in a women's school and became involved with revolutionaries, secret societies and so on who were committed to violent revolution. As happened many times between about 1905 and 1912, their particular coup was abortive, Qiu Jin was captured and - unusually for a woman - she was beheaded, in 1907.

She is still regarded as a patriotic heroine. An excellent film / documentary on her made by two young American-born Chinese, Rae Chang and Adam Tow, was shown at the University of Sydney a couple of week ago. Their film is called Autumn Gem (a translation of her name).


Confucius lived during the Warring States period and was looking back to a golden age of peace, of the sage kings, when he formulated his ideas. Confucianism is regarded as a philosophy, an ethical system and, by some, as a religion. Confucius esteemed ritual and formality - the right way to do everything, including how to walk during a mourning period, how to wear your garments, what look to have on your face at certain times. The gentleman was one who knew propriety, the proper way of doing things. Perfecting oneself, in moral and ethical terms, was important, but at its heart Confucianism is about human relationships.

The five relationships are the ruler and his subjects / ministers; father and son; husband and wife; older brother and younger brother; friend and friend. The guiding principle is that if each person fulfils their proper role in these relationships society will be in harmony and the world will be at peace. When a ruler rules his people justly and humanely people will flock to his state and it will prosper without him doing anything (wuwei). Soft power.

Fine in principle, it became a prison, with everybody responsible for everyone else and the individual completely powerless. In his famous 1917 short story 'The Diary of a Madman', the revolutionary writer Lu Xun saw the words 'Eat Me' between the lines of the Confucian classics. 'Save the children!' he cried.

Confucianism was still fairly new at the time of Christ and it held sway over Asia until the 1920s, when it was seen as the reason China was the sick man of Asia; declared ideology non grata, the Communists vilified it. Now, some eighty years later, the Chinese government is establishing Confucius Institutes throughout the world to 'promote Chinese language and culture and support local Chinese teaching internationally'. There are currently about 316 Confucius Institutes worldwide - there is one at the University of Sydney. Concern has been expressed that they are simply a propaganda vehicle for the Chinese Communist Party but perhaps they should be seen in a wider Chinese context. Confucianism was never outlawed in Taiwan and it must have just been in an induced coma on the mainland, as there has been a resurgence of academic interest in it in both places since at least the 1990s.

Confucian orthodoxy values social order-regularity-and while the individual has an essential role in social order, ultimately it values the family over the individual. Lin Yutang wrote in his influential The Importance of Living (p. 94): 'When the knowledge of things is gained, then understanding is reached; when understanding is reached, then the will is sincere; when the will is sincere, then the heart is set right; when the heart is set right, then the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, then the home life is regulated; when the home life is regulated, then the national life is orderly; and when the national life is orderly; then the world is at peace.'



  • Shang [1600-1100]
  • Zhou [1100-771] 
  • Spring & Autumn [770-476]
  • Warring States [475-221] 
  • Qin [221-206 BCE]


  • Confucius (551-479)
  • Mencius (372-289)
  • Laozi (Daodejing, ?C6, ?C4)
  • Zhuangzi (?370-301)
  • Sunzi (The art of war, ?C6, ?C4)


Triumph of Confucianism    206 BCE-220 CE
Western or Former Han, capital Chang'an (206 BCE-24 CE)
Eastern or Later Han, capital Luoyang (25 CE-220)


Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism


  • High culture, Buddhist, Daoist, capital Chang'an    618-907


  • Literature, neo-Confucianism    960-1279
  • Northern Song, capital Kaifeng (960-1127)
  • Southern Song, capital Hangzhou (1127-1279)


  • Mongol Theatre, capital Beijing    1271-1368


  • Expansion, then contraction, capital Beijing    1368-1644


  • Manchu Ultra-conservative, inward looking, capital Beijing    1644-1911


  • Republic, death of Confucianism, civil war, communism,resurrection of Confucianism, capitalism with Chinese characteristics
  • Republic of China, capitals Beijing, Nanjing (1912-1949); Taipei (1949-)
  • People's Republic of China, capital Beijing (1949-)


  • official histories
  • pre-Han = Biographies of Eminent Women, Liu Xiang (77?-6? BCE)
  • oracle bones (Shang 1600-1100 BCE); religious texts; plays; stories; poetry; art


  • Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, ed. Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A D Stefanowska, 4 vols (Armonk, NY: M E Sharpe, 1998-)
  • Mark Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973)
  • Mark Elvin, Another History: Essays on China from a European Perspective (Sydney: Wild Peony, 1996)


  • Chinese characters were traditionally written in the FULL FORM, which is still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as by many [older] overseas Chinese.
  • SIMPLIFIED CHARACTERS were officially introduced in mainland China in the 1950s and are now widely used throughout the world.
  • PINYIN is now the main system of romanisation of Chinese characters, although a modified (and confusing) WADE-GILES system is still used in Taiwan.

Chinese script