Whitney Dilley

title.none: Mou, Presence and Presentation (Dilley)

identifier.other: baj9928.0005.013 00.05.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Whitney Dilley, Shih Hsin University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Mou, Sherry J. Presence and Presentation: Women in the Chinese Literati Tradition. The New Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 306. $59.95. ISBN: 0-312-21054-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.05.13

Mou, Sherry J. Presence and Presentation: Women in the Chinese Literati Tradition. The New Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 306. $59.95. ISBN: 0-312-21054-x.

Reviewed by:

Whitney Dilley
Shih Hsin University

Sh erry J. Mou's Presence and Presentation: Women in the Chinese Literati Tradition is a broad-based and erudite treatment of the subject of the female participants among the class of the Chinese literati (also known as the scholar-gentry). This volume of selected essays from different authors is a welcome addition to the growing amount of literature in English about the Chinese literati class, and addresses the paucity of scholarship in English devoted to the topic of feminism/femininity in China throughout history. The selected articles, all of which originated in presentations at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, constitute a remarkable, broad-ranging collection. In addition, the volume's focus as a part of the St. Martin's Press series on the New Middle Ages demonstrates the growing need for scholarship in English that will allow broad-based interdisciplinary and comparative studies of the literature and history of East and West.

The volume is useful not only for comparativists, but for sinologists who wish to further explore the intricacies of Chinese literati ritual with this overview from different dynastic traditions. The included essays are inter- and multi-disciplinary, covering several historical, political, religious, and literary texts from different historical periods, which span from the Later Han Dynasty (25-220) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), also including the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Moreover, the book deals with topics related to women's studies, particularly the two theoretical foci of the family (women's roles as determined by the traditional family structure) and women's bodies (in pregnancy, the commercial value of women's bodies in prostitution and concubinage, cross-dressing, and bodily mutilation). The articles, through their range of topics, thus offer the reader a composite and broad perspective of Chinese medieval women and the treatment of the female among the Chinese literati class. The book also contains a chronology of Chinese dynasties, a helpful and well-prepared glossary of Chinese equivalents to the romanized terms used throughout the book, a bibliography, and an index.

Works such as Widmer and Chang's Writing Women in Late Imperial China (1997) have already made us aware of the commanding presence of the female literati in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, and have already posed a challenge to the very male-centered conception of the "literati tradition." The present collection deals with the tradition of the female literati on a much broader spectrum, drawing on the traditions of the Han to Tang Dynasties, with the addition of the Song, and including examinations of such diverse topics as cross-dressing, bodily mutilation, and Daoist theoretical perspectives. It is a collection of essays on topics that have not been dealt with thoroughly by past scholars, in either the Chinese or Western traditions. It combines the efforts of several respected scholars, all of whom turn a scrutinizing eye on male-authored documents from history in an attempt to introduce a new picture of the female in this distant Chinese era and tradition. In these writings, although the women's own voices are largely silent because of primarily male authorship, the female subjects can be apprehended by careful reading, and thus, the presence and presentation of women in the Chinese literati class can be made known. In this way, it is not only challenging and provocative, opening up new fields of inquiry for Chinese scholarship, but important in its pioneering efforts to introduce medieval Chinese tradition into the present Western discourse on the medieval age.

The volume includes essays spanning an impressive array of subjects. In the opening essay, Jen-der Lee introduces the codification of family ethics in medieval China, an appropriate introduction to the complexities of familial obligation and the Chinese legal system. Taking the death of a princess as a starting point, and studying the system of laws governing the domestic affairs of the ruling class, Lee uncovers important historical and theoretical perspectives on the subject of race, class, and gender. Her essay stands out, too, because Lee is well-versed in Western medieval history and, in the opening of her essay, offers a useful comparative approach to Confucianism in China and the effect of the Church on western Europe. Also related to women of the ruling class, the second essay, by Ning Chia, takes a close look at the historical and political practice of heqin (the policy of intermarriage between Chinese imperial princesses and the nomadic rulers of Inner Asia). The focus of her discussion is gender politics, and she provides impressive historical background concerning the practice and reality of heqin, but her conclusion falls somewhat short of what it could have been had she given more consideration to the theoretical implications of her argument.

The third essay, by Sufen Lai, makes a sweeping appraisal of the archetype of the woman warrior in Chinese literature, including women soldiers (she treats the cross-dressing Mulan), wandering lady "knights," and female outlaws. While it is impossible for her to be comprehensive in her treatment of this vast topic in a short essay, Lai does a convincing job of locating four types of heroines within the Chinese literary tradition. As popular figures of legend and vernacular literature, these female warriors promote the basic literati ethics of loyalty, filiality, integrity, and righteousness. (The beginning of Lai's essay contains the interesting comparison of these women warriors providing a Chinese paradigm of female courage and valor for spurring young Chinese girls on to good behavior and good deeds, much as the knights of King Arthur's Round Table were models of European male chivalry and male achievement for young European males to emulate). In Chapter 4, Sherry Mou, the volume's editor, introduces the tradition of "biographies of women" in Chinese history, and completes a close reading of two biographies from the Tang Dynasty. She demonstrates how the male authors of the biographies mapped out four paradigms of Chinese womanhood--the filial daughter, the dutiful wife, the chaste widow, and the exemplary mother--that were meant to serve as models for literati scholars for instruction of their own daughters, wives, and mothers. Mou makes a particularly compelling point on examining the bodily mutilation invoked for filiality or in defense of chastity. Making a very convincing theoretical argument that these women articulated themselves through their bodies, Mou demonstrates that the bodies of these women are the locus of discourse and the center of reaction and resistance.

Discussing ji-entertainers (also called "geisha" in an earlier study by Edward Shafer) in the Tang capital city of Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), Victor Xiong comes up with images of these "ladies of the red-light district" as recorded by a literati scholar and client. The article offers the conclusion that well-organized prostitution was common in the Tang, due to the sexual dalliances of the ruling class itself and lax moral standards at court, the great size of Chang'an with its booming economy, and finally, the large number of young and middle-aged males who came to the city to sit for the state examinations. While the article is thorough in its coverage of the period and its subject, it demonstrates that the women themselves were commercialized and interpreted in a classist and gendered fashion which robbed them of their own voice.

Suzanne Cahill's study discusses how Daoist saints were verified and granted legitimate sainthood during the Tang Dynasty, based on several historical accounts of Daoist holy women. According to her essay, medieval Daoists legitimized sainthood by the corpse's remaining intact after death, and by assignment of ranks, that is, inclusion of the saint into the religious lineage and celestial bureaucracy. This study opens with a discussion of the Catholic churches process of legitimizing saints, and compares it to the Chinese process, thus demonstrating, ultimately, that sainthood is a cultural construction, taking specific forms according to the cultural mores of the given tradition. The female saints reconcile contemporary literati values, which emphasize familial and governmental loyalty, with Daoist principles, which give more weight to individual salvation and religious communities. Cahill takes this as a jumping-off point to suggest further studies to refine the tradition called Daoist, and even suggests further research on Chinese and Western medieval saints from a comparative perspective.

Sufen Lai, in a second selection, treats the legacy of Mulian, an account originating from the Indian Buddhist salvation story of a monk who, through undergoing a legendary ordeal, saves his mother from Hell. The article opens with a comprehensive overview of the Ghost Festival, and relates how the earliest reference to the celebration of the festival is connected with the Mulian story. It expands on the research of Stephen F. Teiser, who explored the festival's Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist cultural sources, and first noted the Mulian legend's "exceptional" preoccupation with the state of Mulian's mother after death. Lai sees Mulian as an amalgamation of Buddhist principles, Confucian filial piety, and Daoist shamanism, and representative of yang (the redeeming patriarchy), while Mulian's sinful mother is the "feminine other" or the yin. Through cultural evolution, the attribute of the genders became historically fixed in yin-yang opposition, with Mulian as the filial Confucian son, and an inferior, negative mother figure assigned an opposing position according to yin-yang Confucianism.

The final article, by Don J. Wyatt, examines the surprisingly personal response to concubinage demonstrated by two of the most prominent Confucian literati scholars from the Song Dynasty, Sima Guang (1019-86) and Wang Anshi (1021-86). Wyatt's balanced account of the intellectual significance of these two men's dispersed writings on the subject of concubinage sheds light on this common Song practice, revealing it to be more than purely procreative (for the purpose of producing a male heir) or sexually gratifying. It is recorded that the wives of these two scholar-statesmen attempted to procure appropriate concubines for them, but that in both cases, the husbands privately rejected concubinage, even while publicly endorsing it in their writings. While Wyatt is cautious not produce a revisionist or lopsided account of the two men's actions, he provides a compelling and well-documented study that raises new questions about the interior lives of these very public men and their wives.

The volume's one detriment could be said to be its ambiguity about the question of what actually constitutes the period of the Chinese "Middle Ages," a debate which continues among scholarly circles to be the subject of compelling inquiry and controversy. Mou seems to downplay this point, mentioning it only once in the Introduction. The period of the Chinese "Middle Ages" has been under scholarly debate since the first attempts at Chinese periodization were begun by Japanese sinologist Naito Konan (1866-1934). Mou gives the reader the "general consensus" that the Chinese medieval period can be dated from the latter part of the Later Han Dynasty (25-220) to the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but she bases this conclusion, in a footnote, on the opinions of only two scholars. The works she cites are that of Mao Han-guang (1988), who situates the medieval period between the Jian'an reign (196-220) of the Han Dynasty and the Tianyou reign (904-6) of the Tang Dynasty, and that of Albert E. Dien (1990) who defines "early medieval" to fall between the late Han and the Six Dynasties period (220-589). The slight overlap of dates of these two scholars could hardly be called a general consensus. In addition, with no clear justification, Mou includes an article dealing with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in this volume, which falls outside of the range of what she terms "the medieval period" (above). Still, it is necessary to move forward in Chinese medieval studies, and in making this collection, Mou has taken a bold step.

Not surprisingly, the rubric of what can be termed "the Middle Ages" or "medieval" in Western scholarship cannot be easily applied to Chinese dynastic periodization, which is by nature cyclical, with the rising and falling of dynasties. Nor can we find a plethora of common themes and motifs between the Chinese and Western traditions. The characterization of Western medieval, Church-centered, courtly, feudal society has little counterpart in China; one finds that even a simple comparison of courtly love poetry, known as palace poetry (gongti shi) in China, must be vastly explained and qualified. The significant features of the Chinese medieval tradition covered in this volume, i.e. heqin marriage practices, Daoist ritual, ji-entertainers, etc., are not topics familiar or readily accessible to scholars of Western medieval studies, making comparison or the discovery of continuities within the two traditions difficult.

One way this difficulty is demonstrated is through this volume's Bibliography (pp. 239-265), which is an inconsistent and incomplete list of references on Chinese and Western studies of medieval research, women's studies, etc., the majority of which is from the past twenty years. The Bibliography is not labeled, either as a collection of Chinese research on the medieval literati or medieval women's studies, and rightly so, because it is neither a complete more consistent representation of either. Instead, it includes such diverse selections as Honig and Hershatter's Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980's, Widmer and Chang's Writing Women in Late Imperial China (both outside of the scope of this collection), the medieval feminist theory of Carolyn Walker Bynum, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and a translation of Chinese fiction by Pearl S. Buck. The oddity of this juxtaposition of material demonstrates the difficulty of Mou's path, which is essentially to pioneer a new field. The bibliography represents the works used by the individual scholars in preparing their papers, but it would have been more useful to create a bibliography that was a better reference guide for future scholars. A more helpful system would be a topically organized bibliography, which could be achieved by separating the books into categories, at least of fiction and non-fiction, or Chinese-language works and English-language works. A more complete and focused bibliography on medieval Chinese female roles within the literati class is surely called for.

However, these criticisms of Mou's arrangement of the material are of relatively minor significance when, in the interests of scholarship and in an attempt to refine and interpret Chinese medieval period, this volume has amassed an impressive collection of research. Presence and Presentation: Women in the Chinese Literati Tradition is essential to advancing considerations between East-West scholarship, and can shed light on the Chinese medieval world not only for sinologist literary scholars and historians, but for comparativists who wish to take up the mantle of advancing East-West studies, especially of the female role in within the Chinese literati tradition.