The discovery of a corpus of manuscripts written
in an unknown script (nüshu) by women for their sworn sisters
in an isolated area of rural China is one of the most intriguing discoveries
in the field of Chinese popular culture during the 1980s. The nüshu
manuscripts were (re)discovered in an isolated community in Jiangyong county
in Hunan province in 1983. In 1991 Xie Zhimin and others published
Chinese translations of nüshu writings, thus making this unique
corpus accessible to researchers in the China field.
Use of the nüshu script is specific
to Shangjiangxh and adjacent areas, a hilly, remote area in northern Jiangyong
county. Jiangyong is on the southern tip of Hunan province, on the border
with Guangxi in south China. The indigenous population comprised a range
of different non-Chinese tribal groups. With the advent of Han Chinese
colonisation from the sixth century onwards, the area became sinicised
but a 'substratum' of indigenous practices remained. Amongst these were
practices of delayed marriage, where the bride returned to her natal village,
until the birth of her first child when she removed permanently. During
this period she paid her husband occasional visits. Other shared customs
between Han Chinese and minority groups include age-mate relationships
(sworn sisterhoods and brotherhoods), boys' and girls' houses, and a rich
oral and festival culture reflecting the strength of age-mate networks.
In minority (non-Chinese) groups women had a higher social status and considerable
sexual freedom, a freedom which becomes reduced the greater the sinification
of the region. The vibrant woman's culture of Shangjiangxh is by no means
unique in China, a similar phenomenon is known in the Canton delta and
elsewhere but the invention of a
specific script to transcribe this culture is unique to the Shangjiangxh
The discovery of nüshu performers
and their texts gives rise to all sorts of tantalising questions. In recent
years scholars of late imperial China have come to speak of the 'integrated'
nature of China during this period, of China as a 'single complex cultural
system' or of an 'integrated hierarchical
social order'. It has become a commonplace
of scholarship in the field to speak of Chinese culture, in the broad sense,
as one which was a shared system of values, a common socio-ethical framework
based on Confucianism in which all, including illiterate men and women,
participated in one way or another.
The vast country was united, so it appeared, in sharing one written script,
a script which could be learnt in isolation from any particular regional
spoken language, and which, according to common wisdom, was a vital agent
of cultural coherence. It is thus with a sense of shock that scholars learn
of a community of women who, in their determination to have a form of communication
as their sole preserve, invented and passed down a script of their own
devising which they called 'women's writing' (nüshu) as distinct
from Chinese character script which they called 'men's writing'. It was
in nüshu script that these otherwise illiterate women recorded
in verse their stories, poems, correspondence and reflections about their
Nüshu material, including letters
and wedding congratulations, is invariably written in verse. The colloquial
verse form, replete with what specialists in oral literature term 'formulae'
(repeated set phrases within a metrical unit), is the same as that used
in oral performance of shuochang oral arts (song-prose forms) and
their written derivatives (changben). A considerable part of nüshu
writings were in fact recorded as part of actual performance by women at
women's festivals guniang jie, chuiliang jie and winter rest
periods, or on the eve of a bride's
The nüshu corpus, considered as
text and performance, belongs to storytelling arts common throughout China
from imperial times to the present day. The great popularity of these oral
art forms in China and the wealth of texts written in imitation of these
genres crossed gender lines and most social classes. Nonetheless, within
the broad audience for oral art forms, both in performance and as texts,
there were particular sub-genres, which were performed predominantly by
women for a female audience. The Ming chantefable, for example, was strongly
associated with household performance from the fifteenth century onwards,
although before that time it was primarily a marketplace performance akin
to drama. It was performed in affluent homes of the Jiangnan region to
an audience consisting mainly of those who lived in the inner chambers:
women, servants and children. Its significance lay in its function as household
performance. In the later imperial
period the same kind of oral art form was known as the lute ballad. As
texts lute ballads were the 'Mills and Boon' of the era and were enjoyed
mainly by women. Literati of the
Qing period (1644-1911) condemned the influence of the 'romantic' and 'immoral'
lute ballads on their susceptible womenfolk. The drum ballad of the north,
on the other hand, tended to be on martial themes and was particularly
popular with a male audience.
To date nüshu material and its
female practitioners has been intensively studied by Chinese scholars in
such fields as linguistics and ethnic minority studies
and by American anthropologists William Chiang and Cathy Silber.
Literary scholar, Liu Shouhua has introduced nüshu narrative
stories and in an article forthcoming
in Modern China, I deal with tales of chastity and abduction in
nüshu writings. My
own interest in nüshu springs from my earlier studies of chantefables
from the Ming period (1368-1643).
In many ways the verse ballad (chantefables) of this period were the precursors
of the kind of material encoded in nüshu script centuries later.
In this paper I will not be primarily concerned
with the origin of the script nor the nüshu community as such
(for details, see above studies) but will further develop the hypothesis
that nüshu culture is a striking example of what I have called
elsewhere a 'woman's line of oral transmission' in China, that is, a body
of typical stories and formulae performed by generations of women which
reflected their construction of Confucian orthodoxies.
For the researcher, the value of nüshu
material lies precisely in its gender-specificity, which allows us insight
into what is unequivocally the women's culture of a community. Men played
no role in the production or dissemination of nüshu writings
and with few exceptions, professed to be unable to read it.
Of course the dissemination of nüshu in printed form in the
1980s is the result of the efforts of male Chinese scholars, but this is
the first male intervention in the nüshu corpus. The nüshu
writings are thus a pristine example of something belonging solely to the
women of one specific locality. This makes the material of unique relevance
to an audience interested in investigating non-elite women in traditional
China. Virtually all extant texts based on or imitative of oral genres
popular with women passed through the hands of male publishers. This is
true of the chantefables of the Ming period and the lute ballads of the
Qing. It is thus probably impossible to positively identify any such material
which has been passed down to us in unmediated fashion in female transmission.
In the case of the nüshu, however, one can clearly talk of
a specifically feminine line of oral and written transmission.
If, as I believe, there are parallels between
the nüshu and related metrical genres, such as the Ming chantefables,
can one speak of a specific female culture transmitted in the formulae
and traditional motifs of oral performance and textual derivatives? Can
one discern formulae or lexical items which are gender specific? If gender-nuanced
formulae and stock material can be adduced from nüshu then
what additional insights does this offer into the often-quoted 'integral'
nature of the Chinese cultural system during the late imperial period (usually
defined as c.1550 to 1911)? Did oral arts and their texts popular amongst
women seek to resist or accommodate the neo-Confucian values predominant
in society at large?
I have earlier raised these issues in a discussion
of notions of widow chastity (that is, the traditional custom that widows
do not remarry). Here I will draw on a wider range of case studies to demonstrate
how nüshu women constructed their own interpretations of Confucian
norms, interpretations which diverged from the orthodoxy and enlarged the
sphere of the possible for nüshu women. First, however, it
is necessary to examine notions of women's voices or a woman's 'sphere'.
In recent years, US scholars have paid particular
attention to Chinese women's writings and correspondence of the late imperial
period and have noted how women's literacy and literary writings often
emerge within the context of mother-daughter relationships or female networks.
Since very few women were literate, these studies are necessarily an investigation
of elite women and their literary activity. A symposium of papers published
in Late Imperial China is exemplary in this regard. Speaking of
elite women, Charlotte Furth notes in her 'Introduction' that it might
be more correct to talk of 'separate spheres' for men and women in China
instead of the more 'holistic' notion of 'women's culture'.
The idea of 'separate spheres' allows one to focus on
the activities and creations of women
which men have had no special interest in, whether women's activities,
rituals, crafts, social networks or domestic skills and points to activities
of women marked as legitimate in a social/cultural division of labor approved
by a patriarchal or other male-dominated orthodoxy.
In the case of elite women, they spent much
of their lives within the inner chambers and were thus physically segregated
from the outer male sphere of influence. A recent western work by Daphne
Span called Gendered Spaces considers the layout of living quarters
in various situations ranging from western homes to a Mongolian yurt. Her
main hypothesis is that 'women and men are spatially segregated in ways
that reduce women's access to knowledge and thereby women's lower status
relative to men's. 'Gendered spaces' separates women from knowledge used
by men to produce and reproduce power and privilege'.
But were separate spheres necessarily repressive
of women? Dorothy Ko put forward a counter-thesis in her contribution to
the Symposium volume:
Women had as much a stake in the traditional
social and familial order as did men. In Ming-Qing households, the innermost
realm of the private sphere was the prerogative of women. The woman's quarters,
tucked away in inconspicuous corners of the gentry housing compound, were
off limits even to adults in the family. In facilitating the development
of her self-image and identity as a woman, this cloistering had a positive
effect on women's culture.... Here educated women did not feel the need
to challenge the age-old ideology prescribing functional separation between
the two sexes.
Ko here is talking primarily of elite women
but one could ask this same question of women of the subordinate classes.
Nüshu women, for instance, lived also in sexually-segregated households.
They bound their feet and did not work in the fields but spent their days
in weaving, sewing, cooking and domestic duties. Women participated in
a rich tradition of women's festivals and rituals and constructed their
own voluntary networks, known as sworn sisterhoods, where nüshu script
was a major medium of communication. In the case of Shangjiangxu women,
a gender-specific culture clearly thrived in this segregated milieu.
As we have seen, critics differ on the question
of whether the 'gendered spaces' of men and women in imperial times served
to separate and repress women or to nurture their identity and confidence.
In a later study on elite women of seventeenth China, Dorothy Ko stresses
the continuum of space which women inhabited between the inner and outer
domains, while still continuing
to stress the existence of a 'woman's culture'. In this case she is using
the influential definition of 'women's culture' by Gerda Lerna: 'the familial
and friendship networks of women, their affective ties, their rituals'.
In her multifaceted presentation of the 'women's culture' of seventeenth-century
Chinese women, Ko acknowledges that she is using the term virtually interchangeably
with 'communities of women'. She distinguishes three main women's communities:
domestic (based on female relatives), social (women in a neighbourhood)
and public (groups of women who formed associations and published their
Nüshu women, by contrast, were
not 'literary', as were the elite female circles of Jiangnan, in fact nüshu
women were only rarely literate in Chinese script. The type of literature
exchanged by these rural women of Shangjiangxh was transcribed in the formulaic
stanzas of oral ballads, not in the refined allusions of classical Chinese
poetry. These rural women who celebrated their sworn sisterhoods and corresponded
in nüshu script belonged to 'women's communities' and engaged in a
rich 'women's culture' at least as vibrant as that of the literate and
literary women of Jiangnan.
Nüshu 'women's culture' differs from
'literary women's culture', however, in significant respects. When Dorothy
Ko's Jiangnan women created their own expressive culture they wrote within
the confines of a language and literary genres constructed by men. Ko notes
that they were sometimes grudgingly admitted into male circles 'as substitute
or honorary men' and notes further: 'The fact that the Chinese literary
tradition consisted almost entirely of writings by men meant that the woman
writer had to be initiated into a world in which she had no rightful place
and no distinct voice'. For example
a talented sixteen-year-old girl from Suzhou wrote a poetic eulogy to bound
feet along conventional lines.
Furth observes that for elite women who composed poetry or correspondence
in classical Chinese it is difficult to demarcate the point of 'separation'
from the male sphere: 'as writers, women had to define themselves in terms
of a long established canonical literary tradition'.
The implication is that women were thus circumscribed
by the need to master and compose within a canon that embodied the male
literati tradition. The same phenomenon has been noticed in the west. For
example, Queen Elizabeth wrote sonnets about her own emotions in the cliched
Petrarchan manner of her courtiers.
Furth concludes her discussion of elite women writers on a modest note.
One can talk of 'women's voices' but possibly not a 'women's culture'.
Whether these voices should be seen as an integral part of the literati
class or as a marginalised and segregated component of it is open to contention.
Was this process of accommodation to dominant
norms characteristic also of women's orally-transmitted culture and derivative
texts? It is instructive to take the most obvious symbol of women's subordination
(or erotic allure), foot-binding, as an example here. In Ming chantefables
and nüshu stories I have not come across anything akin to a literary
paean to the erotic allure of bound feet although it is common to list
'lotus feet' as one of the desirable attributes of the stereotypical beauty.
As we have noted, nüshu practitioners did bind their feet and for
this reason did not work in the fields, preferring a more confined existence
inside their homes. If chantefables and nüshu narratives are any guide,
these non-learned women did not value bound feet in the same way as Ko's
literary women. On the contrary, in Ming chantefables and nüshu writings
one commonly finds bound feet depicted as an impediment to the actions
of women. In one Ming chantefable wife Zhang wants to go to Kaifeng to
present a grievance to the good Judge Bao but finds it very hard going
on her tiny feet. Fortunately the Wisdom Great White Star comes to her
aid in the guise of a barrow seller of hogs heads. He simply places wife
Zhang in the barrow and mounts the sky to fly her to Kaifeng.
Wife Zhang, unable to walk to the courtroom of Judge Bao in her tiny bound feet, is borne through the air in a barrow by the Great White Gold (Venus) Star who is here disguised as a seller of hogs' heads.
In the early years of the twentieth century, when reformers sought to liberate
Chinese women from bound feet, the ballad and song were an obvious medium
to propagate the new idea. Around 1905 a woman teacher in a girl's school
composed and performed a song 'Setting free the feet' fang zu ge.
The oral culture of Chinese women is a neglected
area of research and could potentially teach us much about how unlearned
women constructed their world and interpreted Confucian norms. One can
catch tantalising glimpses of the 'women's line of oral transmission' in
the works of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, who have mythologised and
crafted latterday masterpieces from the yarns spun by their mothers and
aunts. In Wild Swans, Jung Chang presents this anecdotal evidence
of an oral 'woman's tradition' as related to her by her grandmother, then
living in Harbin with a Manchurian husband:
Every now and then she and her friends
would put on an old Manchu performance for themselves, playing hand drums
while they sang and danced. The tunes they played consisted of very simple,
repetitive notes and rhythms, and the women made up the lyrics as they
went along. The married women sang about their sex lives, and the virgins
asked questions about sex. Being mostly illiterate, the women used this
as a way to learn about the facts of life. Through their singing, they
also talked to each other about their lives and their husbands, and passed
on their gossip..
My grandmother loved these gatherings,
and would often practice for them at home. She would sit on the kang shaking
the hand drum with her left hand and singing to the beat, composing the
lyrics as she went along.
What Jung Chang is describing is a case of
orally-transmitted culture passed down by generations of women in a relatively
unmediated way. This passage is also very revelatory of the characteristics
of orally-transmitted culture in general, which is the next topic to be
examined here. The rhythms and rhymes are very simple and repetitive for
easy comprehension, recitation and memorisation.
Scholars of oral literature have investigated
the main 'technology' of oral culture (as a form of communication different
from the manuscript or printed text.
Folk oral performance is extempore and related to a particular context
(eg.women seated around a kang [a heated bed] in winter. The performer
relies on a formula that is repeated units, which the community imbibes
unconsciously from constant listening to ballads from earliest childhood.
Textual derivatives from Chinese oral genres have been found to be highly
formulaic, usually in hemistich form (ie half a line). In the case of nüshu,
'formulae' can frequently be of two full lines in length, eg.
When a partner seeks me it is easy as
finding water in the mountainside,
But when I seek a partner, it is as difficult
as finding a cool breeze in mid-summer.
Once I lived in the home of my parents
In tears I married away from home, my heart as if cut with a knife.
Jung Chang's grandmother enjoyed the raunchy
songs which used a treasurehouse of formulaic sayings to convey women's
lore about love, sex and marriage. In other words the shared ballads transmitted
what was considered significant in that community. Scholars of oral literature
and of orally-transmitted Greek epics have noted that in pristine oral
cultures (cultures without writing), epic verse was one of the main 'technologies'
for the transmission of the 'cultural lore' of the civilisation. Epic verse
fulfilled an 'encyclopaedic function' in encapsulating in memorable formulaic
units items of cultural knowledge, from abstract notions of governance
to everyday items of shipping technology.
Oral culture provided a way of transmitting what Fentress and Wickham term
a 'social memory', that is 'a memory attached to a membership of social
groups of one kind or another'.
In oral cultures key events and norms are transmitted in ways which are
concrete rather than abstract, sequential rather than causal and conventional
rather than original.
In societies with writing and a print culture,
like that of China, the role of oral culture is more 'interstitial' in
nature in the words of Jack Goody. This refers to the process of marginalisation
as prestigious written culture takes over the key items of knowledge in
a society: the histories, the sacred stories and the philosophical classics.
Myth, legend, the folktale and the epic continue to flourish amongst the
unlettered but are scorned by the elite.
Goody's insight is apposite for the Chinese
situation as well. As writing and print culture steadily came to dominate
Chinese culture at all levels in the late imperial period, the status accorded
orally-transmitted narratives and songs and even the scope and content
of this material gradually narrowed and was to a greater or lesser extent
influenced by the dominant print culture. Nüshu material, at any rate,
deals not with epic heroes and affairs of state but with the private 'interstices'
of life. As is inevitable in a civilisation dominated by the written word,
nüshu also shows the influence of classical Chinese culture, albeit
in a muted form. For example, some of the simplest and most-loved Chinese
quatrain-style poems in classical Chinese have been translated directly
into nüshu: Li Bai's 'Quietly Thinking at Night' and Wang Zhihuan's
'Mounting Crane Tower' (pp.1699-1770). As well there is a nüshu rendition
of The Woman's Classic (Nh`er jing), an anonymous work passed
down through the centuries consisting of simple rhymed lines. The Woman's
Classic encapsulates a strictly Neo-Confucian code of decorum for women:
The four-syllabic Women's Classic
Will teach you wisdom.
Young girls, to behave as [good] women,
Do not leave the inner chamber,
When you smile do not show your teeth
When you sit do not incline your body,
Be soft and careful in what you say,
Never raise your voice
Comb your hair smartly
And put effort into washing and starching
Do not apply rouge
Keep yourself fresh and pure
Learn how to use the needle and weave,
Be diligent in your endeavours
Learn paper cutting and sewing hemp
Masters all the [female] crafts
Sleep at nightfall and rise at dawn
When you retire to bed bind your feet
Arrange your attire with care
Before you leave the bedroom.
Make the fire in the hearth
And keep warm tea at the ready,
As for your father and uncles,
Respect them with due etiquette
When you carry them plates and offer them tea,
In passing and fetching do not be too intimate
Treat your husband as your superior
Take care to respect him well (pp. 1693-7).
Texts like the above tend to put into question
the notion that nüshu and other women's oral art forms operated as
a distinct line of transmission outside the dominant ideology. Clearly
there is no indivisible divide between written/elite culture and oral/popular
culture nor between male/female culture. Nonetheless, there is scope for
divergency of transmission of cultural norms and values and this divergency
could be gender-based to an extent which needs to be determined. In this
paper I will examine two nüshu narratives which treat a popular fantasy
of traditional tales in China: the woman who becomes a man, either through
Buddhist transcendence or through cross-dressing.
Crossing Gender Boundaries
The two stories discussed here are known in
various forms in mainstream Han Chinese culture, but in the nüshu
narratives they have been appropriated in a woman's line of oral transmission
which reinterprets orthodox norms.
The story of Wife Wang (Wangshi nh)
(pp.1362-1490) provides a striking demonstration of perceptions of male
and female 'pollution' and of how one virtuous wife manages to 'save' her
husband and family and transcend the world to a Buddhist nirvana. But in
order to do this she has to change her gender. Wife Wang is a woman of
exemplary Buddhist piety. She does not eat fish or meat and recites the
sutras for hours every day, especially the Diamond Sutra. She is given
in an arranged marriage by her unsympathetic parents to a butcher, the
lowest category of occupations in the Buddhist canon. She constantly begs
her husband not to slaughter animals and warns him of retribution in the
world to come. The butcher gives a pointed justification of his activities:
his family has been butchers for generations and he must earn his living
in order to buy land:
You recite the Diamond Sutra and you will be favoured
I will slaughter pigs and sheep and suffer for the crime.' (Lines 47-8).
In any case there is pollution everywhere;
when men sleep naked they cause offence, when women put on oil and powder
this too is a sin. Both boys and girls commit sins; if you pour water in
a ditch you make the God of the Eaves dirty, if you pour it on the rice
fields you taint the moon and stars, if you pour it beneath the bed then
the spirit of the earth is unhappy. He itemises a long list of everyday
activities which cause offence to one or another deity, for example, in
the first month if you draw water at the river you offend the Dragon King
of the Seas (lines 83-4). The wife responds that her guilt is great because
she shares a dwelling and a bed with a butcher. He tests her knowledge
of the Diamond Sutra and finds she is word perfect. He then agrees to allow
her to remain celibate while still living in the same residence. Wife Wang
takes a room of her own, puts on religious clothes and spends her days
in ritual devotion. Meanwhile the King of the Underworld sends out spirits
to seek out the virtuous in the world of mankind. They spot Wife Wang and
bid her come to the Underworld to read the Diamond Sutra. She knows this
means she must now die and begs to live until her children are mature.
When they refuse she stoically washes herself ritually and farewells her
family. She bids her husband take another wife and tells her children to
obey the second wife. Once the farewells are finished she falls down and
dies, to the astonishment of the husband. Her funeral is described and
also the progress of her soul through the torments of the Underworld. She
overcomes all tribulations with the force of her great virtue. The King
of the Underworld informs her that her life will be cut short because she
left out nine words in her recitation of the Diamond Sutra. However, as
reward for her piety, he allows her to return to the world as a baby boy.
She is born into the home of an official and her real name is imprinted
on his/her foot.
Her life as a man is an exemplary one which
very few could achieve in traditional China. She excels at her studies
and attains the rank of Principal Graduate. However, she/he is unwilling
to retain the position of a man and tells the Emperor his/her true story,
begging to retain to his/her native village. Wife Wang is allowed to return
home in official costume where she reveals the writing on her foot and
declares she is really his wife. She declares she no longer wishes to be
a Principal Graduate but simply to be his wife. The family opens her tomb
and at that moment the Jade Emperor emerges and allows the entire family
to transcend this world to the Buddhist nirvana.
The unequivocal moral of this story is that
a woman who attains the highest peak of morality and pious devotion can
be the medium of salvation for her 'polluted' husband and indeed, her entire
family. In this story the traditional view of innate female inferiority
is overturned; a strong woman protagonist constructs a woman-centred view
of Buddhist soteriology which relies on female virtue. In this gender-crossing,
women demonstrate they are as intelligent and talented as their male counterparts,
but they nonetheless do not wish to become men and wish for nothing other
than a return to wifely duties.
The story of Wife Wang is a didactic Buddhist
tale. The next nüshu narrative discussed here is entirely different
in style. It is composed in a coarse comic vein reminiscent of medieval
fabliau tales or the ribaldry and wit of Rabelais. The nüshu narrative
contains a rendition of the well-known story of maiden, Zhu Yingtai, who
wants to get an education. To the horror of her family she runs away, dresses
up as a young male scholar and goes to school in a nearby town. In imperial
China only young men had opportunities of this kind. The extract translated
below, shows how maid Zhu, as a young scholar, becomes best buddies with
a young man, Liang Shanbo, who does not realise that his handsome companion
is actually a woman. The episode where she sleeps with him on the same
couch while preserving her virginity is the centre-piece of the story,
which ends in the tragic death of both. Salacious episodes of this kind
were very popular in renditions of this story but embarrass twentieth-century
scholars. For example, Zeng Yongyi, leading Taiwanese scholar, has dismissed
these uncouth elements which besmirch the 'honesty and virtue' of the male
lover, Liang Shanbo.
The following episode takes place after Zhu
Yingtai has met Liang Shanbo. The couple travel together to the big city
of Hangzhou where they make their way to the Hall of Confucius and make
their obeisances to the teachers as their 'parents'. By day they sit next
to each other on the bench and by night they share a common bed and coverlet.
At night time Yingtai slept in full attire,
Before mounting the bed she did not takeoff her gown,
It was then Shanbo suspected who she really was,
He thought Yingtai must be a girl.
'If you're not someone's precious daughter,
How come you're unwilling to shed your clothes?
If you're my friend take off your clothes tonight,
What's wrong with sleeping in the nude?'
Yingtai replied to Shanbo,
'Older brother, listen to what I have to say,
My parents know how to tailor clothes
And they have made this gown for me.
There are twenty-four strands on the vest,
And they used twelve pairs of willow silk needles.'
In the evening she wore her clothes till the fifth watch,
And from the fifth watch until day light,
On the morn she washed her clothes.
The next day she rose early to recite her books,
[That evening she said]
'If you wish me to strip off my clothes,
Then place four bowls of cold water all around me,
If any drops of water should spill in the night,
Then you will get forty strokes of the rod,
As well the other students will beat you,
Then won't you be utterly terrified!'
Shanbo was so frightened by this
He didn't dare turn his head till daybreak.
She slept till midnight when she had to pee,
Yingtai stayed where she was and did not leave the room.
She said these words to Shanbo,
'Brother, listen to what I have to say,
People of learning revere Heaven and Earth,
Above are the sun, moon and the Three Constellations,
In daytime immortals and deities pass over,
At night time the stars and planets shine in the firmament,
If you stand up to pee, you're just like horses and oxen,
But those who squat low are true lads of Heaven.'
When Yingtai made her toilet and washed her face,
Soap in hand she rubbed her breasts,
Exposing a fine pair of 'fragrant milkies',
A pair of milk-smooth boobs, white as frost,
Yingtai then said to Shanbo,
Brother, listen to what I have to say,
If you have big breasts this is a sign of good fortune,
It's a sign of ill-luck to lack a fine bosom.
At this Liang Shanbo was convinced,
In agreement was he so they continued on together.
Scholars have noticed that in renditions of
this popular story, the audience has always been more interested in the
sheer mechanics of how a young woman managed to pass herself off as a young
man than the rest of the story. For these audiences the core element of
the tale is precisely the story of how at school they shared a room together
and the same bed. This was often the longest scene in the story and included
many juicy details beloved of the audience. For example, the 'young man'
in question insisted that a bowl of water should be placed in the middle
of the bed and neither one could spill it or a fine would be imposed. The
maiden's careful attempt to avoid displaying her female shape is elaborated
with loving detail. When the same story was told at elite level, however,
the story was refashioned to demonstrate maiden Zhu's 'proper conduct'
in preserving her virginity. In
the early twentieth century, under the influence of western feminist movements,
Zhu Yingtai was reimagined as a heroine who stood up to the harsh restrictions
of traditional propriety (lijiao).
The nüshu rendition given above, with
its wealth of comic detail about the maiden's 'milky breasts' parallels
the raunchy renditions observed in Chinese villages in the 1920s. It is
a wildly comic piece which in tongue-in-cheek fashion celebrates women's
urination by giving it a form of (sham) ideological significance: women
do not stand up like the beasts of the field but bend low to earth, here
given metaphysical significance as the yin component of Heaven,
the yang principle.
This reminds us that even a natural act such
as urination has the potential for varying social constructions. Camille
Paglia notes that the ancient Egyptians were scoffed at in later ages for
'urinating like women'. Paglia herself is guilty of an unreflective presentation
of a view of urination, which is not so much 'natural' as 'male constructed'.
Concentration and projection are remarkably
demonstrated by urination, one of male anatomy's most efficient compartmentalizations.
Freud thinks primitive man preened himself on his ability to put out a
fire with a stream of urine.... Male urination really is a kind of accomplishment,
an arc of transcendence. A woman merely waters the ground she stands on....
In contrast to the Freud/Paglia interpretation,
in nüshu, heroine Zhu Yingtai cleverly convinces Liang Shanbo that
those who squat to urinate on the ground are 'true lads of Heaven', whereas
those who 'stand to pee' are just like beasts of burden. This is surely
intended as a hilarious tongue-in-cheek comment, one of the ribald crudities
comments so distasteful to those Chinese scholars who like to herald the
nationalistic importance of popular culture. This note of mockery does
not detract from the specifically pro-woman construction of urination presented
A larger study would compare the passages
where Zhu deceives Liang into believing she is really a man in a range
of genres in Han culture. Suffice it to say that crude and bawdy passages
occur in drum ballads and similar genres extant from the late imperial
period. Certainly both men and
women enjoyed this tale. The issue here is one of specific interpretation
within one community. Do the nüshu or women's orally-transmitted arts
in general present this tale with inventive appropriations and recreations
of the familiar material? The attempt by nüshu performers and composers
to relate women's urination to the cosmological principles of Heaven and
Earth (and implicitly to yin and yang, the female and male
principles respectively, is a crucial point. Jacques Revel, in his discussion
of the world-upside down motif so common to the European carnival tradition,
notes that male-female cross-dressing is not necessarily 'an image of protest'.
The female wearing trousers beating the hen-pecked husband is presented
as an item in a catalogue of natural absurdities: 'sexual inversion is
portrayed alongside natural inversions (the sea changing places with the
sky; the sun shining at night; things being shown upside down; lambs chasing
wolves)'. Revel concludes that
these inversions instead of subverting the social order confirm it by their
very absurdity: inversion of the social order is thus 'unthinkable'.
The contrast here with nüshu and, I believe,
other orally-transmitted material, is that they can indeed present the
'unthinkable'. One could find examples in Ming chantefables that present
an explicitly feminine understanding of cosmological principles at odds
with the male-dominant one of orthodoxy. For example, in Ming fifteenth-century
chantefable of country boy, Xue Rengui, who departs to fight for the emperor,
his wife Liu Jinding farewells from him with these words:
Liu Jinding bowed to him and spoke at length,
She advised her husband with words of reassurance
Heaven belongs to yang and Earth to yin, thus they meet and match,
In the world of man people are born when men and women marry,
King Pan Gu divided all beneath Heaven and dynasties followed,
The Three Monarchs and Five Emperors reigned in succession.
She then goes on to recall their early life of poverty and warns him of the perils of his journey and his duties
Now you leave to join the army, be careful in the world outside,
Do not lust after flowers or be besotted with wine, do not fall in love,
If you pluck flowers, get drunk with wine and sleep midst flower buds and willows
Then in secret someone will come and murder you.
If you cast me off, young as I am, I will spend my days alone.
Respect me and I will respect you, we will love each other as husband and wife.
('Xue Rengui zheng Liao gushi')
In the fifteenth-century chantefable the reference
to cosmological principles here reflects a particularly popular interpretation
of the heavenly-ordained significance of marriage. The stress on the complementarity
of yin and yang had been superseded by the tenth century
if not sooner by the idea of hierarchy along the lines of 'Heaven (male)
is high and Earth (female) is low'.
Bold wifely injunctions of this sort are entirely absent in other renditions
of the tale of Xue Rengui in popular literature of the Ming period.
In this study I have put the view that the
nüshu corpus offer fascinating insights into the culture of
one particular community of women in twentieth-century China. Although
the script is unique, nüshu material is a striking example
of a vibrant women's line of transmission which can be traced back five
centuries to chantefables performed to female audiences. Unlearned women
clearly had a 'technology of the word' or line of oral transmission (in
the influential notion of Walter Ong) which allowed them to create, transmit
and preserve in written form a gender-specific tradition which diverged
significantly from elite culture generally, including the culture of elite
women. Although some nüshu material transmits traditional Confucian
norms (for example, women's instructional texts) other sub-genres such
as narratives allow scope for the active manipulation of Confucian notions
of fixed gender roles. The richness and sheer divergency of nüshu
material puts into question any monolithic constructions of China in the
late imperial period as 'integrated' within one Confucian orthodoxy. In
later studies much more attention will need to be paid to how particular
communities, such as the women of Shangjiangxh, actively inherited, transmitted
and recreated traditions which paralleled but did not always coincide with
Xie Zhimin, Jiangyong `nüshu' zhi mi, Henan Renmin chubanshe,
3 Vols., 1991.
Chiang, William Wei, 'We Two Know the Script: We have become good friends:
linguistic and social aspects of the women's script literacy in southern
Hunan', Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1991; Cathy Silber, 'From
daughter to daughter-in-law in the women's script of southern Hunan', in
Christina K. Gilmartin et al, (eds), Engendering China: Women, Culture
and the State, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1994, pp.
Marjorie Topley, 'Marriage Resistance in Rural Kwangtung', in Margery Wolf
and Roxane Witke, (eds), Women in Chinese Society, Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1975; Janice Stockard, Daughters of the Canton Delta:
Marriage Patterns and Economic Change in South China, 1860-1930, Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1989; Rubie Watson, 'Girls, Houses and Working
Women: Expressive Culture in the Pearl River Delta, 1900-1941', in Maria
Jaschok & Suzanne Miers, (eds), Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission,
Servitude and Escape, London: Zed Books, 1994, pp. 25-44.
David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan & Evelyn S. Rawski, (eds), 'Introduction',
in Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, Berkeley: University
of California, 1985, p. xiii.
Daniel Overmyer, 'Attitudes toward the ruler and state in Chinese popular
religious literature: sixteenth and seventeenth century pao-chhan', Harvard
Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44:2 (1984) 359.
Kwang-Ching Liu, (ed.), Orthodoxy in Late Imperial China, Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1990. See particularly Liu's Introduction,
'Socioethics as orthodoxy: a perspective', pp. 53-102.
Xie, Jiangyong, Vol. 3, p. 1860.
Anne E. McLaren, 'The Discovery of Chinese Chantefable Narratives from
the Fifteenth-century: a reassessment of their likely audience', Ming
Studies, 29 (1990) 1-30; Anne E. McLaren, 'Household Performances and
Ritual in Popular Texts from Ming China', Proceedings of the 15th International
Symposium on Asian Studies Conference, Hong Kong: Center for Asian
Studies, 1995, pp. 155-64.
Zheng Zhenduo, Zhongguo suwenxue shi, 1938, reprint Taiwan: Shangwu
yinshuguan, 1978, pp. 352-83.
0 Zhao Liming & Gong Zhebing, Nüshu-yige jing ren de faxian,
Wuhan: Huadong shifan daxue press, 1990; Xie, Jiangyong.
Chiang, 'We Two Know the Script'; Silber, 'From daughter to daughter-in-law'.
Liu Shouhua, 'Hunan Jiangyong `nüshu*zhong de minjian xushi wenxue',
Minjian wenxue luntan, 1:13-17, translated by Liu Shouhua and Hu
Xiaoshen, 'Folk Narrative Literature in Chinese Nüshu: an Amazing
Discovery', Asian Folklore Studies, 53 (1994) 307-8.
Anne McLaren, 'Women's Voices and Textuality: Chastity and Abduction in
Chinese Nüshu Writing', Modern China, forthcoming.
McLaren, 'The Discovery of Chinese Chantefable Narratives' and McLaren,
'Household Performances and Ritual in Popular Texts from Ming China'.
McLaren, 'Women's Voices'.
Zhao and Gong, Nüshu, p. 9; Xie, Jiangyong, Vol. 3,
Charlotte Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture in Late Imperial China: Editor's
Introduction', Late Imperial China, 13:1 (June 1992) 1-2.
Charlotte Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture in Late Imperial China: Editor's
Introduction', Late Imperial China, 13:1 (June 1992):1-2.
Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture in Late Imperial China: Editor's Introduction',
Late Imperial China, 13:1 (June 1992): 2.
Daphne Span, Gendered Spaces, Chapel Hill & London: University
of North Carolina Pess, 1992.
Dorothy Ko, 'Pursuing Talent and Virtue: Education and Women's Culture
in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century China', Late Imperial China,
13:1 (June 1992): 9-39.
Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century
China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994, p. 13.
Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, p. 14.
Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, pp. 15-6.
Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, p. 18.
Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, pp. 167-8.
Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture', p. 2.
K.Ruthven, Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 125.
Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture', p. 2.
Qin Shourong, 'Jindai Wuxi diqu shi xin xiaodiao de lishi gongneng',
Zhongguo minjian wenhua, 4 (1991) 164.
Jung Chang, Wild Swans, London: Harper Collins, 1992, pp. 75-6.
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word,
London & New York: Methuen, 1982.
Eric Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences,
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
J.Fentress & C. Wickham, Social Memory, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992,
Fentress and Wickham, Social Memory, p. 57.
Jack Goody, The Interface Between the Written and the Oral, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. xiv-xv.
Zeng Yongyi, Shuo su wenxue, Taipei: Lianjing chubanshe, 1980, p.
Hung Chang-tai, Going to the People: Chinese Intellectuals and Folk
Literature, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Neferti to Emily
Dickinson, Yale University and Penguin Books, 1991, pp. 20-1.
Lu Gong, Liang Zhu gushi shuochang ji, Shanghai: Guji chubanshe,
Jacques Revel, 'Masculine and Feminine: the Historiographical Use of Sexual
Roles', 1984, in M. Perrot, (ed.) Writing Women's History, trans.
F. Pheasant, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, p. 99.
Liu, 'Socioethics', pp. 5-102.
Other Nüshu Websites.
Anne McLaren and Shibuya Iwane's review of Endo Orie's text Chūgoku no onnamoji
[Chinese Women's Script], in Issue 2 of Intersections.
Orie Endo's Nüshu website
An excellent annotated bibliography on female literacy, reading and writing in China, as well as Nüshu, can be found on Barend J. ter Haar's website.