Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Competing Representations under Alien Rule:
Women in Mongol-Yuan China

Yu Zhang
  1. The question of Mongol's influence on Chinese women might seem to be an outdated topic. After all, the overwhelming popularity of the victimised images of Chinese women before the twentieth century has been mainstream discourse, especially in the Mongol-Yuan dynasty, a period often called the 'dark age' in China. Britten Birge's ground-breaking study shows that since the twelfth century, Chinese women's legal and social status declined rapidly. She states that 'the Yuan Dynasty must be seen as a turning point in Chinese history.'[1] The enacted Mongol laws severely weakened women's rights to property and remarriage. Ironically, though the ruling Mongols from the steppes were considered 'barbarians' by Han Chinese scholars, their laws undermining women's status confirmed and materialised the Confucian views that women's proper position was within the domestic field.
  2. However, the discourse of oppressed Chinese women has obscured the possibility of exploring the dynamics not only between men and women, but also between Han Chinese and other ethnic groups under Mongol rule in thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Compared to women in late imperial China who had the opportunity to live during an era of prosperous urbanisation, publication and luxurious lifestyles, women in the Mongol-Yuan China were under the dominance of alien rulers. In Chinese history, the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368)[2] and the Qing Dyansty (1644–1911) were the two empires where ethnic minorities ruled the majority Han Chinese population. Unlike the Manchus of the Qing, although the Mongol rulers were attracted to the material benefits of Han Chinese civilisation, they carefully avoided assimilation. In the context of the new social order based on ethnicity and occupation that was practised by the non-Han rulers, in this paper I aim to provoke a rethinking of the understanding of gender, ethnicity and class in the Mongol-Yuan Dynasty. Through a study of gendered texts, I argue that the major oppression that women were subjected to under Mongol rule still came from the patriarchal ideology of the Han Chinese. Meanwhile, women negotiated within the dual bondage of ethnicity and gender, and became actively engaged in their daily lives in the Yuan.
  3. Borrowing the critical framework of gender, race and class, I attempt to provide a lens through which to view the complex relationship between gender, ethnicity and occupation in the context of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century China. This approach, especially focusing on women, also allows an opportunity to display and compare literary representations of women and their own actions in history. The category of 'women' in this paper includes a broad picture of both gentry and lower social classes. However, before I go into the details about women in the Mongol-Yuan Dynasty, it is important to note that in this paper, the terms, 'Chinese' and 'Mongol,' refer to ethnic groups. Contemporary China embraces over fifty ethnic groups other than the majority Han population, but pre-modern China was largely identified with Han China in a cultural sense.[3] People that the Chinese now identify as ethnic minorities were often considered foreign barbarians in Han Chinese texts. In the following section I will introduce the caste-like social stratification based on occupation during Mongol-Yuan China.

    'Four-people and ten-occupation' caste: Han Chinese under Mongol Rule
  4. Beginning in the early thirteenth century, Khublai Khan (1215–1294), the grandson of Genghis Khan, and his army successively conquered the Liao Empire (907–1125), the Jin Empire (1115–1234) and the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), eventually controlling most of the present-day China. In 1272, Khublai Khan proclaimed the edict which determined that the Mongol regime in China would bear the title Yuan. The nomadic Mongols were remarkably different from the Confucianised Han Chinese, who lived in an empire based on agriculture. Khublai's government instituted a legal caste system in China based on racial hierarchy, in order to consolidate the ruling status of the Mongolians. People in China were divided into four classes in descending order: Mongols; Semu ren, literally 'men with colored eyes', including Mongol's allies and immigrants from West Asia and Central Asia, such as Uighurs, Turks, Tibetans, Tanguts, Persians, and Central Asians; Han ren, including Chinese living in the previous Jin territory, Khitans assimilated by the Han, Jurchens and Koreans; and Nan ren, or Southerners, all subjects of the former Southern Song Dynasty. The descending sequence was based on the sequencing of the Mongolian conquest of these people. The earlier they submitted to the Mongols, the higher social status they received in the hierarchy. The class distinctions were not rigidly enforced, but they did cause contentions and had implications when it came to privileges, appointment of office, taxation and law.
  5. In this caste system, the Mongols and the semu people were given a variety of advantages. When they committed crimes, the hierarchy required people in each category to be judged and sentenced according to their ethnic identity. But Han Chinese's subordination was systematically reinforced by a law code that punished Chinese more severely than other ethnic groups. For example, only Chinese were tattooed on the face if convicted of theft. When a Mongol or a semu murdered a Chinese, the murderer would get off by paying gold or the price of a mule. However, if a Chinese killed a Mongolian, the entire Chinese family would be executed after they paid for the funeral of the victim.[4]
  6. The Mongol government abolished the keju civil service examination system in the first fifty years of Yuan. Many Chinese who spent years studying Confucian classics could hardly make a living. In 1315, when the examinations were restored, Chinese literati still faced a variety of discrimination from the Mongols and the semu people. Mongols and the semu people had a separate and easier set of exams. The search also included quotas to ensure that Mongols and other non-Chinese candidates would get half of the degrees and limit the influence of the well-educated Chinese literati. Most crucially, only 2 percent of the appointments were made through the examinations; the majority of the positions were distributed according to hereditary ranks.
  7. Within each caste in the Yuan Empire, a new order of occupations took shape. Many sources indicate that in addition to ethnic hierarchy, the Mongol rulers fostered hereditary occupations in China. The population was registered into categories by occupation, such as merchants, astrologers, soldiers, military agricultural workers, salt producers and miners. Offspring of a family registered into a certain occupational group were not allowed to change their jobs without permission. The Yuan scholar Tao Zongying (1329–ca.1402), a native of Taishou in the south, specified detailed ranking of occupations in Chuo geng lu[5]: 1. Government officials; 2. Clerks; 3. Buddhist monks; 4. Daoist priests; 5. Physicians; 6. Artisans; 7. Hunters (craftsmen in Chu xue ji); 8. Civilians (courtesans in Chu xue ji); 9. Confucian scholars; 10. Beggars.
  8. The ethnic hierarchy and the occupational stratification placed many restrictions on Chinese literati. Before the Mongols came, south China, especially around Southern Song's capital Lin'an (Hangzhou today), had developed into a centre with rich commerce and culture. Wealthy merchants could purchase luxuries, but it was still the literati who won respect. The four-people and ten-occupation caste took away the esteem that the educated Han Chinese literati enjoyed in previous dynasties. Very few Han Chinese reached high positions in the government. Isolation and hostility rose between Han Chinese and other ethnic minorities. Han Chinese and the northern minorities addressed each other as 'barbarians.' As historians point out, the privileged group of the Mongols and the 'semu people' largely remained strangers to mainstream Confucianism, and this dichotomy gave the Yuan regime a somewhat strong 'colonial' colouration.[6]
  9. Chinese women in the Yuan suffered a triple burden of gender, ethnicity and occupational discriminations. Writers typically portrayed them sympathetically as victims of wars and domestic violence. However, this is no more than a reduced picture of the reality of women's lives. Women in Yuan China exercised more power and autonomy than assumed. Adopting a comparative approach, I study women in Yuan with special reference to two groups of sources: representations of women by male-authored literature, and women's actions and voices in the records. The dynamics between 'what should be' and 'what is' will complicate our understanding of the gender roles under an alien regime in China.

    Literati response: women in orthodox values
  10. Both Mongol tribes and traditional Chinese dynasties are essentially patriarchal societies. The founder of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan, left many quotes, which were seen as ruling principles for his successors. A well-circulated one regards how to treat the enemy: 'The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.'[7] The great Khan also lectured on how Mongolian women should serve their husbands:

      When husbands are out for hunt or war, women should organise the household. When guests are visiting, they will see the house is clean and tidy. The wife cooks meals for the guests and prepares everything they need. [Each woman] brings her husband a good reputation and improves his popularity. [Her husband] will stand as firm as a mountain in social gatherings. A man's virtue is determined by his wife. If wife is ignorant and dissolute, she will bring her husband such a bad reputation.[8]

    A Mongolian woman was considered only valuable in the domestic sphere. Her only significance was to serve the husband and his family.
  11. From the Chinese perspective, the Confucian dictum sancong (Thrice Following, or Three Obediences) rigidly defines a woman's roles in each stage of her life. In li ji (The book of rites), edited by Confucius, the 'Thrice Following' means, as translated by Miles Menander Dawson: 'The woman follows the man: in her youth, she follows her father and elder brother; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband is dead, she follows her son.'[9] Since then, Confucian scholars kept developing and canonising the notion of Thrice Following. The Northern Song scholar Sima Guang (1019–1086) incorporated the sancong into his jia xun (Family disciplines): women were required to remain in the domestic sphere and serve the household.
  12. Mongol rule conditioned Han cultural ideals for women's roles, as a significant way to highlight their Chinese identity in contrast to the alien conquerors. Beverly Bossler studies two types of exemplary women recorded by Yuan literati: heroic women and faithful wives. She argues that the rhetoric of female virtue served to preserve the Chinese moral order under the Mongol domination.[10] In addition, the marginalised Han literati demonstrated two basic attitudes towards women in literature: to show their sympathy towards women who suffered in wars, and to call for virtuous women defending Confucian values.
  13. Wang Yuanliang (1241–after 1317), a native of Hangzhou, served both Song and Yuan imperial courts as a renowned musician and poet. In 1276, he followed the Southern Song imperial family to Dadu, the capital of Yuan. His poetry outlines the anxieties and unpredictability of daily life during the Song-Yuan transition, especially portraying women who were vulnerable to violence and commoditification in this chaotic period. Huzhou ge (Song of Huzhou) witnesses the insults received by Southern Song imperial ladies after they were captured:

      [The imperial consorts] were distributed among old workmen.
      They forced smiles and followed their new husbands.
      The old emperor's favor was discarded like dust.
      But will their new spouses be a good match?[11]

  14. The multiple layers of information embedded in the above lines indicate the complex meanings of ethnicity and gender in the Yuan. First, the poet shamefully sympathises with these women deprived of freedom in the face of an alien conquer. The fact that they were distributed among old workmen of the north as trophies exemplifies the objectification of women in the Yuan. In addition, the lines emphasise women's sexual vulnerability, and serve as a voyeuristic entertainment for the male gaze and the male fantasy. However, despite its pitiful tone, the third line here subtly suggests Wang's discontent that these imperial ladies did not die in resistance to non-Chinese invasion of their bodies. He explicitly questions their physical chastity as well as their loyalty to the Han emperor. These court ladies seem to be expected to bear a moral obligation and sacrifice their lives as political martyrs. From the perspective of the poet, a woman's bodily integrity becomes a metaphor for the sovereignty of the Chinese state.
  15. Since the Yuan governance largely excluded most Han literati from office, many scholars who spent years studying the classics supported themselves with low-level employment and a small income, such as received from playwriting. According to the unofficial records mentioned previously, Mongol rulers defined the social status of the courtesans higher than that of Confucian scholars. Such humiliation severely offended orthodox Chinese literati. In the imaginary world of Yuan drama, many vented their anger towards the courtesans and mocked them in their writings. Quite a few plays attribute the literati's misfortune to wicked women, especially courtesans of lower rank, rather than the rigidity of the social hierarchy. In an early Yuan play Qujiang chi (The Pond of Qujiang), a courtesan new to the profession describes her experienced mother in the following horrific lines:

      My mother looks most amiable to anyone.
      She is cunning and deceitful in her mind.
      Your gold might pile up to the Big Dipper.
      She has her way to possess all your wealth.
      She talks sweet, throws soft glances and spends time with you.
      She fills in your time and plans on your coins.
      You cannot resist falling in and following her for years.
      Before you suddenly realize you now live in poverty.[12]

  16. After warning young scholars of the possible financial crisis brought by these women, the playwright continues to accuse them of 'monstrous' crimes:

      My mother is a seductive monster who sucks out human brains.
      She is a woman who peels off human skins.
      She is a gorgeously dressed blackmailer.
      Her smiles cut off your skin and flesh.
      Her soft voice breaks your bone marrow and tendons.[13]

  17. In this play the conventional romantic attraction between the literati and the beautiful courtesans gives way to scandal and death. Women are not only condemned to be responsible for the scholars' decadence in Yuan, but also are demonised, which suggests revenge from the literati.
  18. Chinese literati also made full use of the educational function of drama to create cultural ideals and instruct women. Gao Ming (1305–1370) reinforced the orthodox Confucian gender norms in his drama Pipa ji (Story of the lute).[14] The playwright aims to establish his heroine Zhao Wuniang as an ideal model for all Chinese fourteenth-century women, as he highlights in the opening 'Zhao Wuniang: a woman of chastity and virtue.' Abandoned by her husband, who marries the daughter of the prime minister in the capital, Wuniang takes care of her in-laws without complaining. After the death of her the in-laws due to famine, Wuniang carries the lute and looks for her husband in the capital. The expectation of female virtues, especially fidelity, became the way in which Han literati expressed their commitment to Chinese values and their resistance to the Mongol influence.
  19. Ma Zhiyuan (ca. 1250–1321), another prestigious playwright in the Yuan, belonged to a group of literati who felt morally obliged to refuse to serve the Yuan government and remain loyal to the Han Chinese Song royal family. His drama Han gong qiu (Autumn in the Han palace)[15] rewrites the story of Wang Zhaojun (d. 52 BCE), a true historic figure in the Eastern Han Dynasty.[16] In 33 BCE, the Xiongnu Khan Huhanye visited the Han capital because of the tributary system that existed between the Han Empire and the Xiongnu governments. He also took the opportunity to ask for a wife from the Han. Wang volunteered to marry the Xiongnu Khan and became the empress. The marriage helped establish peaceful relations on the northern Chinese borders for over sixty years. However, Ma largely twisted Wang's story in the play. The image of Wang Zhaojun now serves as a mediator in ethnic and gender conflicts in the Yuan. As a metaphor, the playwright depicted Eastern Han as a weak empire being oppressed by their northern neighbours. The Han Emperor sends out the painter Mao Yanshou to collect China's most beautiful girls for his palace. Wang Zhaojun is selected, but she refuses to bribe him. The wicked painter then hides her portrait from the emperor. The emperor hears her playing the lute one night, and they two fall in love. Angry about Mao, the emperor wants to execute him, but Mao flees to the Xiongnu and offers the portrait to the Khan. The Khan demands for her as his wife. The emperor has to send Wang to him, but she drowns herself before crossing the Chinese border.
  20. In Han gong qiu, the image of Wang Zhaojun is primarily that of a passive woman with no control over her own life. The strong will in her personality when Wang volunteered to marry the Xiongnu Khan is replaced with a victimised character of misfortunate. In order to marginalise the Mongol minority, it became urgent for Chinese, especially literati like Ma Zhiyuan who remained culturally loyal to the Song, to redefine the border between Han China and other ethnic tribes culturally and aesthetically. No Chinese male accompanies Wang to the Xiongnu. She performs her woman's duties for all Han Chinese (men) from a necessary distance. The suicide ritual especially portrays her as a melodramatic feminine figure favoured by the patriarchal tradition:

      Wang Zhaojun: What is this place?
      Foreign Envoy: This is Black Dragon River, the boundary between our land and the kingdom of Han. All to the South belongs to the house of Han and all to the north to us.
      Wang Zhaojun: Great king, may I ask for a cup of wine, to make a libation to the south and bid farewell to the kingdom of Han before we start our long journey? [Wang Zhaojun pours a libation.] Emperor of Han, this life of mine is ended. I shall await you in the life to come.
      Wang Zhaojun throws herself into the river; EMPEROR HUHANYA in alarm goes to save her but fails.[17]

  21. The image of a loyal woman thus becomes the vehicle to express the ethnic concerns of Chinese consciousness. A woman committing suicide to protect her chastity stands not only for the devotion she has for her lover, but also for the endangered esteem of Chinese literati subdued by the alien ruler. As it is the responsibility of a military general to defend the territory, it is the responsibility of a woman to protect her body in the face of political crisis. In this play, the Han Chinese ethnic identity and the patriarchal rituals come together and suggest the death of the woman as the proper conclusion. Restricted from crossing the borderline, this Chinese woman has to sacrifice herself to defend not only her own dignity, but the Han Chinese identity, before her body is stained by the alien Khan.
  22. Contrary to fiction, the Mongol rulers discouraged intermarriages to prevent their own people from being assimilated in Chinese culture. The Chinese, on the other hand, opposed intermarriage even more vehemently, as a way of identifying themselves strongly with their resistance against the alien rulers. In their imagination, the Yuan literati celebrated women's resistance to 'pollution' by non-Chinese invaders. With ethnic tension and urgency increasing, the Chinese could no longer tolerate a woman marrying into another ethnic group. The Kong family in the South considered intermarriage as humiliating and dangerous.

      When my ancestors managed the household, they vowed they would not marry their daughters to the aliens. They said: 'We will not even allow our sons to marry their women, let alone send our girls to serve them. We will not humiliate our generations of ancestors.' The aliens cannot be understood according to human principles.[18]

  23. The Han Chinese had to reinvent and reaffirm their cultural and moral superiority over the 'barbaric' rulers. Focusing on women's chastity, later Han Chinese scholars went even further to demonise the Mongols and legitimise their rebellion.[19]

    Competing representations: women taking action
  24. As discussed above, representations of Yuan women in male-authored texts are more or less fictionalised to meet their own nationalist and patriarchal agendas. However, voices from women that survived in history always provide an alternative perspective of the stories. Despite the Yuan literati's expectation that women's (self)restriction within Confucian rituals served as a form of resistance to the alien four-tier ethno-political caste, women also gained alternative power if they crossed the boundaries and challenged the old and new hierarchies. Since most women's writings of this time were not preserved, the major textual sources are still women's biographies and historical records composed by male authors. However, these non-fictional works record women's daily activities. The rest of this paper will offer a glimpse of women's actual lives in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century China, from the supreme empress to the group of medicine women, who were considered low class during the Mongol-Yuan.

    Imperial ladies

  25. Unlike the Chinese Confucian ideology that considered women engaged in politics as sinful, Mongolian women practising political powers were well recognised. In 1241, after Ögedei's death, his widow Töregene took over the empire for five years.[20] She won support from most Mongol aristocrats and played a significant role in Mongol's continual expansion in China. In 1246, Ögedei's eldest son Güyük ascended the throne. But the new Khan was chronically sick and died two years later. Güyük's wife Oghul Qaimish ruled the empire as a regent until 1251. Within one decade, two women had control of the actual power of the Mongol Empire.
  26. After the Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty, despite the practice of the four-people caste that placed Han Chinese at the bottom of the social structure, some Mongol officials began to realise the significance of adopting Confucian heritage in ruling Han Chinese. John W. Dardess states that from 1260, the Mongol rulers gradually became 'confucianised,' integrating the principles of filial piety and ancestral loyalty into their value system.[21] Non-Chinese women in the royal family also played an important role in this confucianising process.
  27. Empress Qi (1301–ca.1370) of Toghun Temür Khan, referred to as Yuan huizong by the Chinese, was a native of Korea. Although the official language of the Yuan was Mongolian, she was known to 'often read Classics of Filial Piety for Women and other historic books, in order to learn from virtuous empresses in … history.'[22] Considering Confucianism to be a more effective way control the empire, she explicitly expressed her support of Confucianism in educating the royal heir and wielded her power to push the process.

      The prince's teacher said to the Empress Dowager: 'The prince used to study Buddhism, and he felt quite enlightened. Now he is learning Confucianism. I am worried that this will harm the prince's true nature.' The Empress Dowager replied: 'Although I live deep in the palace and I am quite ignorant of principles, I have heard that since the ancient time, rulers always adopted Confucius's way. Any other attempt is unorthodox. Buddhism is wonderful, but only a leisure. It cannot be used to rule the empire.' The teacher withdrew with a blush of shame.[23]

  28. Another Mongolian Princess Shanga Lagyi (1283–1331) was a patron of many Chinese artists. Twice she sent her personal representatives to attend sacrifices at the Confucius Temple. Differing from Mongol custom, she followed Confucian teaching and did not remarry after the death of her husband. This princess was the most influential connoisseur of Chinese calligraphy and painting. In 1323 she hosted a fabulous party to present her art collections to Mongolian and Chinese guests. She played a significant role in the development of Chinese fine arts.[24]
  29. Ironically, Kong Qi who strongly opposed interracial marriages, actually had a Uighur sister-in-law. Kong Qi described how she held frequent gatherings and feasts with Uighur sisters, brothers(-in-law) and friends from her natal family. Regardless of Kong's discontent, he wrote with disgust: '[they] were gradually turning back into barbarians,' he faithfully recorded these party women crossing the boundaries and challenging the Chinese gender codes.[25]

    Writing women in the South: a case of Zheng Yunduan

  30. While women of other ethnic groups might have ignored the restraints that Han literati placed, in South China with its rich cultural legacy, a small and privileged group of educated Chinese women began to make their voices heard by picking up the brush and pen. Among them was Zheng Yunduan (1327–1356), who gained fame by writing broadly beyond what are typically considered 'feminine' topics.
  31. At a young age, Zheng had a clear consciousness about preserving her works. In the preface to her poetry collection Suyong ji (Reverential harmony), she criticised conventional themes chosen by women poets and proclaimed her poetic writing as being original and innovative:

      When women and girls of the present age write poetry, to my constant consternation, I find that their work lacks the intent of 'giving expression to one's feeling in response to external stimuli' and 'creating in order to chastise.' Ordinarily, they do nothing but lightheartedly chant about breeze and moonlight and give vent to their feelings and longings; delicate and voluptuous, dispirited and decadent, they dwell on the passing of time. For this reason [in my own writings], I have done away with all these old habits and rejected the popular trends of the day.[26]

    Zheng then highlights the urgency of preserving her writings:

      Whenever I would write songs and poems, I would lock them away in chests and baskets, waiting for a master wordsmith to correct them, and only later would I show them to other people. However, now I have been ill for many years and I may die at any time. Afraid that these poems might be lost without leaving a trace, I have copied them out once again and put them in proper order. I will place them in the family school so they may be shown to later generations.[27]

  32. In the preface Zheng expresses an unusual tone of authority. The act of writing is a transgression of boundaries for women. Many writing women after Zheng still insisted on destroying their words, a symbolic action to protect a woman's chastity.[28] Without worrying about her reputation, Zheng justified the collection of her works by being sick, as if her chronic illness affirmed her mission as a poet, thus intentionally neglecting and maneuvering the Confucian restrictions on women's voices.
  33. In the last four lines of Ti shanshui zhang ge (Song of a landscape scroll), the woman poet reexamines the boundaries set up for women.

      This body of mine is growing old in the inner quarters.
      I feel regretted not having a chance to travel to the hidden scenic spots.
      My life has been wasted in cotton socks and black shoes.
      Frustration and annoyance occur when I am staring at this scroll.[29]

  34. She clearly realises and questions the physical boundary set for women. Despite being restricted to the boudoir, her intellectual pursuit goes far beyond the domestic sphere. The landscape painting became an avenue of communication, in which she expresses her concern about her audience in the imaginary space. Moreover, she openly resists the traditional roles of women, or in her own words 'in cotton socks and black shoes,' as being a waste of time, as well as a cause of frustration and annoyance. While criticising the reduced life of women, the poet embraces a sense of adventure and challenge. One of Zheng's poems, Pipa quan (The lute spring) also contains an allusion to Wang Zhaojun,

      The Palace of Wu stayed in ruins for thousands of years.
      In which exists a handful of cold, clear spring.
      In the well built by skillful craftsmen, the water flow sounds like the music of a pipa lute.
      The rolling winch makes a noise like the broken strings.
      The water runs like a poet's tears.
      The splashing is the tune played for the woman who crossed the Chinese border.
      The melody cannot redeem the sorrow of the dynasty's fall.
      The emotions provoked by the palace and the well are beyond words.

  35. In this poem, Zheng exhibits her erudition on history and literary quotations. Zheng's image of Wang Zhaojun is not that of a helpless martyred woman, but it provokes more pride in muse than in loyalist nostalgia. Despite the view of the abandoned palace in the first stanza, the poem swiftly changes into a peaceful tone and celebrates Zhaojun's virtues, including her musical skills and her courage. The woman poet does not follow everyone else to merely mourn the past, a common genre in classical Chinese literature. Instead, she focuses on 'emotions,' and brings history closer to her readers in a personal way.
  36. Quite a few of her poems discuss the theme of marriage. For example, Pipa ting (The Lute Pavilion) challenges the renowned Tang poet Bo Juyi (772–846).

      The sky is pale with the moon's reflection, and the river is cold.
      The player expresses her feelings holding the pipa lute.
      From ancient times, beautiful women have often been ill-fated.
      There is no need to complain about marrying a tea merchant.[30]

  37. This poem is an echo of Bo's classical Pipa xing (Song of the Pipa lute).[31] In Bo's poem, a courtesan who is highly skillful in playing the pipa lute marries a tea merchant when she grows old. Bo laments her unhappy marriage, since in his mind, the best match for an intelligent woman is a scholar. A tea merchant is not likely to be the soul mate for her. Meanwhile, the story is also a metaphor for Bo's complaints about being demoted. However, Zheng Yunduan's response completely changes the conclusion. The first two couplets reproduce the theme of Bo's poem, but the woman poet comforts her audience with the statement that since beautiful women are doomed, it is a better ending for her to marry a merchant. Zheng seems to believe this cliché of 'unfortunate beauties,' but she resists the literati aesthetics centred on women's marriage. The ambiguity in the poem reveals her struggle between the male-invented myth and her own subjectivity.
  38. Another poem of social criticism, Song of the Wu People Marrying Their Daughters, further articulates her view of ideal marriage.

      Do not plant a flower beside the imperial road.
      Do not marry a daughter to a prince.
      The flower by the imperial road will be picked.
      The daughter who marries a prince cannot keep her happiness.
      Affection no longer exists when the beauty ages like a withdrawing flower.
      Separated birds end up living alone like a broken mirror.
      I would rather her marrying a peasant.
      She will be cherished even in her old age and never abandoned.[32]

  39. In addition to conveying a moral message, in this poem Zheng clearly expresses her distain towards the Yuan social hierarchy. The most desirable grooms were from noble families or high-ranking officials. But the woman poet warns in advance that such attractive material comfort is not reliable. In such unequal gender relationship, women of lower status risk losing favours from their rich husbands very soon. In addition, Zheng did not buy the fairytale made by Chinese literati that scholars were the best choice for good women. In her mind, a pastoral life was the ideal. The peasants, without much knowledge about classics, were more likely to treat their women better. In this poem, Zheng Yunduan draws a line between her own opinion as a woman and customs of the empire, as well as the standards held by Han Chinese literati. The cultural ideal she strives for in the poem is a 'companionate marriage,' which involves affection and gender equality. This alternative view on marriage undermines what could be the very demanding quality of a patriarchal family—to produce sons and carry on the family lineage.

    The emerging group of professional women

  40. Ironically, women became a significant source of income in many Han Chinese scholars' families. Since the civil service examination system was aborted in early Yuan, and even after it was restored, Han Chinese could not compete financially with the Mongols or the semu people. Most Confucian scholars struggled in poverty. Women in their households took on the responsibility of raising the family. Women's contributions were often recorded on their epitaphs. Lu Wengui (ca. 1256–1360) recalled his wife's life after the fall of the Southern Song: '[We] lived alone in poverty, and away from everyone else … I could not do any farm work in the field. My wife spent most time weaving and knitting. She sewed clothes for the entire family, and helped with the income.'[33] In Li Cun's (1281–1354) memory, his wife 'was married to me at the age of twenty-one. My family was poor without servants. She carried water and cooked meals all by herself.'[34] Similarly, Pu Daoyan (1260–1336) wrote. '[When we married] my family was so poor that sometimes I did not have enough for my parents to eat. My wife was dressed in plain clothes and took little food. She did all housework in person, and took great care of my parents. All family members did sewing work at night without complaining.'[35] All the three authors mentioned above were prestigious scholars during the Yuan Dyansty.
  41. But these women from scholarly families were still largely confined to the domestic sphere. Other women, who suffered from a lower social status, enjoyed more physical freedom by providing professional services outside of the inner chambers in Yuan. In Tao Zongyi's Chuo geng lu, he highlighted certain low-class women in Yuan society. Tao categorises them as sangu liupo, or 'three aunties and six grannies.'[36] Compared with other women at home, these nine categories of women were indeed the earliest professional women in Chinese history. The three gu are religious women: ni gu (Buddhist nun), dao gu (Daoist priestess), and gua gu (female fortunate teller). The six po include ya po (female broker, more specifically, of human trade), mei po (female matchmaker), shi po (shaman-healer), wen po (madam of the brothel), yao po (medicine woman), and wen wo (midwife).
  42. Chinese literature frequently classifies these women as corrupting forces in a stable family. Tao Zongying, for example, noted in his texts that they had contaminating natures and good families should by all means avoid them as if they were snakes and scorpions.[37] Some professions were clearly undesirable, but among them, medicine women sometimes received certain social prestige. Xu Guozhen was the most renowned doctor in Khublia's reign. He was deeply trusted by the Khan and reached a high position in the royal court. Xu's mother, Madam Han also served Khublia's mother, the Dowger Empress Zhuangsheng, with her medical skills. On the other hand, the key position that midwives played in reproduction makes them an important presence in male-dominated society. Despite the lack of direct reference relating to how good midwives were highly valued in Yuan, textual evidence shows that male doctors in the Ming did indeed recognise their competence. Yu Duan (1438–ca. 1517) recommended that families should hire experienced midwives with good knowledge.[38] Xue Ji (1487–1559) frequently consulted midwives and showed them professional respect.[39] Considering the fact that these famous medical practitioners lived only decades after Yuan, we probably can make a safe conclusion that the actual social status of good midwives in Yuan was higher than their literary representations suggest. Words of distrust and contempt towards medical women continued to circulate, but the segregation of sexes guaranteed their indispensability. They remained unchallenged in women's culture.[40]

  43. The comparative investigation of representation and presence of Chinese women under the Mongol-Yuan offers hope for more sophisticated conclusions. The exposed contrasts and contradictions between male assumptions and the reality of women's presence not only question male-invented images of women, but also help readers avoid reducing women's lives to simply positive or negative versions. Women's own voices and actions overturned the prejudice of Chinese gender roles during Mongol dominance. They were not isolated, but rather actively integrated into daily life under Mongol rule. Restrictions on women from the inherent oppression of patriarchy and the new caste deprived them of legal status in public, but not women's individual personality or subjectivity. Women in the Yuan, regardless their ethnicity or class, opened up spaces of freedom for themselves without challenging official ideology. Women's culture and gender relations continued to develop with flexibility and fluidity in gender relations under alien rule.
  44. In addition, the reexamination of women in Mongol-Yuan suggests alternative perspectives while looking into the caste-like barriers between rural and urban China today. While Chinese women continue to suffer gender bias and internalised oppression in the new (inter)national economic order, their voices and actions might be undermining and rewriting our understandings of social solidification.


    [1] Bettine Birge, Women, Property, and Confucian Reaction in Sung and Yüan China (960–1368), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 296.

    [2] In 1204, Temüjin unified all Mongolian tribes. Two years later, he was honoured as Genghis Khan (the ruler of the world) and soon established the Mongol Empire. In 1234, the Mongol military captured the Jin Dynasty (north to the Yellow River today). In 1260, the grandson of Temüjin, Khublai Khan, ascended the throne. In 1271, he formally established the Yuan Dynasty with Yuandadu (currently Beijing) as the capital. For detailed discussion on the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty see Herbert Frank and Denis C Twitchett (eds), The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 6, Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1978; John D. Langlois, China Under Mongol Rule, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

    [3] For a discussion about Han-centered culturalism, see Prasenjit Duara, 'De-constructing the Chinese nation,' in Chinese Nationalism, ed. Jonathan Unger and Geremie Barmé, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, pp. 31–56.

    [4] 'Legal Treaties,' in The History of Yuan, collected in Gao Chao and Ma Jianshi, Zhongguo lidai xingfazhi zhuyi, Changchun: Jinlin renmin chubanshe, 1994.

    [5] Tao, Chuo geng lu, vol. 1, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959.

    [6] Denis Twitchett and Klans-Peter Tietze, 'The Liao,' in Franke and Twitchett (eds), The Cambridge History of China, vol. 6, pp. 491–92.

    [7] Recorded in Rashīd al-Dīn Tabīb's (1247–1318) Jami al-Tawarikh, translated in Chinese as Shi ji (The Collection of History). See Yu Dajun and Zhou Jianqi (trans), Shi ji, vol. 1b, Shanghai: Shangwu, 1987, p. 362.

    [8] Yu and Zhou (trans), Shi ji, vol. 1b, p. 356.

    [9] Confucius, with running commentary by Miles Menander Dawson (ed.), The Ethics of Confucius: The Sayings of the Master and His Disciples Upon the Conduct of 'the Superior Man,' New York: Putnam, 1915, p. 140.

    [10] See Beverly Bossler, 'Faithful wives and heroic martyrs: state, society and discourse in the Song and Yuan,' in Chugoku no rekishi sekai: Tokyo no shisutemu to tagenteki hatten (中国の歴史世界、統合のシステムと多元的発展), ed. Chugoku no rekishi sekai (中国史学会), Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan University Press, 2002, pp. 507–56; Beverly Jo Bossler, 'Gender and empire: a view from Yuan China,' Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 34, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 197–233.

    [11] Wang Yuanliang, Zengding hushan leigao, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1984, p. 63.

    [12] See Shi Junbao, Li Ya Xian huajiu qujiang chi, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1995.

    [13] Shi, Li Ya Xian huajiu qujiang chi.

    [14] Gao Ming, Pipa ji (Story of the lute), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1980.

    [15] Ma Zhiyuan, Han gong qiu (Autumn in the Han palace), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2002.

    [16] Ma, Han gong qiu.

    [17] Liu Jung-en, Six Yuan Plays, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972, p. 219.

    [18] Kong Qi, Zhizheng zhiji, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987, p. 85.

    [19] For example, during the emerging nationalist discourse since late-nineteenth-century China, both the Mongol-Yuan and the Manchu-Qing dynasties have been condemned as aliens who brought disasters to the Chinese civilisation. Anti-Manchu propaganda around the 1911 Revolution accused the Qing government of being responsible for western imperialist powers separating China. Some anti-Manchu discourse juxtaposes the Manchus and the Mongols, because the Manchu's ancestor, Jurchens, allied with the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. According to some Qing texts, the Mongols even practiced droit du seigneur in China.

    [20] Ögedei or Ögedei Khan (ca. 1186–1241) was the third son of Genghis Khan. In Chinese history, he is known as Yuan Taizong. After his death, his wife Töregene (r. 1241–1246) ruled the Mongol Empire until the election of their son Güyük Khan in 1246.

    [21] See John. W. Dardess, Conquerors and Confucians: Aspects of Political Change in late Yuan China, New York: Columbia University Press, 1973, especially introductory chapter.

    [22] Recorded in 'Biographies of imperial ladies,' vol. 114, The History of Yuan.

    [23] Recorded in 'Biographies of imperial ladies,' vol. 114, The History of Yuan.

    [24] Yun Feng, 'Lun yuandai luguo gongzhu xianggelaji jiqi yu han wenhua zhi guanxi,' Zhongyang minzu daxue xuebao, no.1 (2006): 97–102.

    [25] Kong Qi, Zhizheng zhiji, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987, p. 395.

    [26] Wilt Idema and Beata Grant, The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 269.

    [27] Idema and Grant, The Red Brush, p. 269.

    [28] For a discussion on problems women had with circulating their writings, see Siao-chen Hu, Literary Tanci: A Woman's Tradition of Narrative in Verse, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997, pp. 39–49.

    [29] The text is available online through the McGill-Harvard-Yenching Library Ming-Qing Women's Writings Digitization Project. Translation mine.

    [30] McGill-Harvard-Yenching Library Ming-Qing Women's Writings Digitization Project.

    [31] See Bo Juyi and Xie Siwei, Bo Juyi shixuan, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2005, pp. 107–11.

    [32] McGill-Harvard-Yenching Library Ming-Qing Women's Writings Digitization Project.

    [33] Lu Wengui, Qiangdong leigao (Collections from the Eastern Wall), vol. 13, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987.

    [34] Li Cun, Boyang Zhonggong Li xiansheng wenji (Collections of Mr. Li Zhonggong from Boyang), vol. 25, Beijing: Shumu wenxian chubanshe, 1988.

    [35] Pu Daoyuan, Xianju conggao (Records of a casual life), vol. 25, Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, 2005.

    [36] See Tao, Chuo geng lu, vol. 10, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959.

    [37] See Tao, Chuo geng lu, vol. 10, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959.

    [38] Yu Duan, Yixue zhengzhuan (The proper medical tradition), vol. 7, Beijing: Renmin weisheng chubanshe, 1965, p. 45a.

    [39] Ziming Chen, Furen daquan liangfang (An encyclopedia for women and women's recipes), Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, vol. 18 (2005): 486–87.

    [40] In addition, these pro-professional women provided a source of daily news to married women who seldom left home. They established a connection between women confined in their chambers and the outside world.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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