Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 35, July 2014

Female Same-sex Desire and Women's Agency in Feng shuangfei

Wenjia Liu
  1. The late-Qing tanci, Feng shuangfei (A Pair of Male Phoenixes Flying Together, Preface 1899), authored by a female writer, Cheng Huiying, is about the political achievements and romantic lives of the talented and loyal Guo Lingyun and Zhang Yishao, who share the nickname of 'a pair of male phoenixes flying together.'[1] The tanci consists of fifty-two chapters and tells the story of how Guo Lingyun and Zhang Yishao, two reincarnated immortals, restore the proper Confucian order of families and the court in a fictional recreation of the Ming Dynasty. They establish their own families, defeat rebellions of the subordinate foreign countries on the border, eliminate corrupt and subversive eunuchs from the emperor's presence, and finally return to heaven. Although it is very common for female tanci writers to write romances, Feng shuangfei is different from other female-authored fiction for its depiction of a wide variety of sexual relationships and erotic fantasies, including male-male sexuality and female-female infatuations.
  2. In this paper I will closely examine the portrayal of female-female relationships in this tanci and I will argue that the unusually intimate female same-sex relationships foreshadow the self-awareness of the 'emerging lesbians' during the May Fourth Movement.[2] I also argue that in this female-authored tanci, the intimate relationships between women enhance their consciousness of their subjectivity and impel them to find and establish their own agency in late imperial patriarchal Chinese society within the boundaries of the literary realm. In this paper, I follow the definition of 'agency' to mean 'the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.'[3]
  3. Tanci is a genre of popular fiction which includes vernacular and rhymed prosimetrical narratives and is usually performed orally. During the mid-Ming (in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries) the literati started composing tanci and changed tanci into a literary genre of a higher register. Thereafter, tanci bifurcated into two lines: one remained as a performance genre of oral storytelling, and the other was adopted by the literati to become a written form of scholar tanci novels.[4] Literary women also began to write tanci during the Ming, which some recent scholars have termed tanci xiaoshuo (literally tanci fiction/novels).[5] Ellen Widmer explains that this term distinguishes these works from tanci in general, including oral performance and the ones written by men, in that 'their authorship, narrating voice, and intended readership were all female.'[6] However, in this paper, I choose to use the original term tanci which these female writers used to define their writings and, more importantly, to differentiate tanci from xiaoshuo, which is directly translated as 'novels,' in order to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding of the genre.
  4. One of the most important facts that makes Feng shuangfei noteworthy is that the text is credibly attributed to Cheng Huiying (style name: Chenchou, dates unknown), a gentry woman from Changzhou, Jiangsu Province. She is known to have written the poetry collection Beichuang yin'gao (Draft Chantings from the North Window) that is no longer extant. Little is known about Cheng Huiying. According to Xu Ke (1869–1928), a near contemporary, Cheng Huiying supported herself by teaching in a private school for girls.[7] Curiously, although sections of Feng shuangfei are sexually explicit, Cheng Huiying was considered respectable enough that her employers entrusted her with the education of their daughters, and no early commentators questioned this attribution to her. Since the tendency among literary scholars has been to assume that any narrative text that is well-written and makes historical references must have been written by a man, the universal acceptance of Cheng Huiying's authorship is striking.[8] Moreover, it is astonishing to see that a work of female-authored fiction which involves various forms of sexuality was allowed to be published and was well accepted among its audience.
  5. Among the variety of sexual relationships depicted in this tanci, the female author favours authentic and devoted female same-sex relationships, a rare topic in traditional literature. Very few male writers touched on the topic of female same-sex desire in Ming and Qing fiction. There are several short stories by Li Yu (1611–1680), such as 'Lianxiang ban,' and in Pu Songling's (1640–1715) Liaozhai zhiyi (Liaozhai's Tales of the Strange) that deal with female-female love, including the famous 'Feng Sanniang.'[9] In the scholar-beauty novel, Lin Lan Xiang (a.k.a. The Six Wives of Wastrel Geng, earliest extant edition dated 1838),[10] the anonymous author portrays two female servants who have sexual relationships. Because the stories that refer to female same-sex desires are so few and so marginalised within the corpus of fiction written by men, scholars have paid little attention to this topic.[11]
  6. In contrast, as scholars have pointed out and studied, male same-sex practices were in vogue among the literati during the Ming and Qing dynasties.[12] This vogue is supported by rich representations in textual materials, such as poetry, notation books (biji) and fiction.[13] Sophie Volpp argues that the interest in and acceptance of writings about male same-sex practices were because of scholars' interest in classifying lust and its strangeness (qi), but did not necessarily mean a rise in actual practice or a new tolerance of the practice. On the other hand, Matthew Sommer's studies, which document the legal prohibition of sexual intercourse between males beginning in the Ming dynasty, actually demonstrate that the phenomena of male same-sex practices had become increasingly popular and visible to the point that the Government had to establish new laws to discourage and constrain this kind of infertile non-Confucian behaviour.[14] While we cannot tell for sure how widely practiced and accepted it was, the promulgation of new laws and the increasing number of literary works referring to male same-sex practices did indicate the literati's attention to and interest in the actual practice among intellectual circles.
  7. Female homosociality is another theme that is of little interest to traditional male writers of fiction. While female poets during the Ming and Qing socialised through poetry and established communities of women poets, male fiction writers usually portrayed female homosociality along one of two poles, either as universal sisterhood, as with the hundred flower spirits in Jinghua yuan (Flowers in the Mirror)[15] and the wives in Yesou puyan (A Country Codger's Words of Exposure),[16] or as jealous competition, as in Jin Ping Mei and Xingshi yinyuan zhuan (The Story of a Marital Fate to Awaken the World).[17] Male writers rarely depicted romantic, intimate and exclusive relationships between women, preferring to depict the polar extremes of universal friendship or jealous power struggles.[18] Even in the Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber), the masterpiece which depicts various kinds of women and their relationships, there is no romantically intimate and exclusive relationship between two female characters.[19] Women's relationships and socialisation seem to always be imagined in extreme ways in male authors' novels.
  8. Among all the scholarly studies on female relationships in historical Chinese culture, Tze-lan Sang's book, The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China, is especially important in terms of understanding the female same-sex desires depicted in female-authored fiction.[20] As Sang points out, there was an absence of vocabulary to describe the passions and relationships in late imperial China and even in the Republican Era, the phrase tongxing zhi lian/ai (love between the members of the same gender), instead of tongxing lian (homosexuality) is more commonly used and not considered inappropriate to refer to romantically intimate and exclusive female relationships. Moreover, as the term lian'ai (romantic love, love affair, falling in love) was a completely new concept for Chinese youth and scholars during the Republic era, there was even a debate on its definition, especially on its differentiation from friendship with someone of the same gender. Sang also argues that the relationships between women who are now considered to have been involved in same-sex love during the late imperial China and Republican Eras in literature place more emphasis on spiritual and sensual love, rather than on physical eroticism.[21] Fran Martin also discovers the same trend of depicting spiritual love between school girls in the popular media from the Republican Era to the present.[22] Likewise, as we can expect, the same-sex love and desires between women in this tanci are also spiritual and sensual, instead of physical. Although one of the reasons is the lack of language, as Sang suggests, the other is probably that the more a female-authored work stays within a morally safe realm the better the chance of publication.[23]
  9. Although Sang has done important work in articulating a detailed history of female same-sex desires since the late imperial period, her focus is more on modern China. She does demonstrate and analyse some literary works from late imperial China, but most of them are by male writers. And as she concludes, these relationships are generally considered an interesting and beneficial part of utopian polygamy or unworldly occurrences.[24] This article expands on Sang's work by focusing on the expression and representation of female same-sex desire in females' literature in late imperial China. More importantly, this female-authored tanci provides an alternative view on female same-sex desire from a female's perspective in late Qing, and suggests alternative opportunities for female community structures and relationality in late imperial China.
  10. Cheng Huiying, a predecessor of Republican writers who advocated tongxing ai, depicts romantically exclusive female bonds, which are not alienated or embellished by men's imagination at a distance, from a female perspective. Exclusive female bonds is a theme common to many female-authored tanci as an important subplot.[25] Many female-authored tanci describe cross-dressing and polygamous family life, settings which give women the opportunity for intimacy in the texts. Both Zaisheng yuan (The Destiny of Rebirth)[26] and Bi sheng hua (Flowers Growing from Writing Brushes)[27] contain cross-dressing female protagonists who marry women and end up taking their 'wives' to their husbands' households as secondary wives. Their enduring bonds with their 'wives' entwine their desire for other beautiful women with an ideal solution to the potential problem of jealousy in polygamous families. These capable women take matters into their own hands and arrange marriages that will include both of them.
  11. Likewise, in Feng shuangfei, Cheng Huiying portrays uncompromising sensual love between two women, Zhang Feixiang and Murong Zhu, illustrating both the strong desires of the women to stay forever with each other and the efforts they make to realise their desires. Zhang Feixiang and Murong Zhu, the future first wife and concubine of the male protagonist Guo Lingyun, fall in love with each at their first sight and get married while Feixiang is passing as a man. They stay together as a couple for the next five years even though Feixiang's true gender identity is revealed on the wedding night. After Feixiang's official marriage with Lingyun, Murong Zhu refuses to be Lingyun's concubine and the two women make every effort to stay together forever. Although the story ends up with Zhu finally accepting a position as Lingyun's concubine, it still stresses Zhu's individual decisions based on her passions both for Feixiang and then later for Lingyun, as well as Feixiang's determination to keep Zhu company. Due to their unyielding desire for each other, the female characters in Feng shuangfei are, to some extent, actually able to claim and execute agency within the traditional Chinese patriarchal social order.

    Cross-dressing, fake marriage and beyond: the ambiguous boundary between female same-sex desires and homosociality
  12. As in earlier tanci written by women, narratives about female same-sex desire are interwoven with the theme of cross-dressing. Cross-dressing is not as important to the plot development of Feng shuangfei as it is in earlier tanci such as Yuchuan yuan (The Destiny Connected by Jade Hairpin),[28] Zaisheng yuan,[29] Jinyu yuan (The Destiny Connected by Golden Fish),[30] and Bi sheng hua, but it is still a notable feature of Feng shuangfei. It is essential to the subplot in which Zhang Feixiang and Murong Zhu consummate their fake marriage and develop their desire for each other.
  13. When fleeing from Zhang Cai who is attempting to abduct her, Feixiang, Guo Lingyun's fiancée and Zhang Yishao's sister, leaves the capital with her adopted sister He Danyan. The two dress as men in order to travel more safely. En route, they meet Murong Zhu, the daughter of a non-Han bandit who has established himself as king of an island off China's southern coast. Feixiang is so obsessed with the princess's beauty that she cannot help staring at her, although Danyan keeps reminding her that since Feixiang is a 'man' her behaviour is highly inappropriate. It is not uncommon in fiction for a woman to appreciate another woman's beauty. However, Feixiang's admiration for Murong Zhu goes beyond common appreciation. Evaluating Zhu's beauty, Feixiang's thoughts about Zhu are highly sexualised. Feixiang wonders what is going to happen if Zhu meets Zhang Cai, who is the embodiment of the lewd literati. Cai is a sexual predator who forces himself upon both men and women, and given that Feixiang was so recently the object of a very similar gaze from Zhang Cai, her fascination with Murong Zhu can in no way be interpreted as fully innocent. Furthermore, Feixiang also wonders whether Zhu is engaged and thinks to herself how lucky her husband will be. Since marriage was the only legitimate way for proper women to be sexually intimate in late-imperial China, the 'luck' to which Feixiang is referring implies her desire to sexually possess Zhu.
  14. Up until this point in the narrative, Feixiang has shown herself to be orthodox in her concern with her own sexual virtue and that of the household. However, gazing at Murong Zhu's beauty, Feixiang is so overwhelmed by it that she throws caution to the wind. Although she is only dressed as a man to insure her own safety, she quickly identifies with a male perspective. Feixiang's sexualisation of Murong Zhu may be a result of her adoption of a male stance: when passing as a man, she does not realise she is responsible for upholding the ideals of propriety that a man should maintain. Therefore, she is free to view this unknown woman and the institution of marriage from a romantic perspective rather than see them from a ritually-proper perspective. Indeed, Feixiang, fully conscious of her own cross-dressing, is so oblivious to the need to protect Murong Zhu's virtue that the two arrange to eat together while Zhu's father is absent.
  15. Zhu's father, Murong Tao, discovers them together and forces the two to marry in order to avoid a scandal. He then returns with them to his island kingdom. In a plot device that is common to other cross-dressing stories, Murong Zhu then falls in love with her fake husband. And Feixiang, despite being held captive in a forced marriage and unable to go back home or even contact her family to reassure them that she is alive and well, is oddly not anxious at all. In response to He Danyan's worrying before the marriage, Feixiang laughs, 'This is a wonderful romantic tale that can be passed down for thousands of years, not something that will dishonor me.'[31] It is astonishing that Feixiang, a well-educated gentry woman, does not even consider Murong Zhu's situation, since this marriage to a fake man would jeopardise her value on the marriage market in the future. Because a second marriage was considered dishonourable for women during the Ming and the Qing, it is very common in popular Qing fiction, written by both male and female writers, that a woman who marries a woman dressed as a man will end up marrying that woman's husband as a concubine. In this sense, Feixiang is depriving Zhu of her eligibility in the marriage market as a first wife. Nor does Feixiang think about the morality of her own actions: she is the one who is passing herself off as a man who has improperly seduced a noble woman and is herself betrothed to Guo Lingyun. It seems she does not feel that this marriage to another woman has any implications for either woman's chastity or social honour.
  16. At no point does Feixiang think to herself that a relationship with Zhu as friend or sworn sister, like she and Danyan, could be equally fulfilling and without any of the complications of marriage; she is intent on fulfilling her 'wonderful romantic tale' (fengliu jiahua), a 'scholar-beauty' fantasy of being coupled with a beauty. Feixiang is as enamoured of the beautiful girl as of the new-found agency that allows her to express legitimate sexual desire—something otherwise impossible for a proper woman. Since it was common in Qing fiction to apply the scholar-beauty formula to male same-sex romances within the scheme of the aesthetic of qing, such as in Pinhua baojian,[32] it raises the possibility that Cheng Huiying knowingly evoked female homoerotic desires in this tanci.[33] An example of this can be seen in Feixiang's regret that she is unable to have sex with her beautiful wife on their wedding night:

      [Feixiang thought to herself:] 'It would have been a sad injustice if she had married an ugly barbarian. It is regrettable that she had the bad fate to meet me and that we are both the same. How can I immediately change into a man's body so that I can enjoy this incomparable beauty? At least there is no reason to be ashamed in that we are well-matched in terms of talent and appearance, so she need not sigh over her misfortune.'[34]

    On the wedding night in their bedroom, the only legitimate sexualised space in the inner chambers, Feixiang's regret is that she is not a man who can take full corporeal pleasure (xiaoshou) in his new wife. Again, Feixiang, playing the role of a talented scholar, puts herself into the frame of scholar-beauty romances, which usually emphasise the pairing of men's talent and women's appearance (langcai nümao). Feixiang's regret and self-positioning reveal her strong desire for Zhu, another woman. Since the text does not shy away from describing sexual relations between men in other sections of the narrative, the references to Feixiang's unrealisable desire to have sexual relations with Zhu suggest the phallocentric nature of traditional Chinese understandings of sexuality and the absence of language that could be used to describe or realise female same-sex desires.[35]
  17. On their second night together, Feixiang reveals her real identity as a woman. Although Zhu is surprised, she does not show any anxiety or anger towards the fake husband as the reader would expect, but instead she orders her maids to be quiet and displays total understanding of Feixiang's disguise, 'Now that you are a woman pretending to be a man, there must be a reason for it.'[36] Moreover, she makes fun of Feixiang's staring at her, acknowledging their mutual attraction, and considers their meeting as yuan (karma), which is a Buddhist term often used in Ming and Qing fiction when portraying a destined romanticised heterosexual marriage. If she did not love Feixiang, Zhu would have felt that she had been deceived and been furious for being unable to marry again in the future. In this case, Zhu's love for Feixiang is motivated by Feixiang's talent and appearance, regardless or in spite of her gender.
  18. The blissful interlude of these two women's fake marriage as husband and wife, which lasts for five years, is emotionally and romantically fulfilling for both women. Enjoying their time together, both of them express their satisfaction with the arrangement. In a cliché of companionate marriage, Feixiang writes a ci lyric, a poetic form of Chinese traditional poetry, describing their happiness and the two women read and comment on the poem together. Towards the end of the lyrics, Zhu again regrets her inability to have sex with another woman as a way of describing the depth of their friendship. In response to Feixiang's passion for her, Zhu also shows her dedication to the relationship. She argues that sex does not matter to their relationship and that what is important is that they can grow old together. As an exotic foreign girl who is not nurtured and restrained by neo-Confucian propriety, Zhu's words probably touch upon the true nature of their relationship, a blending of qing and sexual tension.
  19. Their happy marriage comes to an abrupt end when Feixiang's fiancé, Guo Lingyun, leads an attack by Chinese forces on Three Immortal Island (Sanxian dao). The king is killed, Lingyun defeats the enemy army which is now led by the island princess, Murong Zhu, and he 'rescues' his fiancée Feixiang and returns her to China. Meanwhile, the defeated Zhu flees back to her camp. However, instead of regretting the loss of the battle, Zhu deplores the loss of Feixiang. Her longing for Feixiang reveals the extent to which she considers their relationship to be one of 'husband and wife.' Zhu directly expresses her attachment to Feixiang when Feixiang is taken away from her:

      [The princess] felt bitterness on account of Feixiang, 'We have been as intimate as if we were one body for many years. Yesterday, we were still laughing and talking together, but today we are suddenly separated and it is as if my shadow has left my body. By now she must be in Lin'gao County and has removed her men's clothes and is wearing skirts again. How did that nasty jailbird get so lucky? I really can't stand thinking about it.'

      The maids standing beside her said: 'After all, your husband is a woman. How could she really be counted as your spouse all along? She has been missing her own family. Today, she has escaped the bitterness of that jail, and we can expect she is enjoying real happiness now. There is no point in dredging up these memories, so why bother continuing your foolish infatuation (chiqing)?'

      The Princess shouted, 'This is the opinion of fools–that people who love each other (xiang'ai zhe) can only be husband and wife, and that two women therefore shouldn't love each other. It's for this reason that that bitch Wuhe lost her life on account of a man. I have seen through the ways of the world, and I don't think of men as a precious treasure. Instead, I made my life with a woman; I lived with her for five springs. Although she often missed her homeland, her love for me (ai wo zhi xin) was also true. Now that we have been unexpectedly separated, even if she leaves, takes a husband, changes her heart and gives me up, there is no possibility that I could give her up. If we can't meet again in this life, even if I kill Guo Lingyun, capture the territory of the Ming, kill the emperor and minister, and establish myself as empress over all, it still will not be enough to wipe out my sense of injustice.'[37]

  20. The attempt to desexualise their relationship fails again. The narrator, describing Murong Zhu's perspective, starts portraying Zhu's longing for Feixiang as sisters, using the term shouzu qin, a word that usually describes the intimacy between siblings, especially brothers. However, this depiction of pure friendship is immediately destabilised by Zhu's jealousy toward Lingyun. When Zhu thinks of Feixiang dressing as a woman, she cannot help cursing Lingyun. Moreover, she considers Lingyun as having zaohua, luck or fortune, because he may legitimately possess Feixiang. In comparison to her misfortune of losing Feixiang, she is definitely envious of Lingyun, a feeling which cannot be viewed as asexual due to Lingyun's special status as Feixiang's fiancé.
  21. Zhu's strong desire for another woman is further confirmed by her conversation with the maid. While the maid tries to persuade Zhu to give up her chiqing or foolish obsession, the word often used to describe the romantic love between men and women, because both of them are women, Zhu's statement of her understanding of love between her and Feixiang is astonishing. She overturns the common belief that only men and women are able to xiang'ai, love each other, and claims that she, unlike other women who consider men precious, only favours a woman. Again in spite of the borrowed eroticised language, this statement goes beyond the norms of expression of friendship or appreciation between women. Instead of using metaphors such as mandarin ducks and butterflies to describe close relationships, the narrator, through Zhu, draws direct parallels between a woman's love, xiangai or ai, for another woman and other women's love for men and claims there are no differences between the two. Considering the lack of language to describe a homosexual romantic relationship between women even as late as in the Republican Era, Zhu's unusual statement clearly gives us a clue that her relationship with Feixiang is definitely more than friendship.
  22. The narrator even goes further to clarify that Zhu does not fall for Feixiang because Feixiang passes as a pretty man. Zhu brings up Wuhe, one of her maids, as a counter example to support her argument that women do not necessarily have to love men. When Murong Zhu is fighting off the Chinese army, she does not let Feixiang return to the Chinese side. Because Guo Lingyun is worried that the army may hurt Feixiang, he is unwilling to attack them with full force. Therefore, he uses Bai Ruyu, the prettiest boy in the tanci, as his secret weapon. Lingyun thinks the reason Zhu does not let Feixiang leave is that, as a barbarian woman, she must be lascivious and unwilling to part with the most handsome and talented man she has ever seen. However, Zhu does not fall for the even prettier man. Bai Ruyu seduces Zhu's maid, Wuhe, to try to get access to Zhu. Once Zhu realises what has happened, she has Wuhe, the traitor who falls in love with an enemy man, executed.[38] This counter example again strongly suggests that Zhu loves Feixiang for who she is regardless of Feixiang's gender, instead of the utmost beauty or talent of a man as Lingyun assumes.
  23. The attachment between Feixiang and Zhu is not one-sided. For her part, although she has returned to China, Feixiang cannot forget her life with Murong Zhu. Her sworn-sister Danyan tries to encourage her to forget the past and focus on her present happiness, but Feixiang cannot let it go:

      Feixiang sighed and frowned, saying: 'Even I am unclear about my feelings.… The night before last, I happened to catch a cold and she personally prepared the medicine and repeatedly came to visit me. Yesterday at dawn when she was about to leave the room, she still turned around to cover me with clothes and quilts. Who could have foreseen that after she left she would not return, and we separated as easily as the shadow of waves and the traces of duckweed? We are now as distant as the states of Qin and Yue, and I do not think that we will be able to meet again in the future. When I remember the past when we were together talking happily, it is as if I have awoken from a dream. I can still see her smile, her voice and her face before me, and the bedding is still neatly arranged. But who knows where the beauty has gone? The rain has dispersed and the clouds have flown off (yusan yunfei) far into obscurity. Coming to this juncture, people are not wood or stone; how can I not feel pained when I see her things?' As she talked about her grief, Feixiang's tears fell like rain and soaked her clothes.[39]

  24. This passage makes it clear that Feixiang does not see theirs as a bond between sisters, but as a bond between husband and wife. Her memories of her final days with Zhu are as a husband gratefully receiving the subservient care a wife owes her husband: Zhu serves her medicine during her sickness, makes sure she is dressed warmly enough, and keeps their bedroom orderly. Moreover, Feixiang misses Zhu from an eroticised perspective that focuses on the face of her beloved and on the bed they shared: 'I can still see her smile, her voice and her face before me, and the bedding is still neatly arranged.' Feixiang then uses the suggestive image of 'clouds and rain' to refer to her lover's absence: 'The rain has dispersed and the clouds have flown off far into obscurity.' 'Clouds and rain' is a common euphemism for sexual intercourse.[40] Although the expression 'the rain has dispersed and the clouds have flown off' (yusan yunfei) refers to separation, its placement here, immediately after Feixiang's visualisation of the bed curtains, pillows and mat (fangwei zhenxi), recalls the willingness of the immortal on Mount Wu 'to serve at King Huai's pillow and mat' (yuan jian zhenxi). Even though there is no description of actual sexual contact between Feixiang and Zhu in the tanci, the sexualised nature of their desire for each other is consistently brought out.
  25. The obsession and attachment between Feixiang and Zhu are so recognisable that the characters in the tanci do not miss it either. After reading the poetry Feixiang wrote to express how she misses Zhu in Lingyun's camp, Lingyun comments, 'She is still bitterly missing the barbarian girl and totally forgets that she was a fake husband'.[41] He Shiwei, Danyan's father, and Bai Ruyu, the beautiful catamite, make fun of them, 'They are really a good couple.'[42] And He Danyan follows, 'My elder sister is truly very obsessed.'[43] Zhang Yishao, Feixiang's younger brother, later comments, 'Although my elder sister is smart, tolerant, polite and virtuous, her infatuation is worse than that of men. She loves Murong Zhu at the cost of her own life.'[44] It seems everyone in the tanci realises that the unusual relationship between Feixiang and Murong Zhu mimics that of husband and wife and is aware of Feixiang's abnormal infatuation for Zhu. However, no one seems to consider the relationship serious or dangerous. Since their relationship, no matter how intimate, does not involve physical sexual practice, it is not viewed as a threat to the patriarchal system and therefore is acceptable and even a source of fascination for the other characters. As Laura Wu also observes, within the patriarchal social background of the late Qing, 'A woman's love for another woman is not a serious matter, only an odd and perhaps slightly repulsive taste that a man could afford to laugh at and very well ignore.'[45] In this sense, the female writer, Cheng Huiying is still rather conservative when dealing with this romantic relationship by keeping it spiritual and not crossing the boundary into physical intimacy.

    Qing and women's agency: the desire to stay together forever
  26. Because of her readers' acceptance of her work thanks to its largely orthodox Confucian attitudes, Cheng has been able to manipulate and create a space of agency for these women in love. The desire of the two women to stay together forever in Feng shuangfei was nearly impossible to achieve in patriarchal imperial China, because women had no control over their lives and were socially organised through their relationships with men, namely their fathers, husbands and sons. These two characters therefore decide to marry the same man in order to ensure that they can stay together. This is not a new plot device in either male-authored literature or other tanci works.[46] In other texts, the theme is depicted as something easily achieved. In this tanci, however, the author portrays the goal of dual marriage as something the women can only achieve through great effort within the context of silent male acceptance of their unusual romantic relationship.
  27. It is significant that the narrative consistently uses the words ai (love) and qing (feelings, passion), similar to that of May Fourth writers, to describe the relationship between Feixiang and Murong Zhu.[47] Even though the terms do not necessarily imply a sexual relationship, the words qing and ai place their relationship firmly within the passionate values of the cult of qing and give their relationship a moral legitimacy within that context.[48] This legitimation of the strong and intimate connection between the two women establishes their relationship as the moral equivalent of the idealised male homosocial bonds between Lingyun and Yishao. This insistence on the legitimacy of their relationship is important because of the ritual mandate that women place their obligations to the patrilineal family ahead of any personal desires. From the ideology in their works, it is safe to assume that the talented and well-educated women who wrote tanci were trained within the so-called nüjiao (the curriculum for the education of women) tradition. In addition to some basic classics, such as the Lunyu (The Analects) and the Xiao jing (Classic of Filial Piety), other common texts include the Nü sishu (Four Books for Women).[49] Yet all these orthodox discourses for women never recognised the possibility of friendship or even romantic relationships for women, for women's lives were to be fully circumscribed within their obligations to the family and revolved around their men, including their fathers, husbands and sons. By paralleling this female bond to the idealised male friendship which is one of the five cardinal Confucian relationships, the author subtly grants the women more autonomy in their personal desires and lives than the late imperial standard.
  28. Moreover, although friendship was idealised within the cult of qing as more authentic than other relationships because it was an equal relationship, in actual practice friendship was also problematic for men since they too were expected to prioritise family and political obligations.[50] As Norman Kutcher points out in his article 'The Fifth Relationship: Dangerous Friendships in the Confucian Context,' the friendship between men was different from the other four of the 'five relationships' as it has nothing to do with family or state; it is voluntary and it is possibly and potentially an equal, instead of hierarchical, relationship. Therefore, Kutcher suggests that Confucian scholars were very wary of friendship and considered it dangerous in the Confucian context. [51] However, equality in relationships, homosocial or heterosexual, is exactly what scholars who advocated qing celebrated and equality is considered an essential part of qing. Current research on women writers is showing how important female friendship networks were to the development of women's writing during the Qing; however, these relationships were not defined or defended as the equivalent of marriage.[52] Yet Feixiang and Murong Zhu who are apparently in a relationship more intimate than friendship are unapologetic about their pursuit of personal (si, meaning without social sanction) commitment to each other.
  29. Before meeting Zhu, Feixiang is presented as a conventionally proper and talented girl. For example, when the Emperor requests a painting, she, as a gentry woman, does not want word of her talent to be spread outside, so she writes a poem as a compromise to the Emperor's request, subtly admonishing the inappropriateness of the Emperor and insisting on her right to protect her name. When other girls in her household, including Danyan and the maids, are playing on the swing in the spring, Feixiang is the only one who stays away from it. Playing on a swing in the spring is a typical plot device in male-authored fiction to incite a romantic affair, so her refusal to join them is another expression of her virtue.[53] And the only reason Feixiang agrees to cross dress is to escape from a plot to kidnap and rape her.
  30. The text shows how Feixiang and Zhu create autonomous agency for themselves through their shared passionate relationship after they meet. As we saw earlier, when she presents herself as a man, Feixing constructs agency for herself: first in her eroticised gaze and pursuit of a beautiful woman, and then in her role as the husband whose place is to be served. Early in the marriage, Murong Zhu, with full consciousness of being a woman, is thoroughly aware that the person she loves is another woman, yet she insists on her right to determine her own marriage. However, her willingness to marry a fake cross-dressing husband does not stem merely from love. As she explains to Feixiang:

      If we make it public now, two bad things will happen. First, even though my father is old, if he sees how beautiful you are, I am afraid he won't let you go; second, without a son-in-law, he will go back on his word and marry me to that barbarian and that would be terrible! Things being what they are, I beg you to consider our fortune and feelings in meeting and to deceive him and assume the name of husband and wife. If we can all avoid disaster and return to my island kingdom, I am willing to plan again to send you back [to China].[54]

  31. One of Murong Zhu's initial motivations for marrying Feixiang is to escape marriage to an ugly barbarian husband. She justifies their relationship not only in terms of qing, but also in terms of her desire to resist an unwanted arranged marriage even if it means deceiving her father and consigning herself to a sterile marriage. Her immediate decision to plan her own fake marriage indicates her desire to take control over her own marriage destiny.
  32. However, as soon as the two are married, Zhu frames their relationship only in terms of qing and her right to be master of her own emotions. When Feixiang later suggests that Zhu should also marry Guo Lingyun and move into his household so that the women can be together, Zhu refuses since Guo is not only her rival in marriage but her military enemy. Feixiang is very shocked and sad about Zhu's decision, but

      The Princess laughed, 'That is so silly (chi)! Since you are used to living with me, how can you be so unclear about my feelings? Just because we are women does not necessarily mean we need to be paired with a man! To be honest, even if you marry into a neighbouring house, I will consider only you as my husband. Although I won't marry Guo Lingyun, I will of course follow you into [your husband's household]; all it will take is for you to take control (zuozhu) and decide to let me stay and provide food. Both my parents are dead, so I can be master (zizhu) of my own life. Who can force me to remarry? I will be happy to be carefree and unrestrained and stay close to you forever. Not only do you not need to worry about being lonely, but no one will dare look down on us. Isn't this a great plan superior to yours?'[55]

    When they are discussing Zhu's marriage, qing is in the center of their conversation. Feixiang concludes their five-year relationship with the word qingshen (qing is deep). Consenting to Feixiang's definition of their relationship, Zhu points out the chi or silliness of Feixiang's behaviour, another central term in the cult of qing. Zhu again attacks the common conception that qing and marriage have to be between men and women and insists that her attachment is to Feixiang regardless of their gender.
  33. As Zhu twice emphasises, the intensity of their feelings for each other morally empowers them to take agency and assert control over the situation. She not only claims her own authority (zizhu) over her marriage due to the death of her parents, but also encourages Feixiang to take control (zuozhu) over their relationship. Zhu in Chinese usually means 'master, authority, main,' qualities with which women were hardly associated in neo-Confucian late imperial China. According to the Daxue (The Great Learning), men are the masters of all five relationships and are supposed to take control of these relationships by establishing a moral exemplar.[56] This conception is reinforced by the 'Three Followings,' according to which women are to give up their autonomy over their own lives in order to follow their fathers, husbands and sons. Against this cultural context, women who tried to take control of their own lives were viewed negatively. In contrast, the narrator in Feng shuangfei shows a compassionate and positive view of the decision made by the two women.
  34. The celebration of the women's acts of self-mastery (zuozhu and zizhu) is viewed mostly from Zhu's perspective. Zhu's status as non-Chinese makes it morally tenable for her to reject orthodox patriarchal family structures in a way that Feixiang may not. Her identity as non-Chinese further opens up a space to fantasise about female agency; it is harder to imagine readers viewing the scene sympathetically if it were about a Han Chinese woman making such a radical claim to her right to self-determination. Ultimately, close to the end of the tanci, Feixiang's conventional phallocentric view wins out and the two women become co-wives in Lingyun's polygamous household, but it is still noteworthy that Zhu's marriage to Lingyun results from her own decision after she has actually developed feelings for Lingyun.
  35. It is not coincidental that the idea of women's zizhu, or being the master of oneself, is central to these female authored tanci. Given the fact that most female-authored tanci were written during the Qing, especially mid and late Qing, it creates a natural connection to the feminist activities during the Republican Era which followed. Among all the rights May Fourth feminists promoted, one of the major issues was hunyin zizhu (free choice in marriage) for both men and women, which is exactly what the women fight for in these tanci. Although scholars agree that the wave of feminist activities during the May Fourth Movement was the result of the influence of western thought, these female-authored tanci produced in the Ming and the Qing actually suggest that the achievements of the feminists gained during the Republican Era had already been rooted in Chinese society, especially among women. From being the master of her marriage to being the master of herself, women became increasingly aware of their subjectivity and individuality and finally fought for themselves from the late imperial to the modern era.

  36. Feng shuangfei shows how a woman writer adapted the theme of same-sex love to reflect a woman's perspective on the sexual politics of traditional Chinese society. Cheng Huiying clearly accepted the gendering of Chinese society as a given. Although the boundary between female homosociality and female same-sex desires is ambiguous in this tanci, both are depicted in positive terms. Instead of being dangerous or disastrous, female homosociality is portrayed as completely acceptable and desirable. Female same-sex desire is portrayed as an example of authentic qing, a celebrated value among literati in late imperial China. The sensual love between the two women poses no threat to the orthodox Confucian moral order because it emphasises a spiritual bond between women while obscuring questions of physical intimacy. Moreover, as the female author perceives it, this spiritual bond between women enhances their desire to pursue their own autonomy within the context of late imperial patriarchal China. In this way, the fictional world of women in Feng shuangfei is depicted as supporting both the mainstream patriarchal order and marginalised female subjectivity. In this sense, Cheng Huiying takes a conservative stance, probably to ensure the publication of her work, despite the subtle advocacy of female agency.
  37. Yet, Feng shuangfei is liberal. The tanci illustrates that same-sex romantic relationships were as emotionally satisfying and desirable for women as for men. Even though the freedom of the female protagonists in this text to control their own destiny was possible only in fantasy, Murong Zhu's defense of same-sex love between women suggests the existence of homosexual desire that resisted the patriarchal family structure. Although the female lover-friends end up being incorporated into polygamous marriages, the focus of portraying these relationships is on the emotional bonds between the women, instead of those between husband and wife. Neither Feixiang nor Murong Zhu think of heterosexual marriage as necessary to complete themselves as social individuals; their shared love is enough to define themselves and their relationships.
  38. In Feng shuangfei, although marriage is still a restraint to women, it has also become something that women can make use of to pursue their own affective goals. Marriage is a device to help women achieve a sense of fulfillment that is not based on the heterosexual husband-wife relationship. In some sense, the female characters reach a higher level of autonomy because they realise that a traditional heterosexual marriage does not necessarily determine their happiness. In terms of self-consciousness, they are clear about their goals and desire for happiness. This is especially true for the first wife, Feixiang who could not control her own marriage.
  39. Therefore, the women's self-consciousness of love, freedom and autonomy in Feng shuangfei becomes a vivid precursor for the concept of 'free love' in the Republican Era. As Haiyan Lee suggests, 'The May Fourth generation proposed "love" (aiqing) as a symbol of freedom, autonomy, and equality.'[57] Feixiang and Zhu's awareness is apparently a prototype of these notions. In her comparison of early modernity of Europe and China, quoting James Hembree, Lee argues that romantic love and people's awareness of it serve as a 'shift from a cosmological to a psychological conceptualization of personal identity.'[58] In this sense, Feixiang and Zhu's love can be considered as a precursor of those modern love stories during the Republican Era. But more importantly, this tanci depicting their love should be considered as significant and revolutionary as those 'love and revolution' relationships in literature during May Fourth Movement in terms of the modernisation of China.


    Airen 愛人
    Bai Ruyu 白如玉
    Beichuang yin'gao 北窗吟稿
    Biji 笔记
    Changzhou 常州
    Cheng Huiying (Chenchou) 程蕙英(茞儔)
    chiqing 癡情
    Feng Sanniang 封三娘
    Feng shuangfei 鳳雙飛
    fengliu 風流
    guixiu 閨秀
    Guo Lingyun 郭淩雲
    gurou 骨肉
    He Danyan 何淡煙
    He Shiwei 何世威
    jiahua 佳話
    Lianxiang ban 憐香伴
    Murong Tao 慕容韜
    Murong Zhu 慕容珠
    Pu Songling 蒲松齡
    Sanxian dao 三仙島
    shouzu qin 手足親
    sixin 私心
    tanci 彈詞
    xiang'ai 相愛
    xiang'ai zhe 相愛者
    xiaoshou 消受
    Xu Ke 徐珂
    yunyu 雲雨
    Zhang Cai 張彩
    Zhang Feixiang 張飛香
    Zhang Yishao 張逸少
    zhencheng 真誠
    zizhu 自主
    zuozhu 作主


    [1] Cheng Huiying, Xinbian Feng shuangfei (A Pair of Male Phoenixes Flying Together: New Edition), Beijing: Renming wenxue chubanshe, 1996.

    [2] The term 'emerging lesbian' is used by Tze-lan Sang as the title of her book, The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    [3] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, s.v. agency, online:, accessed 23 April 2014.

    [4] See details of the history of tanci in Bao Zhenpei, Qingdai nü zuojia tanci xioshuo lungao (Discussions on Female Authored Tanci Fiction during the Qing), Tianjin: Tianjin shehui kexueyuan, 2002, pp. 66–73.

    [5] See Hu Siao-chen, Cainü cheye weimian: jindai zhongguo nüxing xushi wenxue d xingqi, (Burning the Midnight Oil: The Rise of Female Narrative in Early Modern China), Taibei: Maitian chuban, 2003; and Ellen Widmer, The Beauty and the Book: Women and Fiction in Nineteenth-Century China, Harvard East Asian Monographs, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006.

    [6] Widmer, The Beauty and the Book, p. 14.

    [7] Xu Ke, Qing bai leichao, Taipei: Taiwan shangwu yinshuju, vol. 8 (1966): 160–61.

    There are other records about Cheng Huiying, but they are very similar to Xu Ke's. Therefore, this is almost all the information about this female writer.

    [8] Hu Siao-chen has argued that scholars have been too quick to question attributions to female authors. See her 'The daughter's version of a national crisis: Tianyuhua and a woman writer's construction of the Late Ming,' in Dynastic Crisis and Cultural Innovation: From the Late Ming to the Late Qing and Beyond, ed. David Der-wei Wang and Shang Wei, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005, pp. 200–34, pp. 201–03. Descriptions of morning sickness, lengthy discussions of a daughter's reluctance to marry and leave her mother and other themes that typically do not get such extended treatment in male-authored xiaoshuo fiction are suggestive of a woman's authorship.

    [9] Li Yu, 'Lianxiang ban,' in Li Yu quanji (Anthology of Li Yu), Taibei: Chengwen chubanshe, Minguo 59 [1970], pp. 2807–3030; Pu Songling, 'Feng the third,' in Liaozhai zhiyi (Liaozhai's Tales of the Strange), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2005, pp. 198–201.

    [10] Suiyuan xiashi (ed.), 'Di'er qishu Lin Lan Xiang',' in Sijia micang xiaoshuo baibu (The Second Masterpiece: Lin Lan Xiang), ed. Jin Chengpu, and Qiming, vol. 53, Huhehaote: Neimenggu daxue chubanshe, Yuanfang chubanshe, 2001.

    [11] Ibid.; Keith McMahon, discusses the sexual relationships between women in Lin Lan Xiang in his Misers, Shrews, and Polygamists: Sexuality and Male-Female Relations in Eighteenth-Century Chinese Fiction, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 205–20; Laura Wu discusses the theme of female same-sex desire in Ming-Qing literature in 'Through the prism of male writing: representation of lesbian love in Ming-Qing literature,' in Nan Nü: Men, Women, and Gender in Early Imperial China, vol. 4, no .1 (2002): pp. 1–34). Sang Tze-lan devotes a chapter to the discussion of female same-sex desire in pre-modern China in The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China,Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003, pp. 37–95.

    [12] See Brett Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990; James Gough, 'Deviant marriage patterns,' in Normal and Abnormal Behavior in Chinese Culture, ed. Arthur Kleinman and Tsung-yi Lin, Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publisher Co., 1981, pp. 171–20; and Vivian Ng, 'Homosexuality and the state in Late Imperial China,' in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., New York: New American Library, 1989, pp. 76–89.

    [13] For example, the anonymous writer, Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng's Jin Ping Mei (Plum in the Golden Vase), Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe, 1994; Cao Xueqin's Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1988; the poems on Xu Ziyun by Chen Weisong and his literati friends, see Sophie Volpp, 'The literary circulation of actors in seventeenth-century China,' Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 61, no. 3 (2002): 949–84; Shen Defu's Bizhou zhai yutan (Casual Conversations of the Worn Brush Studio), online:, accessed 15 July 2014; Li Yu's Wusheng xi (Silent Opera), Beijing: Remin wenxue chubanshe, 1999; Ling Mengchu's Pai'an jingqi (Slapping the Table in Amazement), Hangzhou: Zhejiang renmin chubanshe, 2007; the anonymous writer, Zui Xihu xin yue zhuren's Bian er chai (Cap and Hairpins as Well), Zhonghe: Shuangdi guoji, 1996, etc.

    [14] Sophie Volpp, 'Classifying lust: the seventeenth-century vogue for male love,' Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 61, no. 1 (June 2001): 77–117; Matthew Sommer, 'The penetrated male in Late Imperial China: judicial constructions and social stigma,' Modern China, vol. 23, no. 2 (1997): 140–80.

    [15] Li Ruzhen, Jinghua yuan (Flowers in the Mirror), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2005.

    [16] Xia Jingqu, Yesou puyan (A Country Codger's Words of Exposure), ed. Wen Qiang, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004.

    [17] Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng, Gaohe tang piping diyi qishu Jin Ping Mei, Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe, 1994; Xizhou sheng, Xingshi yinyuan zhuan (The Story of a Marital Fate to Awaken the World), ed. Xiao Liao, Liu Xia, and Xiao Han, Hefei: Anhui wenyi chubanshe, 2004.

    [18] This is still true in popular culture, including novels, films, cartoons, etc., nowadays. There are quite a few scholars who have already studied women poets during this period and pointed out the existence of a community among women poets. See Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994; Widmer, The Beauty and the Book; Grace S. Fong, Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008, etc. [19] Cao Xueqin and Gao E., Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1988.

    [20] Tze-lan D. Sang, The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    [21] Sang, The Emerging Lesbian.

    [22] See Fran Martin, Backward Glances: Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.

    [23] Sang, The Emerging Lesbian.

    [24] See Sang, The Emerging Lesbian.

    [25] The theme of female bonds is common in most female-authored tanci, such as Tao Zhenhuai, Tian yu hua (Heavens Rain Flowers), ed. Zhao Jingshen, Henan: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1984; Chen Duansheng and Liang Desheng, Zaisheng yuan (The Destiny of Rebirth), edited by Zhao Jingshen, Henan: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1982; Qiu Xinru, Bi sheng hua (Flowers Growing from Writing Brushes), ed. Zhao Jingshen, Henan: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1984; Sun Deying, Jinyu yuan (The Destiny Connected by Golden Fish),Shanghai: Shanghai shuju, 1903 and others. It is especially true and unavoidable when the plot involves cross-dressing and fake marriages.

    This theme indicates that one of the concerns of female writers was relationships and communities. This was also true in reality. As scholars, including Dorothy Ko, Ellen Widmer and Susan Mann, suggest, gentry women created their own culture of literary creation. The guixiu , or talented gentlewomen, tradition expanded rapidly thanks to the literary production of the elite guixiu women. They, as a new literary circle, shared the same background of literary education and training. Moreover, scholars also reveal that these literary circles of talented women were formed based on their personal relationships with relatives, friends and shared mentors.

    [26] Chen Duansheng and Liang Desheng, Zaisheng yuan (The Destiny of Rebirth), ed. Zhao Jingshen. Henan: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1982.

    [27] Qiu Xinru, Bi sheng hua (Flowers Growing from Writing Brushes), ed. Zhao Jingshen. Henan: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1984.

    [28] Anonymous, Yuchuan yuan (Destiny Connected by Jade Hairpin), Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 1987.

    [29] Chen Duansheng and Liang Desheng, Zaisheng yuan (The Destiny of Rebirth).

    [30] Sun Deying, Jinyu yuan (The Destiny Connected by Golden Fish).

    [31] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 834.

    [32] Chen Sen, Pinhua baojian (A Precious Mirror for Ranking Flowers), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1990.

    [33] Qing is a notion that includes, but is not limited to, passions, emotions, sentiments and feelings, and also contains the idea of authenticity, aesthetics and so on; an interest in thinking about new roles for women, in marriage, society and the world of letters; connoisseurship (as opposed to academic success in the examination system) as a basis for social prestige.

    Analysing Mudan ting, Honglou meng and Xiaoqing, Judith Zetlin, Li Wai-yee, Maram Epstein and Ellen Widmer all argue that qing (emotions), rather than li (rituals), was appreciated and pursued by literati and there appeared the cult of qing during the Ming and the Qing. See Li Wai-yee, Enchantment and Disenchantment: Love and Illusion in Chinese Literature, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993; Maram Epstein, Competing Discourses: Orthodoxy, Authenticity and Engendered Meanings in Late Imperial Chinese Fiction, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001; Judith Zeitlin, 'Shared dreams: the story of the three wives commentary on the Peony Pavilion,' Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 54 (1994): 127–79; Ellen Widmer, 'Xiaoqing's literary legacy and the place of the woman writer in Late Imperial China,' in Late Imperial China, vol. 13, no. 1 (1992): 111–55.

    For discussions of male relationships in classical China, see Giovanni Vitiello, The Libertine's Friend: Homosexuality and Masculinity in Late Imperial China, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

    [34] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 840.

    [35] Cheng, Feng shuangfei , p. 824.

    [36] In fact, the narrator has already indicated this earlier in the text through Feixiang. When Feixiang stares at Zhu and Danyan warns her about her ritually inappropriate gaze, Feixiang absolves herself, acknowledging the linguistic and cultural erasure of lesbian sexuality as something that could not threaten the code of female chastity:

      If I were a real man, it would naturally be improper for me to look at her; or if she were a man, it would be even more inappropriate for me to stare at her; even if we were both men, people nowadays would also have something to talk about. Fortunately we are both women, so I can be bold enough to look at her. See Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 843.

    [37] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, pp. 1771–72.

    [38] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, pp. 1750–61.

    [39] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 1773.

    [40] The reference to a good dream and King Xiang is related to the famous yunyu (clouds and rains) euphemism for sex from Song Yu, 'Preface of the Rhapsody on Gaotang,' in Zhaoming wenxuan (Selection of Refined Literature), ed. Xiao Tong, et al., vol. 19, online:, my translation.

      In the past, King Xiang of Chu and Song Yu traveled on the Terrace of Yunmeng. They looked at the scenery of Gaotang. Above it, there were only clouds rising up steeply. The clouds changed their shapes suddenly and took on a limitless number of shapes. The King asked Yu, 'What is this qi?' Yu answered, 'These are the so-called dawn clouds.' The King asked, 'What are dawn clouds?' Yu answered, 'In the past, the previous King (King Huai of Chu) visited Gaotang and stayed there for two days. He dreamed of a woman who said, 'I am the Lady of Mount Wu and a guest of Gaotang. I heard that you will traverse Gaotang and I am willing to serve at your pillow and mat.' The King favored her [with sexual relations]. When she left, she said, “I am at the south side of the Mount Wu at the peak. In the morning I make clouds, in the evening I make rain. Day and night, I am under the terrace.' The King looked at the mountain and it was exactly as the Lady had described, so he built a temple called Dawn Clouds.

    'Clouds and rain' is used throughout Feng shuangfei to refer to Bai Ruyu's sexual relations with other men. See Cheng, Feng shuangfei, pp. 190, 274, and other places.

    [41] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 1774.

    [42] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 1774.

    [43] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 1774.

    [44] Cheng, Feng Shuangfei, p. 2033.

    [45] Laura H. Wu, 'Through the prism of male writing: Representation of Lesbian Love in Ming-Qing Literature,' in Nan Nü: Men, Women, and Gender in Early Imperial China, vol. 4, no. 1 (2002): 1–34, p. 27.

    [46] The same story also happens in the male-authored novel, Lin Lan Xiang. In most tanci works that involve a cross-dressing subplot, the cross-dressed protagonist and her 'wives,' who at the same time are her best friends, always marry the same man.

    [47] See Cheng, Feng shuangfei, for the following examples: when speaking to her brother Yishao about Zhu, Feixiang says, 'I won't wait for others to ask to speak about our feelings (qing). I am still not able to bear abandoning her because of the depth of the feelings from our sworn bond' (p. 1975). Feixiang also quotes Zhu, repeating, 'Although we are sisters, we say we love each other…' (p. 1975). Another of Lingyun's wives comments, 'The love between the first wife [Feixiang] and [Zhu] is truly deep' (p. 2234). He Danyan also remarks, 'Although you are a fake couple, your love for each other is real' (p. 1989). And there are further examples in the passages quoted in first part of this paper.

    [48] See Cheng, Feng shuangfei, for the following examples: Bai Ruyu is referred to as the 'lover' (airen) of the crown prince (p. 411); and of Zhang Jing (p. 419). Guo Lingyun also refers to his feelings of love (ai) for Ruyu (p. 411) and Yishao (pp. 409, 2224); the narrator explicitly comments that these two latter relationships are not sexual even though Lingyun insists that they sleep together. Lingyun spends his wedding night holding Yishao (p. 914).

    [49] The Nü sishu (Four Books for Women) is composed of Ban Zhao's班昭 (45–125) ; Nü jie (女诫, Admonitions for Women); Song Ruoshen's 宋若莘 (??–820); Nü lunyun (女论语, Analects for Women); Empress Xu's徐皇后 (1362–1407) ; Neixun (内训, Domestic Lessons); and Lady Liu's 刘氏 (late Ming); Nüfan jielu (女范捷录, Sketch of a Model for Women).

    [50] Scholars argue that qing emphasises equality between the two parties due to what the Japanese scholar Oki Yasushi calls the 'sincerity of the heart'. Quoted from Ko, Teachers of Inner Chambers, p. 81. For example, in her Teachers of Inner Chambers, Dorothy Ko argues that qing functions as an equaliser between genders. Other scholars, such as Ellen Widmer and Grace Fong, also share the same opinion.

    [51] See Norman Kutcher, 'The fifth relationship: dangerous friendships in the Confucian context,' The American Historical Review, vol. 105, no. 5 (December 2000): 1615–29.

    [52] See Widmer, The Beauty and the Book. In fact, as we can see from the common excuses made by the authorial persona in tanci for taking time away from household duties to devote to writing, elite women felt they needed to be defensive when their private interests took them away from family responsibilities. See Hu Siao-chen, Cainü cheye weimian.

    [53] Cheng Huiying uses a series of clichéd plot devices, including swinging in the spring, spying on a beautiful girl over a wall, passing poems between lovers, and flirting through music, to satirise the impropriety of seemingly romantic scholar-beauty stories. While a love affair actually happens after these erotic motifs, the characters involved are Zhang Cai and the maid Yuzheng, who are portrayed as evil and lascivious.

    [54] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 844.

    [55] Cheng, Feng shuangfei, p. 1990.

    [56] Daxue, or the Great Learning, was one of the 'Four Books' (sishu) in Confucianism. The Great Learning comes from a chapter in the Liji, or the Book of Rites, one of the 'Five Classics' in Confucianism. The 'Four Books’ and the 'Five Classics,’ put together by the famous scholar Zhu Xi during the Southern Song, were the introductory textbooks used to train students to be literate from the Southern Song to the end of the Qing.

    [57] Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900–1950, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007, p. 5

    [58] Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart, p. 36.


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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