Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

The Grievance Rhetoric of Chinese Women:
From Lamentation to Revolution

Anne E. McLaren
I carry my revenges in my throat.
George Eliot, Armgart (1870).

  1. The powerful vocality of women and its suppression by the patriarchy are common themes in both Western and Chinese literature, although they may well take different forms. In the West, female utterance, song, or oratory can be seen as a source of dangerous power, as with the seductive song of the Sirens. It can also be the target of literary satire, as in the ironic depiction of Chaucer's garrulous Wife of Bath. In China, the haranguing virago so frequently portrayed in novels stands juxtaposed to the virtuous, quietly submissive woman of morality texts. The nagging wife in a polygamous household was condemned for 'the female vice' of jealousy.[1] 'Talking too much' was one of the seven reasons a man could give for divorce.
  2. Nonetheless, in China as in many other societies, there were occasions when women were expected or even encouraged to be vocal. In many cultures, vocal performance is a highly gendered phenomenon and particular speech and performance genres come to be associated with different sexes. Typical female speech genres are perceived to be accusations, gossip, haggling and laments.[2] In societies with defined and accepted gender roles for speech and performance genres, one could hypothesize that mastery of the appropriate vocal role could give the performer a sort of 'cultural authority' or 'creative force', in the words of Dunn and Jones.[3] Leila Abu-Lughod outlines one such example in her study of the oral poetry of Bedouin women. She discovered that Bedouin songs violated the typical code of honour based on independence and sexual modesty, and allowed for the expression of passion and vulnerability. In spite of the seeming transgressive nature of the songs, they are tolerated in their specific context.[4]
  3. The study of women's performance genres and of gendered perceptions of vocality has scarcely begun in the case of China. In this initial study I will demonstrate the existence of grievance genres transmitted by Chinese peasant women in pre-modern China and explore possible continuities between these genres and 'revolutionary' grievance genres taught to Chinese women in twentieth century China. My first case study is an example of the literary suppression of the eloquent woman in a story of the sixteenth century. It will be argued that behind this literary man's parody of the loquacious bride lies a rich complex of bridal lamentations that can be discovered in the act of literary suppression. Second, I will outline the main features of bridal laments, a little-studied grievance genre of countless illiterate women in rural China for hundreds of years. My focus here will be on the bridal laments of the lower Yangtze delta in the twentieth century. Finally, I will consider the grievance genre called 'speaking bitterness', which emerged in the revolutionary period. In 'speaking bitterness' communist cadres coached peasant populations in the Marxist formulae of accusation and complaint in order to throw off class and patriarchal oppression. The revolutionary period brought significant transformations to the centuries-old grievance genres of Chinese women, but arguably drew strength from community acceptance of the lamenting woman who 'carried her revenges in her throat'.

    The Literary Suppression of the Eloquent Woman
  4. A sixteenth-century story entitled 'Kuai zui Li Cuilian ji' (The Record of the Loquacious Li Cuilian') is amongst the earliest examples of vernacular fiction in China. In this richly comic tale, the heroine, the loquacious Cuilian, not only talks far too much, she also talks entirely in verse, the type of rapid patter verse used in a form of storytelling known as 'rapid tempo' stories (kuaiban). An earlier antecedent for this tale has been discovered in the caves of Dunhuang and it belongs to the long history of stories of shrewish, talkative, quarrelsome and disorderly women in Chinese culture generally.
  5. Our story, translated into English by H.C.Chang as 'The Shrew' (1973), was included in a collection of similar stories by a man called Hong Bian. Hong was a minor official and man of letters from a distinguished family.[5] He has been hailed as an early example of a man of letters who takes an interest in 'popular literature'.[6] However, the 'popular' nature of the text has also been severely called into question, although this story, with its frequently vulgar language and strong verse component, may well derive from or be modeled on a storytelling genre. Hong Bian is known to have had an extensive (probably inherited) private library with its own catalogue of holdings;[7] perhaps this library included manuscript forms of these stories? It was common for manuscripts of the oral and dramatic arts to be in circulation amongst performers and aficionados. At any rate, a noted western scholar of Ming popular literature argues of this compilation:

      regardless of the possible popular origins of this type of literature in the past, what was happening at this particular point in time was not so much the acceptance into literary circles of formerly ignored popular literature, but mainly that such texts became available to the moneyed leisure class in print, texts which hitherto in manuscript form had been the privilege of a most select circle of the most leisured classes.[8]

  6. Little has been said of the possible oral derivations of this story because of a dearth of evidence. However, as I seek to demonstrate here, it is possible that Hong Bian (or the unknown author) is in fact parodying a woman's performance genre known as kujia (weeping on being married off). In particular, the verse segments spoken by the bride are typical in content if not in form of the complaints of the lamenting bride in kujia. The story as a whole, however, is narrated in the manner of other semi-vernacular short stories of the Ming period. One could speculate that this comic satire of the vocal and disorderly bride was written for the delectation of Hong Bian's peer group, educated men of letters.
  7. The heroine is introduced in the manner of other short stories of the Ming period. She is pretty, accomplished in the feminine arts of needlework and, more unusually, highly educated in the classics. She only has one defect- a propensity to talk too much. Arrangements are made to marry her to a man called 'Wolf'. On the eve of the marriage her anxious parents call her in to warn her explicitly to curb her tongue. Before they can even begin she utters a lengthy declamation in verse calling on them not to be grieved at her marriage. The parents scold her: 'We were grieving even because your tongue is as sharp as a blade...'. Loquacious Li responds by praising her own capabilities:

      She can spin, she can weave,
      She makes dresses, does patching and embroidery;
      Light chars and heavy duties she takes in her stride,
      Has ready the teas and meals in a trice;
      She can work the hand-mill and pound with the pestle;
      She endures hardship gladly, she is not easily tired,
      Thinks nothing of making dumplings and cookies...

    Finally ending with:

      Dear Dad and Ma, let your minds be at rest-
      Beside these set tasks, nought matters more than a fart.'[9]

    Both parents become even more alarmed. The mother persuades the father not to beat her. Loquacious Li promises to keep her mouth shut but proves to be incorrigible. When her parents retire to bed she calls on her brother and sister-in-law in very forthright terms to help her:

      Do not pretend to be drunk, sister-in-law and brother,-
      How distressing even to think of you two!
      I am your own dear little sister
      And shall be home just one more night.
      However could you two act in this way,
      Leaving all the chores to me...'[10]

  8. In the early morning she pours forth once again and her parents tell her to stop 'wagging your tongue'. She responds in a comic verse about doing her toilette:

      Dad, do not scold; Ma, do not scold;
      See how cleverly I adorn myself in my room.
      My raven black hair I flatten around each temple,
      Mix powder and rouge and rub them on my cheeks...[11]

      As she leaves she begins to weep:

      You are marrying me off today,
      But, oh! My Dad and Ma, how could I leave you?
      I bethink me of the favours of giving suck and rearing
      And teardrops wet through my scented silk handkerchief...'[12]

  9. At the time of departure she lists the preparations and the relatives who should be there for the send off, including verbal abuse for absent relatives:

      The dumplings are steamed, the noodles are cut,
      The viands and boxes of delicacies are laid out...
      It would matter little if Ma's sister and Uncle's wife stayed away,
      But how wicked of Dad's own sister!
      She sets no store by her words.
      She promised to be here by the fifth watch only yesterday;
      The cock has crowed, yet there is no trace of her.
      When, later, she enters our gate, I must just-
      Instead of a final invitation-
      Offer her a resounding slap with all five fingers outstretched.'[13]

  10. Subsequently she abuses her brother and sister-in-law. Her obeisance to her family's ancestors as she departs is pure comedy. She prays for prosperity and harmony for her husband's house in the usual Confucian terms ('May husband and wife both remain sound and whole/Without hardship, without calamity/ Even for a hundred years...') but ends up wishing them all dead:

      And, within a [the] space of three years,
      Let them die, the whole lot,
      And all the property be left in my hands...'[14]

    Figure 1. Modern day imitation of the traditional carrying of the bride in her decorated sedan chair. Photo by the author taken of a theme park in Wuxi, Yangtze delta, 1994.

    Figure 2. 'Rocking the Bridal Boat'. A folk performance genre based on the passage of the bride along the waterways to her new home. Nanhui County, lower Yangtze delta Nanhui xian wenhuazhi, 1993.

  11. When the groom's party, the master of ceremonies, and the matchmaker arrive, Loquacious Li grabs the money notes to pay the attendants and doles it out herself, in total violation of the usual protocols. The master of ceremonies chants the traditional verses as she is placed in the curtained sedan and departs. The woman matchmaker tells the bride on no account to open her mouth. Just before arrival at the groom's home, the matchmaker offers her the ritual final bowl of rice, saying, 'Little lady, open your mouth to receive this rice'. At this, the bride retorts in anger:

      Shameless old bitch! Shameless old bitch!
      One moment you tell me to shut my mouth,
      And the next you ask me to open it!
      Oh! the unfathomable glibness of match-makers!...
      Are you drunk already so early in the day
      That foolishly you open your mouth, lying and wagging your tongue?...
      Really you are but a painted old bitch.'[15]

  12. The master of ceremonies is horrified. 'There is no precedent for such behaviour in a bride.' Loquacious Li responds with another torrent of abuse of the matchmaker:

      This bawd of a matchmaker will be the death of me!
      She says the bridegroom's family is wealthy and high-ranking,
      Possessed of riches and precious things, much silver and gold;
      A calf or horse they would kill for their table...
      They have silks, gauzes, brocades in numberless rolls
      And pigs, goats, cattle and horses in droves.
      Yet even before I enter the house, they dish up this cold rice...[16]

  13. Needless to say, the bride carries on in this manner throughout the entire ceremony, which takes place at the groom's house. As before, the staging is deliberately comic. For example, the master of ceremonies tells her to stand in the main hall with her face to the west. He then announces that the stars of good luck are in the east today so therefore she should face east. Loquacious Li then makes this outburst:

      Just then it was west, and now I must face east.
      Will you drag the bride around as you would lead a beast?
      Having turned round and round, tending in no fixed direction,
      I am so vexed my heart is afire...[17]

  14. The parents-in-law are furious to learn that their son is to marry 'this ill-mannered, ill-bred, long-tongued wayward peasant girl'. Nonetheless the ceremony continues. The master of ceremonies scatters seeds symbolizing fertility on the nuptial bed chanting blessings as he does this. When he gets to a section on marital harmony and utters these words of caution to the bride: 'Do not then roar like the proverbial lioness,' Loquacious Li hits him with a rolling pin and berates him roundly for littering the room with his seeds. The groom exclaims: 'of the thousands of misfortunes, to have married this peasant woman!'
  15. After the festive party, the groom comes to sleep with his bride. She repulses him and threatens actual physical violence, 'I'll send you sprawling all over the room.' He retreats in terror. Later on she thinks better of this and invites him to her bed:

        Come over, I will share the bed with you.
        Draw near me and hear my command:
        Come to bed and ever so softly
        We'll pretend to be mandarin ducks or intertwining trees...
        When our conjugal rites are completed,
        you'll curl up next to my feet..
        If by chance you give even one kick,
        Then know it's death for you![18]

  16. She carries on in similar fashion the next day, as she undertakes her duties in the kitchen. On the third day after the marriage, Loquacious Li's mother comes to pay her respects and the mother-in-law complains bitterly about the bride. The latter for her part, complains about poor treatment at their hands. She also threatens to hang herself as a last resort. Subsequently, Loquacious Li quarrels with her husband's older brother and threatens to call on her own brother to attack him. The young groom, when called on to control his unruly bride, is unable to stop the torrent of verbal abuse, as she attacks one member of his family after another. Once again she threatens to kill herself and declares that her father will demand an elaborate funeral and engage in expensive litigation that will bankrupt the family. After much to do, the family repudiates her and a deed of divorce is written, even though she argues that as a good worker, she has not met any of the usual seven grounds for repudiation of a wife. (She fails to mention the vice of talkativeness, which was one of the grounds for divorce). Once home, with the agreement of her parents, she becomes a Buddhist nun, and goes off to live a 'free and easy life'. In the concluding verse, the narrator tells us:

      Each month she kept her fasts;
      Daily she offered up fresh flowers,
      A Bodhisatva she might not become:
      To be Buddha's least handmaid would still content her![19]

  17. The story has been interpreted in different ways, but everyone agrees that it is a minor comic masterpiece. H.C. Chang regards the tale as 'a representative of the earlier oral tradition dating back to the Tang' and notes what he sees as its 'monastic' origins.[20] Yenna Wu, in her study of the topos of the Chinese virago over the centuries, hails the 'triumphant' ending of the tale (that is, the heroine becomes a nun) and declares: 'In highlighting Cuilian's [Loquacious Li's] courage to go against social rules and uphold her freedom and right to an unfettered life, the story 'asserts a faith in human survival.'[21]
  18. Much of the comedy in 'Loquacious Li' comes from the heroine's flagrant violation of accepted protocols. H.C.Chang notes that she offends against the traditional ceremonies on two counts. First, she mentions death and misfortune on an occasion that is intended to be joyous; second, she is extremely talkative at a time when what is expected of the bride is 'complete passivity and silence.'[22] He interprets this as her Buddhist-like 'contempt for the world with its conventions,' but I would prefer to interpret these seeming 'violations' as belonging to the conventions of the lamenting bride. In other words, what appears to be a 'violation' in elite practice of the Confucian proprieties is in fact commonplace and accepted when it occurs in the lamentation culture of Chinese peasant women.
  19. Not much is known of bridal lamentations, and most work has been published after the 1973 study of Chang. Studies in the West include Eugene Anderson (1973), Fred Blake (1978) & Rubie Watson (1996). Women's funeral laments have been investigated by Elizabeth Johnson (1988).These studies deal mainly with the Hong Kong New Territories because Mainland China has been largely inaccessible to western anthropologists until recent years. My own work is one of the very few dealing with the bridal laments of Mainland China. I have carried out fieldwork in the lower Yangtze delta, in a county called Nanhui, just south of Shanghai.[23] I believe that aspects of bridal laments have been (probably unconsciously) included in the Ming story, 'Loquacious Li', which I regard as a literary man's parody of a familiar oral complex that includes bridal laments as well as other elements from the performing arts. Performance acts that appear anomalous, or 'violations' of Confucian protocol are entirely acceptable in the culture of peasant women. Through bridal laments, Chinese women have a form of 'cultural authority' to speak out in a ritual way at the time of their marriage. As for the supposed 'complete passivity and silence' of the bride, a firm requirement in the decorous marriages of the elite, this goes entirely against the raison d'tre of bridal laments (kujia), which were a three day performance by the bride in front of her family and the neighbouring community.

    The Grievances of the Lamenting Bride
  20. Marriage marked the permanent departure of the bride from her natal home to live with her husband and his parents and brothers. On marriage she was given a dowry, usually consisting of household goods, which was to be her only form of inheritance from her natal family. Marriage was a time of dramatic rupture in the life of a woman. Beginning two or three days before her departure, the bride would chant and sob while addressing each member of her family in turn. The lament would typically begin with the mother's words of counsel to her daughter, bidding her to accept the codes of decorum and household rules of her new home, to work hard and seek to win the affections of her new family. To this the new bride would respond tearfully, confiding her own doubt about her abilities, her feelings of inferiority with regard to her status, and her complex feelings of gratitude to her parents for raising her, mixed with condemnation for now forcing her to leave. After the lengthy dialogue between mother and daughter, which takes the form of a 'verbal duel' about the exact nature of the bride's grievance, the bride would then address each member of her extended family in turn as well as adopted mothers and others taking part, including the matchmaker. This would take place in the home and courtyard of the bride and would be watched by her family and others in the village, especially young girls learning the art of lamentation. The lament itself was a musically simple chant in unrhymed lines of uneven length. My work has been done on printed transcriptions done from tapes of one elderly practitioner who was asked to recall the laments she learned as a girl.[24] As a living oral genre, bridal laments have all but died out in China today, although women over the age of about sixty can often recall a few fragments. As far as I can tell, it is a genre performed by illiterate peasant women with a likely history in China of at least a thousand years. It is apparently not performed by literate urban women. The epithet of 'peasant', hurled at Loquacious Li, one that she angrily rejects, is significant with regard to the known provenance of bridal laments.

    1. Figure 3. Only elderly women can now recall the once flourishing performance genre of bridal laments. This woman lamenter was interviewed by the author in Shuyuan, Nanhui, 1997. She is sitting next to her husband.
        Rhetorically speaking, the bride does a good many things in her lament. She talks continuously of her work, spinning, weaving, cooking and cleaning. She expresses her sorrow on leaving her parents' home and can make the odd snide remark about family members. With anxiety, she lists the (meager) items of her trousseau and the supposed wealth of the groom's family. At times she will extend blessings and at other times utter curses. One can see echoes of all of these rhetorical modes in the verse utterances of Loquacious Li.

  21. The lamenting bride will curse the matchmaker, just like Loquacious Li in the Ming story. The comment by the master of ceremonies in the story of Loquacious Li that such cursing is 'unprecedented' is only true for the 'fine ladies' from the boudoirs of the affluent. Peasant women swore like troopers. I include an excerpt from a bridal lament directed at the matchmaker. Matchmakers were often seen as greedy, deceitful manipulators in popular discourse. Here the bride uses metaphorical language to describe the matchmaker as driven by animal lusts but destined to be infertile. She is ordered to put on a red wedding dress and ride on an upturned bench as in intercourse. The hat without a penis (a floppy cavernous hat) and limp shoe cover (unfilled, as opposed to the cover attached to the shoe) symbolize her female sexuality but lack of female procreative power.

      Thanking the Matchmaker
      You confused the Eight Characters and matched us all wrong,
      You became a matchmaker because you can have no children,
      You made this worthless match- what kind of matchmaker are you!...
      Turn the bench upside down and sit on it,
      Matchmaker, sit astride it like a horse,
      Place a hat without a penis on your bitch head,
      Place a limp shoe-cover and floppy hat on your bitch head,
      Place a red wedding gown on your bitch head.
      Only those with no descendants can be matchmakers,
      It is my destiny to set a curse on you....
      Die, matchmaker, together with all your family!

  22. According to H.C.Chang, Loquacious Li's curses and references to her own death are unacceptable violations of the decorum of marriage. However, death appears as a common metaphor in bridal laments where they are used to describe the lamenter's transition from child to woman and daughter to bride. Even female infanticide is referred to in bridal laments. In a direct address to the father, the Nanhui bride declares he should have killed her at birth rather than send her away on marriage:

      But today [as I stand] on the plank [by my bed] you treat me differently
      from the boys, how unjust!
      Dear father,
      You should simply have put me to death when I was born,
      You should just have struck me repeatedly with your shovel and iron spade,
      and put an end to me,
      But now you have raised me for over twenty years, you send me forth to be a

  23. There are many other parallels. The mother of both Loquacious Li and the lamenting bride worry that the daughter is being married off to a larger more affluent family whose members will probably consider the new bride does not measure up to their high standards and does not understand their family protocols (jiafa). As we have seen, Loquacious Li betrays laughable ignorance of the marriage customs and of the expectations of her in-laws. Another point of similarity is the role of the bride's older brother. When Loquacious Li declares that if she is mistreated she will call on her brother to come to her aid, this is reminiscent of the lamenting bride, who entreats her brother in a direct address to help her if she is beaten and abused by the in-laws. Even the bowl of rice appears in the lamenting bride complex, just as it does in the sixteenth century story, 'Loquacious Li'. As the bride leaves her natal home she is given a bowl of rice, signifying the rice put in the mouth of the dying. In a moving segment where the bride blesses all her family, she ritually refuses to eat the rice that signifies her transition to another life. Instead she bestows the rice on all her family members, where it will be magically efficacious and bring them long life, vigour and prosperity.
  24. As well as parallels, there are also disjunctures between Loquacious Li and the typical lamenting bride. The peasant lamenter will never sing her own praises or laud her abilities, on the contrary she will continually bemoan her inadequacies. Even the mother will decry her daughter's short stunted figure, her big feet, and lack of knowledge of the feminine arts. This appears to be part of the 'grievance' of the lamenting bride in that she is certain to be looked down upon because of her lack of ability. It is also important to note that the lamenting bride must stop lamenting when her sedan chair or bridal boat is brought within sight of the groom's home. This is because the ritual motive that lies behind kujia is to 'weep away the noxious vapours' of misfortune. If one weeps within sight of or on arrival at the groom's home this will be highly inauspicious. It follows that the lamenting bride would not imitate the disrespectful behaviour of Loquacious Li in the home of the groom. In tone too, the bridal lament and 'Loquacious Li' are often quite dissonant. The bridal lament is a lengthy and impassioned 'statement' of sorrow, anger and grievance, not without a few comic moments. 'Loquacious Li', on the other hand, is essentially a hilarious parody of a female stereotype, the loud-mouthed woman, with the odd sober touch, such as the threat to hang herself. What links the two is the seeming licence the bride possesses to perform eloquently in the semi-public forum of her wedding ceremony. She can speak her mind freely, express sorrow, regret, anger and even condemnation, rights unknown to her in any other context. Her family, apparently, are obligated to listen.
  25. If one accepts that bridal lamentation customs might well have influenced the shaping of the story material of 'Loquacious Li', what does this say of the text compiled and possibly revised by Hong Bian, man of letters in the mid sixteenth century? Hong Bian would have been aware of the long-standing ambivalence about the dangerous vocality of women. Loquacious Li's vocal power clearly has an emasculating effect on her husband, who when challenged to control her, manifestly fails to do so. But the husband's brother, the parents-in-law, indeed everyone she comes into contact with, all fail to bring a halt to the endless torrent of words. The real problem is that she is more articulate, more eloquent, and more intelligent, than everyone around her. She is in fact simply unbeatable. It is not just the endless flow of words but also the strength of her 'argument'. When challenged on her lack of virtue, she can give abundant evidence of her feminine 'virtues'; for every criticism she has an answer. She is indeed like the male masters of rhetoric she lists in the story as her favourite role models. One could also add that she reveals the same powers of eloquence as the illiterate peasant bride who engages in a rhetorical duel with her mother and addresses her father, relatives and the matchmaker on the eve of her marriage.
  26. In conclusion, Hong Bian, or the unknown author who wrote the original story, was not so much satirising a woman who was extraordinarily loquacious and disorderly as parodying the oral complex which lies behind the figure of the lamenting peasant bride. In this comic parody he was not entirely successful in satirising his target. The sheer eloquence of his aggrieved heroine, relying as she does on what one could call 'the lamentation oral complex', by which I mean a well-honed repertoire, a social 'licence' for the woman to perform, and a captive audience obligated to listen, seems to overpower the parodic attack of the author and editor who reshaped this story into the medium of print. The narrator does not intrude a moral into this story and, as Yenna Wu, points out, the heroine is 'triumphant' in the end. If Loquacious Li had chosen to hang herself she would still have 'won', as she explained so convincingly to the groom's family. By entering a convent she has also 'won', in the sense that she can live in a 'free and easy' fashion and aspire to be a minor Buddha (xiao fo). As in the case of the lamenting bride, who harangues her parents and every member of her household, all the male author can do is listen and reluctantly, admire.

    Female Vocality and the Communist Revolution
  27. In imperial times, Chinese women peasants had well-established grievance genres. Besides laments like those discussed above, there were semi-autobiographical verse narratives performed for an audience of women, such as those composed in Women's Script in Jiangyong county, Hunan.[25] It is characteristic of these genres that a specifically female grievance is encoded in formulaic, versified language and transmitted orally through generations of women. These genres were tolerated within their specific communities and were well known to the point where they could be satirised by a literary man in the sixteenth century.
  28. In the twentieth century, peasant women were called upon by communist cadres to master the grievance rhetoric of revolution in a form of speech genre that came to be known as 'speaking bitterness' [suku]. William Hinton, a left-wing sympathiser who lived at Long Bow Village in northwest China during 1948 (on the eve of the Communist Revolution) has given us a vivid portrayal of how women were called upon to articulate their grievance in public for the purpose of effecting revolution in their village. The story of Hsien-e, a young woman forced into a marriage with an abusive husband and fending off the advances of her father-in-law, is narrated in a chapter entitled 'A Young Bride Leads the Way'.[26] Hinton tells us immediately that the stakes for Hsien-e are very high. If she makes her accusation and is not granted a divorce (at this time it was totally unprecedented for a woman to gain a divorce) then she will have to return to her husband. As Hsien-e explains dramatically in her speech, she will choose to die rather than return. The purpose of her speech at this time is to win support for the divorce from her peers, the women in her village community and members of the Women of the Peasants' Association. Her life will depend upon it.
  29. Hinton chooses to frame his story in such a way as to accentuate Hsien-e's femininity: 'slight of build, breathtakingly beautiful, she wore a new tunic of bright-coloured cloth. It fitted very tightly at the shoulders and then belled out toward the waist but not so abruptly as to obscure the firm figure underneath... [her] lovely face, radiant as a snow apple in high bloom....'[27] The leader of the Women's Association and Hsien-e's 'instructor', on the other hand, is incorrigibly masculine: 'The bobbed hair that hung straight down on both sides of her face accentuated the masculinity of her features. The long nose, the square jaw, the jutting chin were all set in an expression of the utmost seriousness....'[28]
  30. Hsien-e begins her plaint in front of the village women. She recites her story of famine in her childhood, of being betrothed in return for grain and money for her family, and of being sent to her prospective husband's family at the age of ten because her own family could not feed her. Here she is treated like a slave ('They ate millet while I drank water. They beat me often.') She returns home again but the groom demands marriage at the early age of fourteen and threatens her family that they will be accused of being spies for Chiang Kai-shek if they do not comply. Once married, she is not allowed out of the house and is thus unable to attend Association meetings. On one occasion she was almost beaten to death. Her uncle came many times to call her home to attend her sick mother, but the husband's family refused.
  31. Much of this complaint is congruent with the general content of bridal laments. The lamenting bride will talk of the hardships and poverty of her family, of how she is being 'sold off' in marriage like a commodity, and of her fears of abuse at the hands of the in-laws. She further declares she will be 'imprisoned' and beaten in the groom's home, and she calls on her male relatives to visit her and watch out for her safety. It is interesting that Hsien-e leaves out of her narrative the rapes she has endured at the hands of her father-in-law, perhaps because the grievance genres she is possibly familiar with (such as women's complaints and laments) do not give her the formulae or the confidence to confess humiliations of this kind. Also, it is apparent that the notion of simply refusing to marry the man is not considered a viable option. The most she can ask for is that he wait until she is sixteen. This too is in keeping with the general tenor of bridal laments. The lamenting bride will bewail her being sent away so young and express her anxieties about marriage but she will never reject the proposed marriage (at least in the rhetoric of kujia). Finally, Hsien-e declares that if she is not allowed a divorce then she will commit suicide. As pointed out in the story about Loquacious Li and evident in the bridal laments of Nanhui, death is a common metaphor in female grievance genres and threats of suicide not uncommon. The lamenting bride will liken her departure to a form of death.
  32. One could conclude that the content of Hsien-e's complaint, apart from her demand for a divorce, is not particularly 'revolutionary'. On the other hand, the timing, location and context of her speech (long after her marriage, in the old Catholic mission, under the guidance of the communist party) make the act a 'revolutionary' one. Once married and sent off to the groom's home, the bride must stop lamenting. It was considered inauspicious to lament at the home of the groom and completely inappropriate to criticise the in-laws. Once married, the woman could bewail her lot, along the lines of the sorts of complaints found in Women's Script material in Jiangyong county, but it was not possible to demand a divorce. The general tenor of both laments and Women's Script material is to stoically accept the 'ill fate' of womanhood. In the case of Hsien-e, it is the appeal for not just sympathy from her female peers but for action that is 'revolutionary' in nature.
  33. Hsien-e clearly gives a good performance. Hinton is deeply impressed by the poise and assurance with which she makes her threat of suicide:

      She said this firmly, coldly, as one would announce a business decision. Yet there was not the slightest doubt that she meant it. Her poise before the group, her self-assurance, struck me as extraordinary. She was only 17, but she spoke and acted like a mature woman twice her age- no smiles, no coquetry, no hesitation, not even any visible emotion.[29]

    He concludes that the harsh treatment she has suffered has 'burned such hatred into Hsien-e's heart that she no longer cared what happened.... One look at her clear black eyes was enough to suggest that when the battle was truly joined she would give no quarter.'[30]
  34. How was it that a seventeen-year old illiterate woman had the assurance and the rhetoric at her disposal to effect a grievance statement with such aplomb? Hinton assumes that Hsien-e is exceptional in her poise, oratory and the strength of her grievance. In fact, he portrays her in the fashion of the beautiful and talented revolutionary women in communist drama of the Liberated Areas of the 1940s, plays he had attended staged at nighttime in the fields at Long Bow.[31] In these plays, women featured as both revolutionaries and victims. In one such play, 'Red Leaf River' about a poor family victimized by a landlord and his family, he describes how the female audience merges with the actors: 'As the tragedy of this poor peasant's family unfolded, the women around me wept openly and unashamedly ... a single kerosene lamp cast a pale yellow glow on actors and scenery alike.... And, in the very center, a young girl, her song more a wail, more a sob than a song, spread her arms wide in despair and asked "Why? Why? Why?"'[32]
  35. Whereas Hinton implicitly places Hsien-e in the tradition of the 'revolutionary' woman, one can also place her in the much longer tradition of the aggrieved, lamenting woman. It is believed that bridal laments were prevalent in many rural areas in pre-modern times.[33] A sense of grievance dominated other women's performance genres such as songs performed at festivals, life stories and correspondence between sworn sisters written in Women's Script. Women's traditional grievance genres were formulaic in nature, often encoded in verse and learned, from senior women, during the later stages of childhood. These genres provided a ready-made, highly charged repertoire of grievances - a repertoire understood and accepted by their receiving communities.
  36. The traditional genres of women's grievance were transformed in the revolutionary period. The case of Hsien-e suggests that it was the translocation of a familiar grievance genre into an entirely different setting that had a 'revolutionary' effect. It is generally assumed that in 'speaking bitterness', women learned a new speaking position as victims of class oppression rather than as victims of their biological destiny.[34] At any rate, Hsien-e ultimately won her divorce, something she could never have done with the grievance genres of the past, which allowed for protest at being sent off on marriage but not for divorce after the marriage. Even if the content of the two forms of rhetoric (lamentation and speaking bitterness) are not so different, the illocutionary force (that is, what is performed by the act) is significantly at odds.
  37. Examples of 'speaking bitterness' based on eyewitness reports at village level in China are extremely hard to obtain. Hinton's depiction is a rare and valuable example. However, sung dramas composed by cadres for performance in 'liberated' areas (communist occupied China) on the eve of the communist takeover in 1949 offer insight into the literary construction of women who learned how to 'speak bitterness' in order to make revolution. The most famous example is the folk opera, The White Haired Girl [Baimao n], which was first performed in 1945.[35] It is based on a folk story that circulated in western China in the 1930s and 1940s. The peasant heroine of this opera, Xi'er, is sold by her impoverished father to a rapacious landlord to whom he owes rent. The landlord rapes and then abandons her when she falls pregnant. Forced to leave his home, Xi'er resorts to living in a cave where she gives birth to her child. After months of living in a cave her skin and hair turn entirely white from poor diet and lack of sunlight. Villagers spot her roaming around at night as she goes to steal sacrificial food from the local temple. The superstitious villagers believe the white apparition must be a ghost and offer her regular sacrifices of food in the temple.[36] After the area is 'liberated', communist cadres move into the area and come to hear of the cult of sacrifice to 'the White Haired Immortal'. Determined to capture her and put an end to the superstition, they seize her one night as she appears in the temple. They call out to her 'Are you a person or ghost?' She explains her sad story and they encourage her to seek revenge. The climax of this much-performed work depicts the now empowered Xi'er denouncing the landlord, who kneels in front of her. She is told, 'now is the time to speak out' and then delivers her accusation with assistance from village women and the chorus:

      I'll speak, I'll speak, I will speak,
      I want revenge, I have been wronged,
      Of my grievance, I could speak forever,
      Like a tall mountain that cannot be chopped down,
      Or an ocean of water that can never be ladled dry....[37]

  38. She then details the abuse she has suffered at the hands of the villainous landlord including the events that led to her pregnancy. Xi'er, unlike Hsien-e, the girl observed by William Hinton, learnt not just how to complain about her lot in formulaic language, but also how to openly denounce her oppressors and demand revenge. In these literary constructions, the content of the female complaint expanded to include rape, a very sensitive issue because it involved a great loss of face for the victim. The sensitivity of rape in public recountals of women's grievances is clear in Ding Ling's story, 'When I was in Xia Village', which deals with a young woman raped by the Japanese and then made to serve them as a prostitute. She takes advantage of this situation to gather intelligence on enemy movements. Infected with venereal disease, she flees to the communist capital of Yenan, where she meets with an ambivalent response as both whore and war hero.[38] In another story by Ding Ling, an old woman who has witnessed killings and rapes by the Japanese is encouraged to speak out passionately and incite villagers to seek revenge. Her recital includes a gruesome account of how her thirteen-year old granddaughter is gang raped and left for dead by Japanese soldiers. The family reaction is one of horror, 'We've got a maniac in the family!'[39] This is an example of a woman, in this case, an elderly one, expanding the traditional repertoire to include the public exposure of the rape of a family member.
  39. Other popular operas featured the woman who had been empowered to speak. Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the model operas of the Cultural Revolutionary period, focuses on Chang Bao, a victim of the local landlord/bully who is adopted by a hunter. She disguises herself by dressing up as a boy and pretending to be mute. When the communist liberators come to her village, she declares, 'I long only to be able to speak out in front of everyone/ I long only to be able to return to women's garb....[40] It is the People's Liberation Army that gives her the chance to return to womanhood and to speak out. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the play she begs to be allowed to take an active part in the attack on the bandit/landlord stronghold. In this later opera, the language of 'speaking bitterness' is swamped by the rhetoric of revolutionary revenge:

      Quickly get the Chief of Staff,
      Tell him what lies deep in my heart,
      I resolve to go to the battlefield,
      I swear, those diehard bandits, I'll wipe them out.[41]

    1. Figure 4. In the model opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, peasant woman Chang Bao angrily denounces her abuser and demands to be allowed to enact violent revenge.
      The aggrieved woman as violent enactor of retribution was not found in earlier opera such as The White Haired Girl. What has not changed, however, in the observations by William Hinton of actual denunciations, in the propaganda opera of pre-socialist China, and in the later model opera of the Cultural Revolution, is the centrality of the woman protagonist, one who is taught by the communist party to speak out in order to conduct revolution.

  40. In this study I have suggested that behind 'speaking bitterness' lies a long tradition of female grievance genres. I have speculated that familiarity with these grievance genres enabled poor, illiterate women to quickly grasp the new rhetoric of revolutionary revenge. In Nanhui, I met elderly women who had been trained in both kujia (laments) and suku (speaking bitterness). It was an illuminating experience to hear these women begin their interview along the lines of suku ('Before Liberation we were exploited...') and continue at a later stage in the formulae of kujia ('We were poor, my feet were unbound.... I toiled in the fields, it was bitter...'). As Lisa Rofel has shown in her recent book, women's grievance genres continue to haunt the collective female imagination. She notes that women trained in 'speaking bitterness' when young continue to apply it to the disillusioning era of the 1990s, when the working practices of the older generation of women became devalued.[42] Women's traditional grievance genres apparently provided an unrecognised but nonetheless crucial foundation that paved the way for the success of 'speaking bitterness' campaigns. Arguably both are rhetorically-crafted forms of grievance that rely on unleashing strong emotions then channelling them into acceptable forms to achieve particular social, ritual or political goals.


    [1] For Western studies see Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones, Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 175-203; Susan Gal, 'Between Speech and Silence: The Problematics of Research on Language and Gender' in Micaela di Leonardo (ed.), Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era, Berkeley,Ca.: University of California Press, 1991. On the motif of the virago in Chinese culture see Yenna Wu, The Chinese Virago: A Literary Theme, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

    [2] Dunn and Jones, Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, p. 179. There exists a huge literature on lamentations and women's oral traditions. See articles in Oral Tradition 12, 1 (March 1997) for general issues, one lamentation tradition is discussed in Angela Bourke, 'More in Anger than in Sorrow: Irish Women's Lament Poetry' in Joan N. Radnor, (ed). Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, date, pp. 160-82. For gender division and performance genres see J. Sherzer, 'A diversity of voices: men's and women's speech in ethnographic perspective' in Susan Philips et al. eds. Language, Gender and Sex in Comparative Perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 95-120.

    [3] Dunn and Jones, Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, p. 10.

    [4] Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986; Gal, 'Between Speech and Silence' in Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, p. 194.

    [5] Hong Bian held an official post as Recorder in the Household Administration of the Heir Apparent. For discussion see W.L. Idema, Chinese Vernacular Fiction: the Formative Period, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974, p. 22.

    [6] See Fangying Chao, Dictionary of Ming Biography, vol. 1, 1976, pp. 636-37 where he notes that the Qingpingshan tang huaben collection of stories 'marks the beginning of the recognition of this form of popular literature by the scholar-official class'.

    [7] L.C. Goodrich and Fangying Chao, Dictionary of Ming Biography, Vol. 1, Columbia University Press, 1976, pp. 636-37. According to Lvy, this catalogue was cited by a member of the Ming courtly nobility. See Andr Lvy, Le conte en langue vulgaire du XVIIe sicle, Paris: College de France, Instit des Hautes Etudes Chinoises, 1981, p. 25.

    [8] Idema, Chinese Vernacular Fiction: the Formative Period, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Chicago: Aldine Publications Co., 1973, p. 23.

    [9] H.C. Chang, Chinese Literature: Popular Fiction and Drama, place: publisher, 1973, p. 34.

    [10] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 35.

    [11] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 36.

    [12] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 37.

    [13] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 37.

    [14] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 39.

    [15] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 40.

    [16] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 41.

    [17] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 41.

    [18] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 46.

    [19] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 55.

    [20] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 24.

    [21] Yenna Wu, The Chinese Virago: A Literary Theme, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 169.

    [22] Chang, Chinese Literature, p. 26.

    [23] Eugene Anderson, 'Songs of the Hong Kong Boat People', Chinoperl News, 5, (1973): 8-114; Fred Blake 'Death and Abuse in Marriage Laments: The Curse of Chinese Brides', Asian Folklore Studies, 37, 1, (1978): 13-33; Rubie S. Watson, 'Chinese Bridal Laments: The Claims of a Dutiful Daughter' in Bell Yung, Evelyn S. Rawski and Rubie S. Watson (eds), Harmony & Counterpoint: Ritual Music in the Chinese Context, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp.107-29; Elizabeth L. Johnson, 'Grieving for the Dead, Grieving for the Living: Funeral Laments of Hakka Women' in James L.Watson & Evelyn S.Rawski (eds), Death Ritual in Late Imperial China, Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1988, pp. 135-63. For detailed work on Nanhui laments my own work Anne E. McLaren and Chen Qinjian, 'The Oral and Ritual Culture of Chinese Women: the Lamentations of Nanhui,' Asian Folklore Studies, forthcoming.

    [24] Transcribed in Jiahe Ren, Hunsang yishe ge [Wedding and Funeral Songs] Zhongguo minjian wenyi chubanshe, 1989. I am greatly indebted to Professor Chen Qinjian of East China Normal University for accompanying me on numerous field trips and for interpreting the local dialect into Mandarin. The laments are composed in the Wu dialect of southern Nanhui and the transcriptions are also written in that dialect.

    [25] Cathy Silber, 'From Daughter to Daughter-in-law in the Women's Script of Southern Hunan' in Christina K. Gilmartin, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel and Tyrene White (eds), Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994: 47-68; Anne McLaren, 'Women's Voices and Textuality: Chastity and Abduction in Chinese Nshu Writing' in Modern China 22, 4, (1996): 134-76.

    [26] William Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1966, pp. 455-60.

    [27] Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, p. 455.

    [28] Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, p. 455.

    [29] Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, p. 456.

    [30] Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, p. 456.

    [31] Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, pp. 312-16.

    [32] Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, p. 315.

    [33] For a study of regional laments see Tan Daxian, Zhongguo hunjia yishi geyao yanjiu [Studies of Chinese Wedding Ceremonial Songs], Taipei: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1990.

    [34] Ann Anagnost 'Who is Speaking Here? Discursive Boundaries and Representation in Post-Mao China' in John Hay, (ed.), Boundaries in China, London: Reaktion Books, 1994, pp. 257-79, this ref. p. 263; Lisa Rofel, Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China After Socialism, Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1999, p. 138.

    [35] He Jingzhi and Ding Yi, Bai mao n [The White Haired Girl] Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1952, p. 253.

    [36] The 'superstitious' element in The White Haired Girl, rooted in its origins in rural folklore, was a sensitive issue. The same tale was made into a 'model opera' under the leadership of Jiang Qing in the Cultural Revolutionary period. In composing the model opera, producers sought to reduce the 'ghost-like' aspect of Xi'er. For a comparison of The White Haired Girl in folk opera and model opera see Trevor Hay, 'China's Proletarian Myth: The Revolutionary Narrative and Model Theatre of the Cultural Revolution,' Ph.D. dissertation, University of Melbourne. I am grateful to Trevor Hay (University of Melbourne) for discussing these issues with me and allowing me to cite his dissertation.

    [37] He & Ding, Bai mao n, p. 116.

    [38] Tani E. Barlow and Gary J. Bjorge (eds), I Myself Am a Woman: Selected Writings of Ding Ling, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, p. 38.

    [39] Barlow and Bjorge (eds), I Myself Am a Woman: Selected Writings of Ding Ling, p. 291.

    [40] Zhiqu Weihushan [Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy], Shanghai Peking Opera Company, Renmin chubanshe, 1970, p. 17.

    [41] Zhiqu Weihushan [Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy], p. 57.

    [42] Rofel, Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China After Socialism, pp. 137-47.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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