2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 277

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Reconceptualizing Virtue and Beauty in Unconventional Genres: The Exemplary Women in Late Imperial and Early Republican China

Organizer: Xiaorong Li, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Chair: Nanxiu Qian, Rice University, USA

Discussants: Nanxiu Qian, Rice University, USA; Maureen A. Robertson, University of Iowa, USA

This panel investigates the changing concepts of female exemplarity and their implications in discursive practice from the late Ming to the Early Republican period. During this era of rapid and radical social, political and cultural changes, whether as subjects in discourse or individuals acting out of their own agency, women were situated at the forefront of their society. With each paper examining one or more particular genres, our panel attempts to demonstrate the productive role played by gender in the transformation of traditional genres. Maria Franca Sibau discusses the construction of the filial and chaste women in vernacular stories vis-à-vis the classical language biography. Through a comparative study of Chen Ershi’s family letters and Zeng Yi’s hygiene treatises, Binbin Yang shows that women’s self-transformation from a virtuous housewife to a nation-oriented “new woman” was taking place well before the late Qing reform. Focusing on the Manchu storytelling genre zidishu (bannermen tales), Elena S. Y. Chiu shows that the portrayal of the virtuous wife Zhao Wuniang underwent significant changes in Manchu adaptations of the Han Chinese play Pipa ji (The Lute). Expanding into the early Republican period and moving on from virtue to beauty, Xiaorong Li examines the combination of traditional and modern beauties in the 1920’s renewal of the literati’s “one hundred beauties” genre by a group of professional writers and painters. As a collective attempt, this panel calls attention to the concurrent transformations of gender and genre in the changing world of the late imperial era and beyond.

Female Exemplarity in the Vernacular: Filial and Chaste Heroines in Stories from the End of the Ming
Maria Franca Sibau, Emory University, USA

“Guardians of Family Health: From the Exemplary Wife to the Hygiene Advocate”
Binbin Yang, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

This paper is an attempt to illuminate a facet of the process of “becoming ‘new women’” among the guixiu (gentry women) of the eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century China, namely, women as guardians of family health. Through an examination of the genres of family letters and medical treatises employed by two women - the “exemplary wife” Chen Ershi (1785-1821), and the woman doctor and hygiene advocate Zeng Yi (1852-1927) - I argue that the late Qing hygiene drive, with its logic of building a strong national body by building healthy bodies of the Chinese people, in fact found one of its allies in the guixiu who took on themselves the duties of preventing illnesses and of caring for the sick in their households. The family letters of Chen Ershi demarcate a space apart from that represented by the poetry of women in that they reveal the everyday challenges that a gentry wife needed to face. Among them, guarding the health of the old and the young was pivotal. It was precisely from this wifely duty that Zeng Yi, herself also a guixiu, proceeded to prescribe remedies for the “illness” of the nation. Her treatises on medicine and hygiene signaled her participation in a male-dominated genre to address the crises of her time. What Chen looked up to as female exemplariness in fact carried over to Zeng’s redefinition of womanhood in a time of radical changes, and expanded into prescription after prescription for the “sick bodies” of China.

“Gender, Virtue, and Popular Aesthetics in Manchu Storytelling: The Recreation of the Heroine Zhao Wuniang in Zidishu (Bannermen Tales)”
Suet Chiu, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

This paper investigates how zidishu (bannermen tales), a popular storytelling genre created by the Manchus in early eighteenth-century Beijing, recreated the heroine Zhao Wuniang of Pipa ji (The Lute). As an influential nanxi (southern play) composed in the fourteenth century, The Lute narrates a scholar-beauty romance in which Zhao serves her husband Cai Bojie’s parents after Cai goes to the capital to take the civil examination; she goes to look for him after three years of separation, ultimately reuniting with Cai. Through a close reading of zidishu’s adaptations of The Lute, this paper explores the reception and recreation of the heroine Zhao Wuniang in the Qing while examining gender issues, including wifely virtues, presented the zidishu texts. This paper demonstrates that, in zidishu, the portrayal of Zhao is more sympathetic compared to the portrayal of the same character in the play, although only a few scenes from the play were adapted into zidishu based on extant texts. Zhao represents an exemplary woman who embodies filial piety and faithfulness, yet her picture is more complex in the zidishu that reflects a hybrid mixture of Manchu and Han aesthetics. In order to evoke the audience’s/reader’s empathy with her, her hardships during the famine and her resentment after being abandoned by her husband are highlighted. These depictions are shaped by the Qing writers’ reception of this character, the reconceptualization of virtue in the Qing, and the zidishu’s generic and linguistic features.

“Who are the Most Beautiful Women of China? : The Conjuncture of Past and Present in the ‘One Hundred Beauties’ Genre in the Early Republican Period”
Xiaorong Li, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

The “one hundred beauties” (baimei) genre, normally consisting of both illustrated biographies and poems, was pivotally established by Yan Xiyuan (fl.1787) with his Baimei xinyong tuzhuan (Illustrated biographies of one hundred beauties with new verses) as a representative work. Compared with standard historical record that was intended to propagate orthodox Confucian instructions on female virtues, the baimei genre represented an alternative and more diverse taste for female attributes such as beauty and talent, and an interest in recording the extraordinary life experiences of beautiful women in Chinese history. In connection with this textual tradition, this paper examines an anthology with the catchphrase baimei in its title, Gujin baimei tuyong (Illustrated biographies of and poems on one hundred beauties of the past and the present). Published in 1924, the anthology shows that the subject of “beautiful women” continued to provide a venue for the literati’s connoisseurship of women in the Republican era. A self-claimed collection of the beauties of the past and the present, this anthology enables us to explore what attributes are retained from the past, what are added to represent the new, and what the relationship between the old and new is. Above all, what values and qualities are considered beautiful? In selecting one hundred beautiful women of all ages, what effect does this project create, a continuum of the aesthetics of Chinese womanhood or simply a juxtaposition of old and new?