Gender, genre, and discourse: the woman avenger in medieval Chinese texts.

Author:Luo, Manling
Position:Critical essay

The figure of the woman avenger appears in many medieval Chinese texts, testifying to this figure's persistent appeal and importance to contemporary literati. These texts consist of three types, namely, biographies in official histories, yuefu (Music Bureau) poems, and independent prose narratives outside historiography and poetry, which I here refer to as "unofficial prose accounts." (1) Unofficial prose accounts of women avengers have received the most critical attention: scholars have analyzed two groups of unofficial prose accounts from the Tang dynasty (618-907), focusing on "narrative variations," that is, the retellings of a story by different writers over time. (2) In this article, I will examine these two groups, placing them in the broader context of medieval narratives on female vengeance from roughly the third to the eleventh century. By comparing official biographies, Music Bureau poems, and unofficial prose accounts, we will see more clearly how genre conventions or the lack thereof shaped the ways in which stories of female vengeance were recounted. The representations of the woman avenger in unofficial prose accounts, in particular, reveal the formation of a discourse on women and sanctioned violence that is distinct from its counterparts in official histories and Music Bureau poetry.

Unlike the male avenger, whose action is clearly defined by Confucian principles of ethical duty, the woman avenger embodies a fundamental tension between femininity and violence. The principles of blood revenge were prescribed in Confucian ritual texts and commentaries. The Li ji (Book of rites), for example, stipulates an avenger's duty according to a hierarchy of patriarchal relations: avenging one's parents takes priority over other social obligations, while the duty of avenging one's brother, uncle, or cousin is regarded as less urgent. (3) The obligation to avenge a father, or filial revenge, is epitomized by the widely quoted maxim, "One should not live under the same heaven as the enemy who has slain one's father" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (4) Such a duty of revenge, however, was expected to fall on a male descendant or relative; there was no explicit canonical support for female vengeance. The problematic nature of female vengeance derives from the contradiction that in taking up sanctioned violence, the woman transgressed her designated space of domesticity and her submissive feminine roles. (5)

Medieval writers of official biographies, Music Bureau poems, and unofficial prose accounts adopted different strategies in dealing with this tension and hence developed distinctive discourses on women and sanctioned violence. Official biographies and Music Bureau poems were relatively consistent in their representations of the woman avenger. Due to limitations of space, I will discuss the major features of these two genres briefly to illustrate their differences from unofficial prose accounts. I will devote more attention to the idiosyncrasies of unofficial prose accounts, in particular those from the Tang, to show the nature of this type of narrative as a flexible mode of discursive production, especially in comparison to the carefully circumscribed discourses of the more established biographical and poetic genres.


Official biographies of women avengers were an integral part of an official discourse on female virtue that imperial courts tried to promote. While these biographies endorse the moral righteousness of female vengeance, they also carefully delineate its ethical and legal parameters, revealing the ideological interest of official discourse in containing such violence.

Since official histories focus on male-centered politics, only women of exceptional status and qualities were recognized and commemorated. Sima Qian's (145 or 135-86 B.C.E.) Shi ji (Records of the grand historian) included the first annals in Chinese history for a woman, Empress Dowager Lu (241-180 B.C.E.), who monopolized the court of the early Western Han (202 B.C.E.-9 C.E.). Later, Ban Gu (32-92) created the "Houfei zhuan" (Biographies of empresses and consorts) in his Han shu (History of the Han), while Fan Ye (398-455) established the "Lienii zhuan" (Biographies of exemplary women) in his Hou Han shu (History of the Later Han). Both categories were adopted by later historians. As Stephen West has put it, "shi [official history] is a form of tautology bounded by homological rules of genre," confirming "a pre-existent conclusion already in play about the value and shape of those incidents." (6) The expansion of biographies for women indicates historians' increasing emphasis on gender as a fundamental ideological dimension: royal consorts constituted indispensible links in the imperial lineage, while exemplary women embodied ideal female virtues. As Sherry Mou has argued, biographies of exemplary women from Hou Han shu to Xin Tang shu (New Tang history, comp. 1060) participate in a trend to downplay literary talent and scholarly learning and promote the extraordinary devotion of women as daughters, wives, and mothers. (7) Such devotion is often manifested in the woman's death, mutilation, or lifelong rejection of sexual activity and material comfort. In contrast to these forms of self-destruction or self-suppression, female vengeance represents a problematic case in the official discourse on female virtue because the woman avenger directs her violence outward, targeting her male enemy.

Only two modes of female vengeance are endorsed by official histories: a daughter's revenge for her father and a wife's for her husband, each carefully circumscribed. The earliest official biography of a daughter avenger is that of Zhao E by Chen Shou (233-297), attached to that of Zhao's son, Pang Yu (fl. 210-220), in the Sanguo zhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms) and later included by Fan Ye in his "Biographies of Exemplary Women" in Hou Han shu. The biography is paradigmatic in the way it represents the daughter avenger:

In the past, [Pang] Yu's maternal grandfather Zhao An was killed by Li Shou from the same county. Yu's three maternal uncles all became ill and died at the same time, and the family of Li Shou was pleased. Saddened by the fact that her father's death had not been avenged, Yu's mother, E, then hid a sword in her sleeve and rode in a curtained cart [to wait for the enemy]. She stabbed Shou to death in front of the county pavilion in broad daylight. After that, she unhurriedly went to the county office, her facial expression undisturbed. She said, "Having avenged my father's death, I request to be executed." Yin Jia, the magistrate of the Lufu County, gave up his official seal and set her free. Since she refused to leave, the magistrate forcibly transported her back to her home. She was exonerated because of a general amnesty. In great appreciation of her deed, the prefecture established a stone inscription at the entrance to her neighborhood to commemorate it. (8) Chen Shou's terse account offers only basic information on the incidents, creating an effect of verisimilitude with an authoritative, matter-of-fact tone while defining the ethical and legal parameters of a daughter's filial revenge. By noting that Zhao E takes on the duty of vengeance only after the death of her three brothers, Chen presents a daughter's filial revenge as a behavioral "cross-dressing" in the sense that she steps into the role of a son when such an expected avenger is absent. She is commendable precisely because of her capacity to rise to the higher physical and moral standards required of a man. In addition, her voluntary submission to the authorities and ultimate exoneration are also crucial for showing her as a good subject of the state. Although private vengeance helped to define and maintain social relations in early China, the court outlawed such acts beginning in the Han dynasty because they could spark feuds and threaten state control. (9) But the moral rectitude of blood revenge, especially filial revenge, was widely accepted by officials and the public throughout the history of imperial China. (10) The court itself was not consistent on the issue: some avengers were pardoned while others were executed, pointing to an acute tension between li (rites) and fa (law) in state governance. (11) In Chen Shou's account, although Zhao E's pardon occurs more or less accidentally, the sympathy and support of county and prefectural officials constitute official endorsement of her action. This instantiates the ideological interest of official discourse in asserting the state's commitment to Confucian ethics and jurisdiction over its subjects. Zhao E is considered exemplary because she affirms both li and fa: she upholds filial piety through her assassination of the enemy and respects the authority of the law with her willing acceptance of the death penalty. (12) Although she might have overstepped gender norms, her transgression is temporary because she ultimately returns to her proper roles in the domestic sphere.

Later official biographies followed the same narrative conventions, which enabled them to ameliorate the dangerous implications of a daughter's filial revenge. The Sui shu (History of the Sui, comp. 636), for example, recounts that a woman named Wang Shun joined with her two younger sisters to kill their distant uncle and his wife for murdering their father. (13) In addition, histories of the Tang report that a Ms. Wei beat her father's killer to death with bricks during the reign of Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649) and a Ms. Jia reared her little brother to adulthood and assisted him in avenging their father's death during Emperor Gaozong's reign (r. 649-684). (14) With a concise and brief narrative style, these biographies reiterate the same ethical and legal boundaries: they not only indicate the acceptable circumstances and the daughter's role in revenge (e.g., because of the...

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