Heroines of the Qing: Exemplary Women Tell Their Stories.

Author:Kinney, Anne Behnke
Position::Book review
 
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Heroines of the Qing: Exemplary Women Tell Their Stories. By BINBIN YANG. Seattle: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS, 2016. Pp. xii + 230. $50.

Over the centuries Chinese historians have collected countless biographies of exemplary women that celebrate the lives of moral paragons. We read of women who resist jealousy of their harem mates, wives who make heroic sacrifices of comfort, health, and life itself for the lineages of their husbands, while others commit acts of self-harm to protect chastity or remain faithful to young men who die before the unfortunate brides even lay eyes on them. When confronting these largely male-authored accounts, we can't help but wonder how the exemplars themselves might have portrayed their own lives. Finally, with Binbin Yang's brilliant and path-breaking book, which utilizes a large and diverse array of literary and artistic genres, we hear from the female exemplars themselves.

Chapter one, "Breaking the Silence: Cases of Outspoken Exemplary Women," focuses on women whose collected writings utilize the anger, frustration, and bitterness of fulfilling their roles as wives, daughters, and mothers as a powerful means to establish themselves as exemplars. For example, in an autobiographical poem addressed to her son, Xie Xiangtang (18007-1870?) writes: "Ever since I married your father, I have abandoned my brushes and ink stone. / Your father was a profligate, who was too lazy to deal with household matters... / Gradually debts piled up, / To pay for which we sold off our fine properties. /I made all efforts to give him my counsel, / And led him to abandon his former path" (p. 26). Xie's detailed account of her husband's squandering family resources on brothels and the resulting suffering imposed on the family is key to the establishment of her own exemplary status. Yang points out that literary accounts of a woman's ability to endure hardship in order to sustain her husband's patriline was not merely for the sake of self-expression but formed the basis of documentation that might lead to a court reward and a woman's inclusion in "Biographies of Martyred Women." Still, as Yang points out, "To the extent that their self-promotion problematized the authority of their husbands, these women called into question the patriarchal values of the family system that were integral to their very existence as moral exemplars" (p. 38). The accounts included in this chapter are deeply moving and stunning in their frankness. But...

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