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Book Reveals Difficulties of Traditional Chinese Gender Roles

by Angela Poh


Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women’s Script, translated by Wilt L. Idema, is the first English translation of the folk literature of Jiangyong County in Hunan, Southern China. This small county is unique because its women penned their songs and poems in “women’s script” (nüshu) up until the middle of the twentieth century.

Idema begins the book with a short introduction to nüshu: it is not a language, but a system for writing the local dialect of Jiangyong. These texts directly reveal the voices of peasant women in Jiangyong, and provide a rare opportunity to understand and sympathize with rural women in traditional China, people whose voices are rarely heard.

Though largely unknown in the West, the folktale ballads in this collection are among some of the most widely known stories in China. However, the specific selection that was transcribed into nüshu much more precisely reflect the concerns of rural women in traditional China, as they are selected solely by women for women. The first half of this collection places its emphasis on filial piety. The harsh and tragic fates of some of these characters warn the reader that only those who act in filial ways will be blessed with filial offspring.

Part Two of Heroines moves on to illuminate peasant women’s consciousness of the unfairness of socially sanctioned gender roles, even despite the explicit morals of the texts, which stress that the social order cannot be transgressed. Fidelity and moral responsibility of women are constantly repeated in several of these tales: “No one can ride a horse that is carrying two saddles; a woman with two husbands has a bad reputation.”

Women are expected to stay loyal to their husbands despite poverty, long periods of absence and even death. These stories are meant to provide both positive and negative role models for women, and they reveal the difficulties of surviving in a patriarchal society in which a woman’s fate is best described as a lifetime of hard work and silent suffering.

Buddhism becomes an appealing alternative for these women as it provides the only possible way for a woman to escape or even transcend her imposed gender role. Life is suffering (dukkha) in the Buddhist worldview, and meditation leads to liberation. In Fifth Daughter Wang, for example, Fifth Daughter is extremely pious, does not eat meat and recites the Diamond Sutra diligently. She eventually rescues her sinful husband and her children, and thus becomes the saviour of the family. Toward the end of this ballad, “the Jade Emperor issued an edict ... that they would live their lives in the Western Paradise.”

As Idema stresses, the original texts by these Jiangyong women do not reflect any desire to change gender relations. It is appropriate to view these folk stories as “a keen perception of the subtle secrets of the inner spiritual world of women,” instead of viewing this as feminist literature. Nonetheless, these insights into the inner spiritual world of rural women bring attention to the silent suffering and physical discomfort that traditional Chinese women had to endure. These stories thus demonstrate the complexities of traditional China and reveal aspects of China that remain unfamiliar territories to any outsider.

Today, the feminist movement in China is still very much in its infancy. To this extent, Heroines also provides a paradigm for Chinese feminists to better understand and recognize the hidden tensions of traditionally imposed gender roles in China in order to move toward gender equality.

Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script, Translation and Introduction by Wilt L. Idema (University of Washington Press)

December 3, 2009

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Ming Yan Angela Poh studies dance and Comparative Religion. Her article “Mongolian Music in a Post-secular China: The Search for a New Cultural Identity” will be published next year in the Asian Journal of Literature, Culture and Society. In it, she examines cultural discourses among ethnic minorities in today’s modernized China. She was born in Singapore and now lives in New York City.

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