FAH/PHIL: Chinese Philosophy and Religious Studies Salon – “Exemplary Women” (Lienü列女) versus “Worthy Ladies” (Xianyuan賢媛): The Two Traditions in Writing Women’s History in the Tokugawa and Meji Japan’ by Prof. Nanxiu Qian, Rice University, USA


12 Jul 2016





Two genres of writing women’s history are found in the Chinese tradition, namely, “Exemplary Women” (Lienü) and “Worthy Ladies” (Xianyuan). Both originated from the Han Confucian Liu Xiang’s (77–6 BCE) Biographies of Exemplary Women. Each, however, formed into a tradition that represented women’s lives and guided their behavior in its own way. “Exemplary Women,” being incorporated into official histories, became increasingly bound by Confucian norms, whereas “Worthy Ladies,” rooted in the free-spirited Wei-Jin (220–420) Abstruse Learning (aka Neo-Daoism) and written by private scholars, featured strong-minded, talented, and self-sufficient literate women. The two genres also generated numerous works in other countries in the Sinosphere (Japan, Korea, and Vietnam). A close reading of these works will show the existence of different voices on women’s lives, rescuing the previously ignored “Worthy Ladies” from the dominant discourse of docile “Exemplary Women.” This paper focuses on the transmission and evolution of the two genres in the Tokugawa and Meji Japan, where the Neo-Confucianism as the newly installed state ideology adopted the Lienü tradition to regulate women’s lives, and the Classical Learning (Kogaku) opposed such spiritual restriction by invoking the Xianyuan tradition.


Nanxiu Qian received her PhD from Yale University. She has published many books and articles on Chinese literature, thought, and culture, such as Politics, Poetics, and Gender in Late Qing China: Xue Shaohui and the Era of Reform (Stanford University, 2015), Different Worlds of Discourse: Transformations of Gender and Genre in Late Qing and Early Republican China (Brill: 2008), Beyond Tradition and Modernity: Gender, Genre, and Cosmopolitanism in Late Qing China (Brill: 2004), and Spirit and  Self in Medieval China: The Shih-shuo hsin-yü and Its Legacy (University of Hawaii Press, 2001).


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