Friday 18 May 2018

Student bookshelf: influencing women's behaviour in Tang China

Aurelia Paul is a senior year student at Boston University, studying comparative literature and Chinese. In her fortnightly column Student bookshelf, she shares responses to texts she's reading in her classes.

Here she discusses literature that was used to influence women's behaviour in Tang China. Contrasting approaches, threatening and praising readers, are taken by two classics of Chinese literature.  The Book Of Filial Piety for Women by Miss Zheng, the wife of an official named Chen Miao takes a gentle, praised-based approach to influencing female conduct. Meanwhile, Song Ruozhao’s Analects for Women prefers persuasion via threatening language.

So, over to Aurelia…

The Book Of Filial Piety for Women and Song Ruozhao’s Analects for Women are both didactic texts that instruct women on how to conduct themselves in daily life. Despite this similarity of subject, the authors of the respective texts approach the challenge of influencing women’s behaviour in totally different ways. Analects for Women is extremely rigid in its expectations of women. Song Ruozhao describes specifically what women should and should not do, and uses threats in order to persuade. The Book of Filial Piety for Women is much gentler in tone, and uses praise of exemplary women to encourage filialness. Although the Book of Filial Piety for Women implies that women are subservient to men, it nonetheless acknowledges their potential power and brilliance.

In the Analects for Women, Song Ruozhao uses emotional manipulation to evoke shame and fear. The reader is convinced that she has to obey the commands of the text, lest she become a failure. Many of the sub-sections of the Analects follow a persuasive formula. First, the reader is told what she should do in a general sense. For example, “to be a woman, you must first learn to establish yourself as a person,” or “to be a woman you must learn the details of women’s work.” The tasks are often worded to sound appealing - in these examples the woman can strengthen her identity or acquire a new skill. These primary sentences also all use the persuasive modal verb “must”.  After this, the reader is told more specifically how to act. For example, “when walking, don’t turn your head, when talking, don’t open your mouth wide,” and “learn how to cut shoes and make socks.” Then, the reader is told that she must not affiliate herself with women that do not conform to the rules outlined in the text. Such women are described in various contemptuous terms, such as “lazy women”, “women of bad character”, and “shrewish wives”. Finally, the author points out that if women are disobedient, others will know about it, and judge them for it. For example, about women who do not get up early, she says “their inconsiderate manners are displayed to all their neighbours, to the humiliation of their parents-in-law”. Of women who do not know how to sew well, she says, “meeting others they are pointed to as the laughing stock of the neighbourhood.” The formula that I have just explained is capable of very effectively changing the behaviour of female readers. Song Ruozhao both idealizes completion of the tasks, and demonizes rejection of them. Women are forced into two categories of either “good women” or “bad women,” and this polarized classification leaves readers feeling like they must conform in order to uphold their reputations. Song Ruozhao also implies that breaking one of her “rules” will lead to worse and worse digressions. A woman’s failure to comply in any respect is seen as a gateway to a life that will bring shame upon herself and her family.

The Book of Filial Piety for Women is quite different. It takes the form of a dialogue between the revered Lady Ban and a group of female companions. This text tries to persuade women to conform by emphasizing the positive results that their good behaviour will bring. In the opening passage, Lady Ban is described telling her accompanying ladies about two virtuous daughters of the Sage Emperor. This discussion builds an important foundation for the rest of the text, because it provides motivation - if women follow the guidance of the Book, they can successfully emulate the exalted daughters. Perhaps they, too, will be remembered as paragons of virtue and propriety. Miss Zheng also emphasizes the multifaceted potential of women. In the Three Powers section, she writes that woman can “model themselves on the brilliance of heaven….and bring success to their families.” Here, women are described as beings who have the potential to be “brilliant” and who have an influence on the status of their kin. This brilliance can take the form of intellectual brilliance, and women are told that “making use of one’s intelligence is always beneficial." Although Miss Zheng does instruct women to fulfill their domestic duties, she also acknowledges that their characters are rich and complex; women are far from being merely two-dimensional household managers. This is especially evident in the closing passage, where Lady Ban discusses historical women who have caused the rise and fall of various dynasties. This concluding speech shows women readers the power that they can wield, and thus further convinces them that if they are moral and filial, they will positively impact society.

Details: Both the Book of Filial Piety for Women and the Analects for Women are available in various editions and formats.