Representations of Women and Social Power in Eighteenth Century China: The Case of Wang Xifeng
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REPRESENTATIONS OF WOMEN AND SOCIAL POWER IN EIGHTEENTH CENTURY CHINA: THE CASE OF WANG XIFENG Louise Edwards Recognized as one of the great masterpieces of Chinese and indeed world literature, the Qing dynasty novel Honglou meng has generated a considerable body of criticism since its appearance in the mid eighteenth century.1 Wang Xifeng, a young and powerful daughter-in-law, is one of the characters more frequently discussed and has been described by Angelina Yee as being "one of the most complex characters in the novel and certainly its most successful." In this article it will become apparent that her success, in part, is a result of the tension generated by her relationship to a discourse which linked female superiority with social decline, and female transgression of gender imperatives with social chaos. The legitimacy of her position as a powerful woman in the Jia mansions, as this article will reveal, is undermined by her symbolic position in the novel's over-riding conservative patriarchal world order. This symbolic position is attested to, and recreated, in the consistent problematization of her character in relation to issues of female power and social order by critics of Honglou meng over the past two centuries. My position necessarily queries the view that the novel is some form of "proto-feminist" statement of support for women's rights or an expression of sympathy for the suffering of women in "feudal" China as propounded during the early Republican period, but more commonly during the 1980s.3 I have argued elsewhere that its invocation of notions of purity and profanity and its romanticized depiction of doomed young women suggest that the text of Honglou meng represents a rather more complex attitude towards the position of women in Imperial China.4 An analysis of the symbolic role 1 Honglou meng has been variously translated eis The Story of the Stone, The Dream, of Red Mansions and The Dream of the Red Chamber. Unless otherwise stated all excerpts from the novel come from the translation in five volumes collectively titled The Story of the Stone by David Hawkes (Vols. 1-3) and John Minford (Vols. 4-5). For my own reference I have used the four volume edition of Honglou meng published in 1973 by Renmin wenxue publishing house, Beijing. 2Yee 1990:638. 3Huang 1986; Huang 1989; Guan 1986; Li 1985. 4Edwards 1988-89; Edwards 1990a. Late imperial China Vol. 14, No. 1 (June 1993): 34-59 34 Representations of Women and Social Power35 granted to Xifeng shows that Honglou meng's reference system within the sexual ideologies of Qing China is more problematic than that theorized in terms of the dualism of opposition against, or support for, women's equality. Xifeng is married to Jia Lian, eldest son of the senior branch of the Rong mansions, and she controls the management of this branch of the large aristocratic Jia household. She is lively, humorous, beautiful, and charming but also unrivaled in her cunning cruelty and murderous jealousy. Her importance to the novel is paramount, for it is she, despite her youth, who controls with ruthless efficiency every aspect of the domestic purse. The multiformity of her character evolves from the contradiction between her relatively weak objective status as daughter-in-law and her undeniable power over the Jia's domestic affairs. Her skillful management is thereby an object of both praise and suspicion, just as her confident hold on power elicits respect and disdain. A brief examination of the body of criticism surrounding the novel, known as Hongxue, reveals that literary critics have long regarded Wang Xifeng as a problematic female character. In 1812 "Er zhi dao ren" wrote, from a Buddhist inspired perspective, that the Jia family's Prospect Garden was a "sea of jealousy (vinegar)" where Wang Xifeng's "treacherous and deadly traps turn the vinegar into a poisonous broth."5 In 1832 Wang Xilian described Xifeng's manipulation of power in both the Rong and Ning mansions of the Jia clan as leading to the clan's decline and punishment.6 Xifeng has "an ability to govern comparable to an able minister but also the ability to cause chaos of an evil hero," according...