- Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang transed. by Anne Behnke Kinney
A new translation of Liu Xiang’s 劉向 Lienü zhuan 列女傳 (hereafter LNZ) is long overdue.1 And most of the translation by Anne Behnke Kinney, Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang, is very well done indeed (see below). At the same time, Kinney has made a series of odd and clearly intentional choices [End Page 662] when translating the classic, choices worth querying. Most importantly, she insists on translating the classic as if it directly addressed its readers (whom she posits as exclusively females), even if this insistence rides roughshod over the language used in the text, and flies in the face of the early evidence about both the composition of the text and the literary outputs of the woman, Ban Zhao 班昭 (d. ca. 120 c.e.), whom Kinney casts as the LNZ’s first commentator—although Ma Rong 馬融, a second LNZ commentator (male), was Ban’s contemporary.2 Kinney goes so far as to say that the LNZ was a “textbook of rhetoric that accommodated women and prepared them to voice their concerns in both the private and public sphere” (p. xxxi).3 Indeed, “The Lienü zhuan, with lessons that guide women from all levels of society, is the earliest extant text that sought to shape the entire female population in the Confucian mold”; Confucians sought means “to rein in imperial women they could not otherwise control” (pp. xxv-xxvi). By what method did Kinney determine whether a piece of writing is addressed to generic women, specific women, or to men, specific or generic? Did the concept of “generic women” (or “general reader,” for that matter) even exist in the early empires?
Second, Kinney flattens and essentializes women’s gender roles and societal statuses, hailing a triumvirate of female commentators of Qing China—Liang Duan (d. 1825), Wang Zhaoyuan (d. 1851), and Xiao Daoguan (d. 1907)—as the most reliable guides to the “timeless” meaning of the late Western Han text and the presumably unchanging status of women (“It has been an extraordinary experience to have been guided by three women from the premodern period”). Although we agree on the value of the three late commentators, especially for understanding the text’s reception during the Qing, their usefulness sharply falls off when interpreting Song and pre-Song readings of the Han text. To take one example, Kinney’s rendering of zhen 貞 as “chaste,” the most common meaning assigned it in late imperial China, doesn’t fit the Han text, where zhen means “principled” or “steady” as a tripod. Throughout, she disregards the mounting evidence, seen in legal cases, sex manuals, and household morphology, that elite women in the early empires did not confront the same experiences or limitations as their counterparts in late imperial China.4 Women could be heads of households in the Western Han, and as such they received imperial largesse (cf. p. xxvi). Third, Kinney ignores the cardinal rule of feminist analysis in the academy: that comparisons should examine men and women of the same time period and same status, rather than supply false analogies that further reify the Euro-American triumphalist narrative. How different were the lives of elite women in Han times (the only people we know much about) from those of elite men? She does not say.
Let us begin with the title, which Kinney translates as “Categorized Biographies of Women.” Kinney rightly rejects those who read lie 列 as lie 烈 (meaning “fiery,” “ardent”), but she over-translates, as liezhuan is the standard Han rubric for all collective biographies. The Hanshu explicitly states that the LNZ was written “as a warning to the [male] Son of Heaven,” that is, Chengdi.5 Explicit assertions explaining the circumstances of compilation are noteworthy; whence, then, Kinney’s insistence on a female readership for LNZ? (By her logic, Liu Xiang’s Liexian zhuan...