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  • Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period through the Song Dynasty
  • Xiufen Lu
Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period through the Song Dynasty. Edited by Robin R. Wang. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003. Pp. xiv + 449.

Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period through the Song Dynasty, edited by Robin R. Wang, is an excellent collection of English translations from the Classical Chinese of writings on women. As the title indicates, the book starts with writings from before the founding of the Qin, China's first bureaucratic state, in 221 B.C.E., and ends with the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279 C.E.), a period that has been considered the richest in Chinese history in terms of literature and art production.

The anthology includes fifty-four selections arranged in five parts based on a conventionally accepted chronology of the texts. There is a brief introduction at the beginning of each selection that helps familiarize the reader with the texts and the historical and cultural context out of which women's issues have arisen. The first two parts include selections from oracle-bone inscriptions, the earliest Chinese writings ever discovered; texts from the major ancient philosophical schools, such as Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, and Legalism; and folk literature together with poems by some of the best-known poets of their time. These writings not only encompass the intellectual foundations of Chinese civilization but also provide valuable sources for understanding how perceptions of gender relations have been shaped by the Chinese cosmological and philosophical view of the world. In text number 3, the Classic of Changes (Yijing), women and men are understood as the highest embodiments of yin and yang, the two fundamental forces that characterize the development of the universe. Since these forces are understood as both hierarchical—as they are manifested in the interrelation between the earth and sky—and, more importantly, complementary to each other, women's roles in family and society are thus recognized as distinct from, yet complementary to, those of men.

In part 3, the reader is led through the Han (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), China's longest-lived dynasty. Writings from this period reveal the processes by which the ancestral wisdom, especially the Confucian Classics, were codified through government-sponsored scholarship. The writings of Dong Zhongshu (195-115 B.C.E.) and The Comprehensive Discussion in the White Tiger Hall (Baihu tong) were two of the texts responsible for the establishment of the official Confucian ideology of the Han. Texts drawn from this period also include works by Ban Zhao (45-114 C.E.), China's first and most influential female historian and scholar. Her writings were originally intended as moral guidance for women and were regarded in Chinese society as key texts in women's education up to the twentieth century.

The six selections included in part 4 are comparatively less well known to English readers, except for The Ballad of Mulan, which became popular in the West after the story of Mulan was made into an animated movie in 1998. The other writings in this part have only been translated into English since the 1970s. Among them, [End Page 496] English versions of Family Instructions to the Yan Clan and Women in the Standard Histories were prepared especially for this volume. These writings reveal how Neo-Confucianism and Neo-Daoism became the principal approaches to comprehending the social reality and gender relations following the chaotic disintegration of the Han dynasty, and they help explain the increasing dominance of Confucian ideology and its implications for women.

Finally, in part 5, there are included among other selections some well-crafted love stories written in the classical language by eminent men of letters and works by several great poets (both men and women) of the Tang and Song periods. In this section there are writings by some of the most familiar names of the period, such as Bojuyi (772-846 C.E.), Yuan Zhen (779-831 C.E.), and Li Qingzhao (1081-1151 C.E.). These authors have...


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