- True to Her Word: The Faithful Maiden Cult in Late Imperial China
In this valuable book, Weijing Lu describes the “faithful maidens” of late imperial China, distinguishing them from the much-studied faithful widows, and adding a fascinating dimension to our knowledge of women’s lives in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911), when “thousands of young women defied parental authority and pledged lifelong fidelity to their first betrothed, whether alive or dead” (p. 1). Through a process of linguistic evolution that Lu traces in Chapter 1, these young women became known as “faithful maidens” (zhennü). Some chose suicide upon learning of the death of their betrothed; others lived on in a state of pseudo-widowhood. The phenomenon had long roots in the cult of widow-fidelity: starting in the Later Han dynasty, the Chinese government honored the relatively small numbers of widows who refused remarriage. These awards surged after the beginning of the sixteenth century, as literati and officials increasingly drew parallels between loyalty to the (husband’s) patriline and loyalty to the state.
But the faithful maiden also represented something new. Since her marriage ties were incomplete, there were no clear ritual strictures binding her to her fiancé’s patriline. Her decision was her own, and fidelity to her fiancé’s patriline is overwhelmingly represented in Lu’s sources as putting the faithful maiden at odds with her own family, and often with her fiancé’s family as well. Nevertheless, Lu’s statistics show that, from 1368 through 1911, young women responded in ever-increasing numbers to the faithful maiden ideal. Lu draws on the maidens’ letters and poems, as well as biographies by their admirers, to demonstrate that faithful maidens were not passive victims of Confucian gender ideology. Rather, their insistence on following their own path precipitated debates about ritual among late Qing literati, and despite their relatively small numbers, they displayed the seriousness with which women could understand themselves as moral actors.
Lu’s introduction demonstrates that we cannot view the faithful maiden in isolation. She observes that cases of faithful maidenhood [End Page 451] crest at times of “national and political crises, cultural fascination with extreme acts, and intensification of Confucian moral discourse on the cultivation of loyalty” (p. 7). Her sources, detailed on pages 15 through 17, demonstrate the inextricability of the ties between the faithful maiden and standard male-dominated historiographical discourse. She quotes women’s poetry and essays but recognizes that “the majority of the sources about faithful maidens,” which included imperial testimonials, gazetteer entries, biographies, commemorative poems, drama and fiction, and ritual texts and debates, “were produced by men” (p. 15). She charts the changes in the state’s position on the matter by carefully examining the “Veritable Records” from the reign of each Ming and Qing emperor, which were continuously compiled over the course of the dynasty and register all imperial awards to virtuous women. Approaches pioneered by feminist historians, however, allow Lu to see beyond the gender bias of her sources. By constantly juxtaposing texts by women and men, and reading male-authored texts from a perspective “other than that of the author”—reading them, for example, with a knowledge of what women say about their own families—she asserts that male-authored texts may be “just as useful as a young woman’s own writings in helping us probe the minds and emotions of the faithful maidens” (p. 17).
Part 1, “History” (Chapters 1–3), situates faithful maidens in the “cultural, political, and social contexts” (p. 19) of late imperial China. Lu demonstrates that at least one faithful maiden can be found in a thirteenth-century local gazetteer, testifying to the appearance of the ideal in the late Song dynasty beginnings of the female fidelity cult. In Lu’s narrative, however, the institutionalization of the faithful maiden ideal is inseparable from the legal, social, and cultural changes of the Yuan and Ming. Late Song Neo-Confucianism laid the groundwork for the faithful maiden ideal with a “rigid” definition...