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  • The Sword or the Needle: The Female Knight-Errant (xia) in Traditional Chinese Narrative
  • Paul S. Ropp (bio)
Roland Altenburger. The Sword or the Needle: The Female Knight-Errant (xia) in Traditional Chinese Narrative Bern: Peter Lang, 2009. 425 pp. Hardcover $65.95, ISBN 978-3-0343-0036-0.

Roland Altenburger’s study of the female knight-errant (nüxia) in Chinese literature from the Tang tale to the modern Republican-era novel is a thorough and insightful exploration of the topic, with equal attention to the literary and gender implications of this long tradition. In his introduction, Altenburger briefly traces the evolution of xiaoshuo (fiction) in China, from Tang classical tales and miscellaneous anecdotes to Song vernacular stories to Ming novellas and, by the late sixteenth century, to full-length novels. He suggests that all types of xiaoshuo were distinctly marginal genres until Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiyi in the seventeenth century and Cao Xueqin’s Honglou meng in the eighteenth century achieved widespread popularity and greatly raised the prestige of fiction as a serious art form. Precisely because fiction was marginal to the dominant orthodox culture, it provided a vehicle for the expression of subversive themes, including tales of the supernatural, the heterodox, and the strange. In this context, tales of female knights-errant were doubly subversive because the knight-errant stood outside the law and the control of the state, and female knights (nüxia), in addition, broke all the orthodox gender rules of women’s seclusion in the home and women’s subservience to fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons.

Making a sharp distinction between the woman warrior (nüjiang) and the female knight (nüxia), Altenburger argues that the latter is entirely unrelated to warfare or to the defense of the state, but is rather motivated primarily by the personal quest for justice, frequently to avenge the unjust death of her father. The earliest avenger stories tended to feature women rather than men, perhaps because such tales were regarded as the more worthy of literary attention by virtue of their novelty. Altenburger notes that in every narrative of a female knight, her gender role reversal is a major component of the story. But whether this reversal is intended merely as an attention-grabbing oddity, a commentary on the weakness of men, a celebration of the strength of women, or some combination of these or other elements is often left highly ambiguous.

The prototypical and most important nüxia tale from the Tang is the story of Nie Yinniang, attributed to Pei Xing (825–880) in its earliest extant version in the Taiping guangji. Abducted and taught martial arts and magical sword skills by a Buddhist nun, Nie Yinniang chooses her own spouse, a lowly mirror grinder, and [End Page 28] works for a warlord who she then deserts for a more virtuous one. She assassinates evildoers; protects her lord, the second warlord, from two assassination attempts; and eventually leaves her husband to retreat into the mountains. This tale was subversive for a number of reasons: it is full of magic and supernatural elements; Nie, fully as autonomous as any male, chooses her own husband from a social class far below her father’s, thereby assuring her own dominance in the marriage; and after working for the military general her father had served, she eventually abandons him and chooses instead to serve one of his rivals. Thus, at every turn, she refuses to be bound by the patriarchal rules and expectations of Confucian society.

The story of Nie Yinniang was retold in many different versions and genres in subsequent eras, and she became “the archetype of the female xia figure” (p. 74). In some later versions, most strikingly in You Tong’s 1664 zaju drama, Hei bai wei (Black and white mule), the subversive elements were greatly altered and domesticated, as Nie herself is seen as less autonomous and her father and husband more assertive than in the original tale. In other later stories, Nie Yinniang reappears as an immortal with magical powers who passes her skills on to later generations. This, in effect, transfers her to the realm of myth and fantasy, where she...