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  • The Confucian Four Books for Women: A New Translation of the Nü Sishu and the Commentary of Wang Xiang transed. by Ann A. Pang-White
  • Guotong Li
Ann A. Pang-White, ed. & trans., The Confucian Four Books for Women: A New Translation of the Nü Sishu and the Commentary of Wang Xiang. Oxford University Press, 2018. xii, 322. US $99.00 (hb); US $29.95 9780190460891

This volume is the first complete translation of the Four Books for Women 女四書 in English. With this impressive and valuable translation, Ann A. Pang-White successfully fills a gap in Western literature on traditional China. The original work, compiled and commentated on by a Ming (1368–1644) scholar named Wang Xiang 王相, includes the Lessons for Women (Nüjie 女誡) by Ban Zhao 班昭, the Analects for Women (Nü lunyu 女論語) by the Song 宋 sisters, the Teachings for the Inner Court (Neixun 女訓) by Empress Renxiaowen 仁孝文, and the Short Records of Models for Women (Nüfan jielu 女範捷錄) by Madame Liu 劉. Composed around 100 CE, Ban Zhao's Lessons for Women (also translated as Precepts for My Daughters) is known as the earliest Chinese moral tract written by a woman scholar and solely for women's education. In the Tang (618–907), the Song sisters emulated the Confucian Analects' style to compose a discourse between a female counterpart of Confucius (551–479 BCE) and the equivalents of Confucius' disciples, and named it the Analects for Women. In the Ming dynasty, the Empress of the Yongle 永樂 Emperor (r.1402–1424) felt the need of a didactic text for women equivalent to the Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi's 朱熹 (1130–1200) Elementary Learning (Xiaoxue 小學) and composed her Teachings for the Inner Court. Nearly two centuries later, Madame Liu advocated the essential importance of education for both boys and girls [End Page 236] and further composed her moral tract for women, entitled the Short Records of Models for Women. Later, Wang Xiang, a filial son of Madame Liu, compiled these four books with his extensive commentaries on the well-known Four Books for Women, which was influential not only in late imperial China but also widely circulated in Japan and Korea. Largely consistent in their view of women's virtue, the four works show clear shifts in the varied categories of women's virtue across time. They had a profound legacy for the redefinition of gender roles in modern times and continue to shine light on women, gender, and sexuality in contemporary East Asia and overseas Asian communities. For instance, one may easily trace the origin of the trope of the mother as self-sacrificing educator to these texts. And thanks to important role they were expected to play in education, elite women obtained an opportunity for study themselves.

Based on her thorough understanding of the original moral norms of women's roles, the translator enriches the larger picture of feminist thinking through reexamination of women's education from an insider perspective (p. 22). In her well-researched introduction, Pang-White argues that the Four Books for Women in the past might have had great potential to positively impact women's education rather than serving as an infamously oppressive tool to restrict women in Chinese society. Pang-White points out that Madame Liu advocated for women's education in her moral tract and clearly argued that "talent does not contradict virtue, nor would getting rid of one necessarily guarantee the other" (p. 215). Additionally, the translator also demonstrates some "feminist potential," pointing to Ban Zhao's argument against domestic violence and her declaration of the supremacy of a woman's virtue over her sexual appeal (p. 34).

Besides her inspiring consideration of the ongoing discussion of gender dynamics, Pang-White also traces the long lineages of Four Books for Women back to Confucius's encounters with women, Dong Zhongshu's 董仲舒 (179–104 BCE) radical transformation of early Confucianism, and Neo-Confucian scholars' attitudes toward women. She notes that due to the importance of family in a Confucian society, "enculturation of obedience to authority often begins in the household" (p. 12), for instance in the form of a woman's three obediences to her father as a maiden at...


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