- Empresses and Consorts: Selections from Chen Shou's "Records of the Three States" with Pei Songzhi's Commentary
The two sections on women in the official histories—one on the biographies of women and the other on the empresses and imperial consorts—probably offer the most prominent and enduring representation of women in Chinese history. Although both Sima Qian (ca. 145-86 B.C.E.) and Ban Gu (32-82 C.E.) included [End Page 358] Empress Lü in the chronicles sections of the Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) and the History of the Former Han Dynasty (Han shu), empresses and imperial consorts were not represented as a category until Chen Shou's (233-297) Records of the Three States (San guo zhi). Over a century later, Fan Ye (398-445) followed Chen Shou's model of a chapter devoted to all the empresses and consorts in his History of the Later Han Dynasty (Hou Han shu), but he placed them in the chronicles section along with the emperors, an arrangement that the Tang historian Liu Zhiji (661-721) criticized because it confused the nature of chronicles with that of biographies. Thereafter, the chapter on empresses and consorts became a regular and distinct feature in the official histories, and they are always the first among the biographies.
The importance of empresses in the Chinese psyche is best illustrated by the phrase "paragon of motherhood for all under heaven" (mu yi tian xia). Empresses and imperial consorts were directly connected to political power, and their biographies reveal not just their relations to the imperial lines, but often the political intrigues of the inner palace. Therefore, a solid translation of the first set of biographies of the empresses and consorts not only reminds us of the existence of a group of women close to—if not within—the center of power but also provides access to these biographies for those who cannot read the original classical Chinese. But this is not the only service rendered by Robert Joe Cutter and William Gordon Crowell's Empresses and Consorts: Selections from Chen Shou's "Records of the Three States" with Pei Songzhi's Commentary. The book also provides a coherent study of how imperial women came to be a historical category.
A quick look at the table of contents shows that the book has three sections: a substantial introduction to the era as well as to Chen Shou's book (part 1); a translation of three chapters mainly on empresses and consorts from Records of the Three States (part 2); and an end section with appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index. But there is substantial depth to these conventional categories. The long prolegomenon, the detailed tables, and the extensive notes depict for the reader the complex historical and cultural backdrop that are not included in the accounts of the empresses and consorts. These sections thereby provide information about the era in which these women lived and about where they stand in the long history of Chinese women.
In this sense, Cutter and Crowell's relation to the original text parallels Pei Songzhi's role as commentator on Chen Shou's history. Pei Songzhi (372-451) did more than just provide annotations to Chen Shou's Records of the Three States: he juxtaposed other accounts and therefore revealed gaps in Chen Shou ' s text that resulted either from his self-censorship for political or other reasons or from not being able to see materials after his time. Similarly, in the long prolegomenon and the copious notes, Cutter and Crowell explicate for modern readers the methods, values, and standards by which Chen Shou and Pei Songzhi were [End Page 359] operating. Namely, they have explained the very specialized discipline of Chinese historiography, without some understanding of which the three chapters of biographies would simply be tedious court anecdotes. It is therefore not at all surprising...