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Chapter Five DIDACTIC TEXTS FOR WOMEN AND THE WOMANLY SPHERE OF NEI The nei-wai binary is a nondualistic, nonoppositional, complementary binary whose boundaries change with context.1 However, when the nei-wai distinction refers to gender, it denotes a necessity to distinguish two distinct functions and spheres for men and women respectively. Women belong to the narrow realm of nei as the inner focused center, while men occupy the broader realm of wai as the extended field of the outer. The demarcation between genders is also a demarcation of two distinct functions in two distinct, but complementary spheres.Yet, the assumption conventionally made in feminist writings is that the womanly sphere of nei is marginal and that Chinese women are typically characterized as submissive, oppressed, and illiterate. In order to challenge this, we will begin our journey into the literary representation of virtuous women in the realm of nei by examining two important literary genres: first, the lienu 列女 tradition in imperial histories whose records of virtuous women’s biographies formed part of the official history; second, didactic texts, especially the Nusishu (Four Books for Women) that defined the propriety of women’s conduct and was written for and by women. The lienu 列女 tradition that forms part of the official dynastic history since the Latter Han attests to the importance of the role of woman and the correct ordering of the womanly sphere of nei as the representation of good governance to the imperial court and Confucian literati. In contrast to the West where women’s history must be constantly reinvented due to the lack of systematic, historical records of women’s past, Chinese lienu tradition starting with court historian Liu Xiang in the Former Han down to the last dynasty Qing has in a sense created “a female sphere of historical memory.”2 Unlike the West, the lienu tradition of imperial China has assigned women a distinct place of their own in historical records and hence has provided a sense of solidarity for women in history. And unlike the West where women’s voice in the literary world was virtually mute in premodern times, the legitimacy of female authorship in defining the propriety of women in the realm of nei was not only recognized but also socially sanctioned by official literati. The four canonical didactic books—the Four Books for Women—not only were 95 96 CONFUCIANISM AND WOMEN written for women but more importantly were written by women themselves. The womanly sphere of nei not only signifies the centrality of women’s role in the discourse on ethics and good governance; but more importantly it paradoxically legitimizes the authority of female authorship as well as readership in the world of letters, despite the constraints of nei that relegate women to the realm of strict household management. However, despite the occasional boundary crossing that enables women to achieve in the political, military, and literary realm beyond the familial realm, the normative force of the nei-wai distinction as gender distinction nonetheless deprives women of a legitimate access to a full personhood in the wai where a person is not only filial and proper but also fully learned and cultured. The limited gender roles for women can be illustrated by examining the literary representation of virtuous women both in the lienu tradition and the didactic instruction books for women. The criteria for virtuous women in the imperial history evolved from the early non–gender specific virtues such as ren (humanity; authoritative conduct) and zhi (wisdom) to the later emphasis on spousal fidelity and filial devotion as the defining “womanly” virtues. The didactic books for women, although they were written by learned women themselves, reinforce the purely functionary roles of women as daughter, wife, and mother confined to the nonliterary realm of household management that renders women’s literary skills superfluous. Literary learning (wen 文) is in effect exclusively a male privilege enforced by both learned male and female authors in the Chinese literary tradition. LIENUZHUAN, GUIFAN , AND THE TRADITION OF VIRT UOUS WOMEN’S BIOGRAPHIES Whether literate or not, Chinese women first and foremost were remembered for their virtuous conduct throughout imperial histories. The earliest record of women’s biographies is Liu Xiang’s Lienuzhuan (Biographies of Virtuous Women), compiled in the Former Han. It laid the foundation for later dynastic records of women’s biographies and later popular didactic texts for women and family instructions.The Lienuzhuan consists of 125...


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