Education About Asia: Online Archives

Pre-Modern Chinese Women in Historical Fiction: The Novels of Lisa See

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Classroom teachers who take up the topic of women and gender in pre-modern China face a familiar set of problems. Although many excellent English language studies of women in Ming-Qing China have been published in the last two decades, most sources available to their feminist authors were the work of Chinese men.1 Whether it is family memorabilia, informal essays and fiction, or didactic texts emphasizing moral virtues and exemplary conduct, the record is dominated by the voices of literati males; and even writings by women authors themselves reached the public only through the filter of the male kin who circulated and published them. This cannot escape notice in the classroom, and today’s students quickly assume that the “traditional Chinese woman” was simply a victim of patriarchal oppression. Foot-binding still serves as a symbol of that oppression, certain to provoke horrified questions from the class, and to reinforce a general assumption that modern Westernized women have long been emancipated from the sorts of male domination Confucian norms imposed. Such readers believe too easily that all enlightenment came to China from the West, and as a corollary, that traditional women had nothing in common with modern women.