REVIEWS

READING SELECTIONS

 

Reviews

DENVER ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS
by Joan Hinkemeyer

The average American reader probably believes that all Chinese women of earlier centuries struggled with tiny bound feet and lives of humble servitude to the males in their lives.

Victoria Cass, associate professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Colorado, puts a lie to these perceptions.

In her exploration of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), she discovered groups of strong, outrageous women who moved freely and independently throughout their society and owned property as they achieved independent wealth. These women were actually feared by the men in power who attempted to regulate their activities.

Deftly weaving primary sources with her own narration, Cass writes of a culture that valued piety and religious rituals that could include suicide as the ultimate religious act. Women who conducted religious rites possessed great power, and entire cults could spring up around a woman who chose to commit suicide.

Although the modern reader may wonder why a granny could be dangerous, Cass says the granny's healing and midwife skills enabled her to become the valued confidante of noble wives, thus making her privy to many important secrets in households of multiple wives.

A wet-nurse who became a granny in the Imperial Palace was appointed for life, and she was guaranteed housing, income and imperial favors long after the children grew.

Cass also shows us the granny of folklore. This woman was an earthy, mischief-making trickster pictured "as an agent of illicit passion and marital discord."

In a culture that valued poetry and the arts, women's talents were respected because "the new romantic ideology favored feminine perspectives." Thus, books written by women proliferated and the role of these women--especially the geisha, who was trained in the art of pleasing--achieved ever greater importance.

Other women as diverse as the warriors, malcontents, mystics and hermits were also to be feared by men in power because of their ability to command followings.

This book is no mere recounting of facts. Cass has woven folklore, poems, plays and even art into her study to produce a captivating, vibrant story that reads as smoothly as a novel. Her groundbreaking work not only offers a new look at little-known history, but it provides archetypal role models for modern Chinese women attempting to define themselves in a new culture in a new century.

NOTABLE WOMEN OF CHINA: SHANG DYNASTY TO THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY / DANGEROUS WOMEN: WARRIORS, GRANNIES AND GEISHAS OF THE MING
in PACIFIC AFFAIRS by Susan Mann

China scholars can read history in two versions. We have "official" histories of the twenty-four dynasties and we have the "unofficial" tales spun in commonplace books (biji), drama, fiction and romance, and in histories gleefully titled outre (wai), "secret" (mi), or "wild" (ye). The two books under review here invite just such a doubled reading, with the first promising and "official" and the second an "unofficial" version of women in China's history. Approached thus, they offer an historiographic opportunity to reconsider what we know about Chinese women and how we know it.

The "official" account presented in Barbara Bennett Peterson's ambitious project could be regarded as an authorized edition of the lives of China's most famous women. Decisions about who is in and who is out of this select company were vetted by four respected historians at Wuhan University, He Hongfei, Wan Jiyu, Han Tie, and Zhang Guangyu, who served as Peterson's associate editors during her stay there as a Fulbright scholar. The advice of countless other Chinese colleagues acting as translators or editorial advisors is evident throughout Peterson's book, especially in the composition of its editorial board. Divided into historical periods (ancient, early empire, period of disunion, Sui-Tang, Song-Yuan, and Ming-Qing [which includes the early twentieth century]), Notable Women supplies a brief introduction to each period, followed by biographies of its key female figures. Just who did qualify for entry into these august narratives, and why, is a question the book answers through its contents. And those contents, familiar to almost every Chinese child until a few generations ago, will be completely new to most English-reading audiences. Since the biographies number close to the proverbial "hundred" (ninety-one in all) and range from Fu Hao to Ding Ling (including, on the wild side, Anna Louise Strong as the honorary laowai, this reviewer will merely point to some of their historiographic fascinations. One is to show how densely women are embedded in the historical narrations of China's early history. Few of these records foreground individual women, with notalbe exceptions (such as the mathematician Wan Zhenyi, whose life as retold by Peterson studies the female character and celebrates her political intrigue and palace politics dominated by men, with many empresses and empresses dowager, and many beauties married to barbarians. Even so, they show us how the "official" narratives of China's histories contained within themselves the "unofficial" subtext about sexuality and desire. How to integrate such double narratives into English-language accounts of China's history becomes a new challenge with these biographies readily at hand.

The recent scholarly literature on Chinese women's history in English is barely cited, and what is cited is often cited incorrectly--testimony in part to the difficulty Chinese scholars have in obtaining and keeping abreast of scholarly work in english, and also partly due to the fact that Peterson herself is not a China scholar. Inconsistent romanization and countless typos and errors in grammar will impede the book's use for students. But its preparation by Chinese scholars also makes it a valuable primary source, a window on the revival of interest in women's history in China during the last two decades.

The contrast with Victoria Cass's study could not be more extreme. Where Peterson's book works from the "official" record and transcribes tales of women's lives as directly as possible from Chinese sources, Cass--an accomplished sinologist and scholar of Chinese literature--reads against the grain of her Chinese sources to produce a new reading of the Ming dynasty using what she calls the "private language of women" extracted from myth, religion and the "cultural landscape." Her twenty-three-page chapter on "The Great Ming" is a gem for teaching, packed with anecdotes and quotations to dramatize that period's material and spiritual turmoil. Cass wants us to see Ming Confucianism as a "religion of passion," to celebrate the garden as a female image, to apprehend the courtesan as a master artist (hence her decision to translate ji as giesha), and to feature the crone as a dangerous free agent catalyzing the plots of Ming narratives. Female warriors, mystics and predators--shapeshifters like fox fairies and snakes--also claim chapters in her book. Cass's unsettling subversion of official narratives, written purposely in a lively language that captures the energy of her subjects, prepares us to meet the adepts who rise to heaven in broad daylight and other wonders of the Ming as if we expected them. Her bibliography, so rich in many respects, unaccountably omits mention of David T Roy's translation of Jing pin mei. The anachronistic use of Wu Youru's woodblock drawings and other modern prints needs more explanation. But the gems of insight Cass extracts from her radical rereading of language and the imagery of Chinese women's lives in the Ming period (for examples, see her discussion of the term lie on p. 5, or her notes on "granny control," pp. 55-57), bolstered by her authoritative mastery of classical Chinese prose, make her book essential reading for anyone seeking inspiration for a feminist rewriting of Chinese history.

AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW
by Paul S. Ropp

Victoria Cass has written a short, lively, and engaging study of female archetypes that were deeply imbedded in the structures of Chinese culture and daily life during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Cass focuses on women as outsiders, as revealed in the private and informal language of memoirs, miscellanies, short stories, and novels. Her goal is to place these women/outsiders in their own historical context of "the universals of myth and religion, and the verities of the cultural landscape," "so that they will speak coherently to the modern" (p. xii). In this, she succeeds admirably...

...Intended for a general audience, this short and well-illustrated volume is as engaging and entertaining as it is instructive. Cass sprinkles her text with insights not only on Ming China but also on Western parallels and contrasts. Ranging from mundane details of daily life to the esoteric practices of sorcery, magic, religion, and the martial arts, she paints a vividly gendered portrait of Ming culture in all its complexities and contradictions. The book should be extremely useful in women's studies courses, courses on Chinese history, and courses on Chinese women and gender relations.

JOURNAL OF ASIAN STUDIES
by Hu Ying

As the author indicates in the preface, the goal of the volume under review is to "show off" the various types of "dangerous women." This goal is admirably accomplished: the narrative is fast paced, the stories gripping, the accompanying illustrations quite lavish. Most strikingly, the language of the book itself pulsates with life, rendering history immediate and figures of bygone times almost tangible. Locating the portraitures of Ming women within patterns of myth and culture, the book provides a taxonomy of feminine types (or antifeminine types, as the case may be). This is a very useful book to students of Chinese history, especially for those interested in the representation of the feminine in late imperial China.

BOOKLIST - November, 1999

Dr. Cass explores the role of forgotten women of the Great Ming Dynasty period (1368-1644) in Chinese history. This era was extremely patriarchal and certain women disrupted the traditional mold.... Using mythology, folk tales, drawings and historical records, Dangerous Women illustrates the history of these women who used unconventional methods to challenge established society.... Anyone who is interested in learning more about the history of women should read these colorful portraits.

return to top of page

Reading Selections

The Great Ming
The Ming dynasty-or "the Great Ming" as it was called-was a glorious age for China. From 1368, when it was first established, until 1644, when it was destroyed, the Ming was a vital and dominant international force, a confident participant in the world economy. Trade was the new language linking the globe, and China was a powerful new partner. Ming products-spices and teas, silks and ceramics, as well as the exotic carved woods from the southern regions-were shipped from Hangzhou to Macao, then to Hormuz and Isfahan, or to Basra and Istanbul, or even on to Cadiz, Lisbon, Amsterdam, and London.

As the fame of Ming wares stretched far abroad, the goods became a magnet for specie; Europeans lamented that almost half the silver removed from the Americas ended up in the vaults of the Forbidden City. Within its own borders, the Ming was no less accomplished, no less exalted. Officials and historians praised its achievements. The Great Ming had restored China to its own "Han" people; it had thrust the nomads from the civilized world and sent the Mongols back to their yurts. Even the word "Ming" reflected a proud self-assertion, its claim for Han glory. It connotes in Classical Chinese the "radiance of great virtue."

Yet despite its brilliance, stability, and wealth, the Ming was anxious about its women. "Don't let the six grannies into you house" a local official warned. "They bring trouble and discontent."

One patriarch anxiously counseled the men of his family, "Men are weak, and listen to what their women say, bringing strife and discord to our estates." Even generals could be worried: "Beware of meeting women in battle," one cautioned. "They always use magic arts."

One father even complained bitterly about his own daughter. When she refused to remarry after the death of her spouse, he said, "Her heart is like iron and stone."

Men of the Ming period were worried. They were not, however, amiss in their anxieties, for an unregulated woman was a disaster for the collective. Whether she was the fertile daughter-in-law, the granny at the bedside, the warrior outcast, or the seductress, she threatened disorder.

Opposing such women, however, was no small matter. All these women were informed by powerful forces and deeply established traditions: the granny relied on the importance of fertility and of the lineage, the warrior on ancient religions, the predator and the geisha on the power of desire, and the recluse on the inherent fanaticism of the solitary woman.

In other words, these marginal figures in the shadows of the Ming did not arrive as unexplained exceptions to the culture; rather, they echoed larger and more powerful realities of the Ming. These dangerous women inherited the same mythologies that legitimized the male adept, the effete literatus, and the daring merchant. To introduce these excluded women, I will look first at the heart of the Ming, shifting the focus to center stage, to look at the men and women who prospered, who governed and who obeyed. I will review the larger stage where the granny, the daughter-in-law, the predator, and the troublesome cast of dangerous women played their parts.

For our overview of this era, it is necessary to read the Ming like a map-but not a map of the physical landscape, rather a map of the cultural landscape. We will take in three features of the Ming map, three important prominences. The first feature is the life of piety, the life consecrated to the cult of the family and to the altars of the state. The second is a life of the secular and sophisticated city dweller.

The Ming was justly famous for its vast and prosperous southern cities that grew fat on local, national, and international trade. Ming citizenry created an urbane and gregarious life in their markets and estates. Finally, the third feature to explore will be the cult of solitude, the detached, inward world of the artist and recluse.

return to selections

 

GEISHAS
Despite the humiliating and desperate origins of the geishas, however, some few of these women achieved a status as artists and urban cult figures. Starting as personalities of the popular stage within the education district, they became important characters in the urban drama of late Ming intellectuals.

Celebrated first as women dedicated to the arts, they became exemplars of talent in an art-obsessed age. These women joined the literati as "mates in excellence." They were famous for their expertise in theater, music, painting, and poetry, and became the essential figures for the gathering of artistic males. Nor was their expertise limited to art; it extended also to the artful and passionate life.

They functioned as counselors on matters of refinement, as the resident experts on the elaborate esoterica of a romanticized, affective life. Some of these women became public celebrities, urban folk heroes; crowds followed them, popular literature celebrated them, and an adoring public called them "River Consorts" or "Divine Women." Such adoration may seem trivial to contemporary observers, hollow praise from the fatuous who exploited the women. Public acclaim, however, can translate into wealth and social status, cultural capital can mean real capital. Finally, some of this subset of geishas stepped out of the education district into the charmed circle occupied previously by the male intellectual.

They became painters and poets, known for their own work; they edited books of scholarship and published volumes of poetry and letters. Some of these women took to the reclusive life the way the literati did.

They imitated the mountain adept with her love of privacy and love of travel. Many took to a life of public daring; they were political activists, avant-garde thinkers, and iconoclasts who challenged traditional pieties. Even a woman like Wang Wei, who despised her entrance into the district, had a kind of freedom derived from her status as geisha. As a woman of the education district, Wang could travel on her own, and did so-it was something she loved to do. "I am by nature addicted to mountains and waters," she said. Wang traveled all over Hunan, wrote poetry about her travels, and is credited with editing the travel compilations, "Records of Famous Mountains." Wang Wei was both a furious servant, abased by life in the district, and yet an aloof emblem of freedom. The role of geisha countenanced such extremes.

Return to selections

 

GRANNIES
Probably the best way to learn about one of these outrageous grannies is to meet one: the infamous Granny Wang is just the candidate. She is the chief Troublemaker for the novel "Jin Ping Mei," but her ilk run all through the folklore and fiction of the Ming. This granny, like the Palace grannies, earns a living as healer. Unlike those employees of the aristocracy, however, Granny Wang is not a specialist. She is a jack-of-all trades, a social parasite who lives off the city she inhabits. She is certainly more vulgar than the Palace grannies, but so are all the characters in these vernacular tales.

This granny's primary employment is the tea shop she owns; but, as she is quick to point out, tea is not her chief means of livelihood. "Although I sell tea, in fact, I'm like a ghost employed to sound the night watch. I have actually sold tea," she strains to recall. "In fact, it was three months ago in the third month, and it was snowing. But actually," she continues, "I make my way by various opportunities." Some of her various opportunities are the same opportunities relayed upon by the Palace granny; others are more questionable. Wang tells her story:

"I've had no old man since I've been thirty-six. He left me with a little boy, but no way to earn a living. So I set to work to ply the matchmaker's art of persuasion with people. After that, I made some clothes to sell to people in their homes, and then I was a midwife giving a squeeze to the middle to receive the little one. Also I managed to play Madame Ma and make some introductions. I can do acupuncture and cure the sick as well, and also I can do certain handiwork."

Return to selections

 

WARRIORS AND MYSTICS
If mystics were subject to suspicion, women warriors were subject to attack. Daoist or Buddhist adepts could be dangerous with their sorcery, but warrior adepts were more dangerous still; they could be guilty of sorcery in the service of politics-treason. Their skills in the Dao were especially suspect, for when they did not confine themselves to the arts of abstinence and longevity, they excelled at and were infamous for more dramatic forms of magic. Their magic arts varied: some controlled the arts of flying swords, others could manipulate the weather, some could summon armies out of paper cutouts. But the essential skill of the warrior was spirit wandering. Warrior-adepts even claimed a patron saint, a goddess, who transmitted esoteric skills to the worthy. The Primal Woman of the Nine Heavens supplied secret texts, talismans, and knowledge to the warriors. Feminine discourse with the divine could thus be used in warfare and in rebellion: both female and male warriors came dangerously close to resembling the leaders of the millenarian political movements. Of course, warnings proliferated, and some sober analysts tried to denigrate them. "They are like sword swallowers in the marketplace," one intellectual said, "practiced merely in tricks of illusion." But most, including the Emperor himself, took them seriously.

This means that for every Nun Lu who was brought to the capital to be worshipped, there were others who were banned. One warrior rebel was pursued for decades by the Imperial army. The woman warrior Tang Saier was an infamous knight errant of the Ming. She led an insurrection during the reign of the Yong Le Emperor. In the early part of the fifteenth century, she and her band of solders captured several walled cities and stockades in the rich and important province of Shandong. What made her so potent as a rebel, however, was her adept status. Like the mystics, she remembered, she could command esoteric skills; she was called "Buddha Mother" by her followers. She learned her military secrets through ominous transmission of a sacred text, and in the same cave where she found the sacred text, she found also her talisman, a magical sword. Like all warriors, she could command magic, she could create soldiers out of paper cutouts. When she was captured, the weapons of the enemy could not touch her. When finally the Emperor sought to eliminate Tang Saier, he looked for her where any adept would likely be hidden. In his exhaustive search to capture the woman, he commanded all the Buddhist and Daoist nuns in the province of Shandong to be rounded up and brought to the capital for questioning. She was never caught, however, and the historical account of this rebellious adept concludes the way these accounts usually conclude. "We have no idea where she went." Tang Saier walked a fine line. She was a charismatic leader, a saint who gathered an army, yet she risked official condemnation and Imperial rebuke.
return to selections