Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script

Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script

Article excerpt

Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script, translated by Wilt L. Idema. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2009. Pp. viii + 181. Notes on texts plus Bibliography. $25.00 (paperback).

Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script is the first English translation of a set of Chinese narrative ballads in women's script (niishu ^ClI) circulating exclusively among women in a rural community of Jiangyong County in Hunan Province. Not known to the outside world until the 1980s, women's script was a regional, gender-specific writing system designed for the local dialect and used by peasant women for centuries, most of whom were illiterate with regard to the Chinese script. As a syllabic script, women's script has to be performed by singing or chanting. Although scholarly attention in recent years has increasingly focused on elite women writers in the lower Yangzi region, much remains to be explored in the study of the culture of Chinese peasant women. English publications on women's script are limited, including William W. Chiang's book entitled We Two Know the Script: We Have Become Good Friends as well as articles by Cathy Silber, Liu Fei-wen, Anne McLaren, and Zhao Liming, among others. Despite the fact that they have substantially contributed to our understanding of the socio-cultural context of women's script and the literature written in it, Idema's Heroines of Jiangyong "focuses on a segment of writings in women's script that so far has been largely neglected in the Englishlanguage secondary scholarship, namely, the versified moral tracts and narrative ballads" (p. 7). Appealing to both general readers and specialists, Heroines of Jiangyong displays the richness of the niishu ballads while providing the western reader with a window through which to access Chinese women's material and internal worlds in rural communities.

Although approximately five hundred texts in women's script have been preserved, most of which have been published with a transliteration in Chinese characters, Idema makes a careful selection of twelve niishu texts available in English translation for the first time. Consisting primarily of an introduction to women's script and the translations of the ballads based on "published transcriptions in Chinese characters" (p. 7), Heroines of Jiangyong demystifies Jiangyong women's discourse in women's script and makes their voices heard by the English-speaking world.

The translated texts have been divided into two parts: "Moral Tracts" and "Narrative Ballads." In Part I of the book, the four moral tracts are relatively short. The texts "Admonitions for My Daughter" and "The Lazy Wife" highlight the importance of diligence and womanly work at home, such as spinning and weaving. The former is about a young daughter who enjoys playful experiences at home invoking her mother's admonitions whereas the latter is a story of a lazy wife who is portrayed as a target for ridicule at a women's social gathering. In "Admonitions for My Daughter," the mother states clearly,

"When reading books, the issue is to grasp the meaning;

There is no need to write poems and compose essays.

You have to apply yourself to twisting and spinning,

Only so your boxes will be filled with cloth and linens." (p. 26)

While devotion to womanly work is portrayed as a norm and the core of female education in the rural area, the reader would not miss the Confucian value of filial piety promoted in other texts in Part I- namely, "The Ten Months of Pregnancy" and "The Family Heirloom." Both texts share similar opening lines:

"Please allow me to tell you a few simple lines:

As human beings we must repay our parents' favors.

If you do not repay the favors done by your parents,

You will live your life here on earth all in vain!" (p. 27)

As Idema noted in the "Introduction," in both texts, "the description of parents' pains and worries, especially those of the mother, are intended to engender feelings of filial piety on the part of the children" (p. …

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