The purpose of this book is to open up a new field and a new way of viewing East Asian societies and histories. The old stereotype construes Asian women as victims of tradition, or Confucian patriarchy. Our premise is that to correct this simplistic picture we need to recognize that neither “woman” nor “Confucian tradition” is a uniform or timeless category. To restore both female subjectivity and historical complexity, the authors of each chapter begin by examining Asian categories and terms of analysis. They then analyze the complex constellations of constraint and opportunity shaping the lives of men and women in China, Korea, and Japan from the seventh to the nineteenth century.
At the heart of this book are women in these premodern societies, illuminated by the cultures that made them and the worlds they made. We strive, with various degrees of success, to understand the concrete processes of female subject formation and to recover textures of female everyday lives in specific historical locations. Neither rebels nor victims, these women appear as agents of negotiations who embraced certain aspects of official norms while resisting others. In other words, our goal is to situate women at center stage and then cast a spotlight on the complex constellations and trajectories of their subjectivities.
Many of these women are known by their kinship roles instead of their personal names: marriage partner, mother, daughter, widow. Others are marked by their formal and informal power: female sovereigns in early Japan, seductive musicians in China, queens and princesses of Korea, authors, teachers. Still others are fictional tropes and ideal types, flesh and blood transformed into moral exemplars: the chaste widow, the filial child, the faithful wife. Many are commoner daughters, but it is hardly surprising that those whose lives were preserved in the archives with struc-