Competing Claims on Womanly Virtue
in Late Imperial China
Fangqin Du and Susan Mann
Virtue, in China's Confucian culture, was displayed in action. Rarely were the Confucian virtues filial piety (xiao), righteousness (yi), loyalty (zhong), or fidelity (jie) defined in the abstract. Accordingly, biographies in China's official dynastic histories were arranged by category, to illustrate specific Confucian virtues. 1 As the virtuous conduct expected of men differed from that expected of women, official biographies provide the historian with a map charting shifts in gender and virtue through time. Male virtues remain relatively constant throughout the historical record, featuring three paradigmatic forms of exemplary conduct. Sons are honored for filiality; officials are honored for loyalty; and male community members are singled out for “righteousness, ” usually conceived as generosity or leadership that contributes to the common good. By contrast, womanly virtues in early historical records are both varied and contradictory, revealing competing claims on the emotional commitments and the moral will of individual women. 2 Moreover, the record of womanly virtue changes significantly over time, particularly after the Tang-Song period.
The analysis that follows traces these changes and analyzes competing claims on Confucian womanly virtue, focusing on the late imperial period, when concepts of female virtue were dominated by the so-called chastity cult. The late imperial chastity cult defined a woman's ultimate moral obligation as her obligation to the patriline into which she married. This commitment was embraced by women themselves, even by young girls who, confronting the death of a fiancé , proclaimed their determination to serve his parents unto death, in defiance of their own parents' wishes. By resolving a woman's conflicting filial obligations to her parents and to those of her spouse, the late imperial chastity cult effectively reduced an abiding tension in the Chinese family system—the tension embodied in brides who moved from one patriline into another. 3 To what extent these changes in the conceptualization and representation of virtue are attributable to Confucianism remains a