Women Poets of China

By Kenneth Rexroth; Ling Chung | Go to book overview

II
Chinese Women and Literature -- A Brief Survey

Writing poetry was an essential part of the education and the social life of any educated man in ancient China, but it was not so for a woman. Most of the poems of those who did write were not handed down to posterity. Many women's poems were shown only to their intimates, but were never published. In some cases, the poet herself ( Sun Tao-hsüsm), or the parents of the poet ( Chu Shu-chen + ̂), destroyed her work so that the reputation of the clan would not be damaged. Love poems usually led to gossip that the author was an unfaithful wife. Not until the Ching Dynasty ( 1644- 1911) with the promotion of several leading (male) scholars such as Yüan Mei and Ch'en Wên-shu, did writing poetry become fashionable for ladies of the scholar gentry class.

According to the Li Chi (The Book of Rites), supposedly edited by Confucius, a girl of seven was to be separated from males except her closest relatives, and at ten years confined to the women's quarters.1. The daughters of farmers, artisans, and merchants had more freedom in movement than upper-class women and helped their parents in the fields and shops. The daughters of imperial bureaucrats could travel only in closely curtained sedan-chairs or carts on visits to relatives or temples, and their experience of nature was limited to the gardens of the women's quarters.

Since marriages were pre-arranged, the couple seldom saw each other until their wedding. If the bridegroom did not like the girl, he could later take concubines. But the bride was permanently and exclusively tied to the caprice of her husband. Romantic love occurred rarely, but the occasional evidence of deep marital love, even after years of separation, is remarkable. Usually the woman gave most of her affection to her sons. Sometimes she turned into a fiercely jealous

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1.
Li Chi. Taipei, 1985. chüan 8, chapter 12, "nei tse," "regulation of the interior."

-139-

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