The Biographies of Exemplary Women (列女传) is a book compiled by the Han Dynasty scholar Liu Xiang. It includes 125 biographical accounts of exemplary women in ancient China, taken from early Chinese histories including Chunqiu, Zuozhuan, and the Records of the Grand Historian. The book served as a standard Confucianist textbook for the moral education of women in traditional China for two millennia.

The word liènǚ (列女) is sometimes understood as ” women martyrs”, which Neo-Confucianists used to mean “woman who commits suicide after her husband’s death rather than remarry; woman who dies defending her honor”.

The idealized biographies are divided into eight scrolls: Matronly Models,The Worthy and Enlightened,The Benevolent and Wise,The Chaste and Obedient,The Principled and Righteous,The Accomplished Speakers,Depraved Favorites,and Supplemental Biographies.

The biographies include The mother of Mencius, a Chinese philosopher who has often been described as the “second Sage” after Confucius; Zheng Mao, the primary wife of King Cheng of the State of Chu during the Spring and Autumn period who committed suicide to defend her honor; Consort Ban, also known as Lady Ban (Pan), was a Chinese scholar and poet during the Western Han Dynasty;  Zhao Feiyan, or Empress Xiaocheng during the Han Dynasty, known in the Chinese popular mindset more for her beauty than for the palace intrigue; Empress Wang, the last empress of the Western Han Dynasty whose faithfulness to her husband’s dynasty eventually led her to commit suicide at the end of her father’s reign; and Empress Ma of Eastern Han Dynasty.

These chapter titles serve as a summary of the major aspects of ideal female virtue as envisioned by Han dynasty elites and later generations of Chinese. Traditionally for men, filial piety was unambiguously the root virtue. Women, too, were expected to be filial, but by late imperial times, “chastity” (贞) received even greater emphasis as the fundamental womanly virtue.

In the biography of Chaste Jiang, Jiang was the wife of King Zhao of Chu. One day the king departed for a trip and left his wife behind at the Jian Terrace. While he was away, the king heard that heavy rains were causing the river near the terrace to rise, so he sent an official to take Jiang to a safer location. In his haste, however, the official neglected to bring his seal of commission (a badge to indicate that he was on official business). When the official arrived and asked Jiang to come with him, she replied, “The king has an agreement with his palace ladies that if he sends a summons he must use a seal of commission. Now, you do not carry the seal with you, and so I dare not leave with you.” The river is rising rapidly,” protested the official, “I fear that it will be too late if I return to get the seal.” Jiang replied at length: “I have heard it said that ‘the duty of the chaste woman is to honor an agreement and that the brave do not fear to die. This is because they preserve the rule of chastity.’ I know that if I follow you I shall live; if I remain I must die. But it is better to remain here and die than to pursue life by breaking an agreement and violating righteousness.” The official left to go get the seal, but it was indeed too late, and the flood waters carried Jiang to her death. “Ah!” exclaimed the king upon hearing the news “in preserving righteousness, you died for the rule of chastity. You would not trade your life for an improper act; you kept our agreement and maintained loyalty in order to perfect your chastity.” He then bestowed on his deceased wife the honorary title “Jiang the Chaste.”

In another biography, Gaoxing was a widow, “glorious in her beauty and praiseworthy in her conduct.” Her husband died when she was still young, but she refused to remarry despite many offers from distinguished noblemen of the region. Eventually the king himself heard of Gaoxing and sent a minister bearing betrothal gifts. Gaoxing replied: My husband unfortunately died young; I live in widowhood to raise his orphans, and [I am afraid that] I have not given them enough attention. Many honorable men have sought me, but I have fortunately succeeded in evading them. Today the king is seeking my hand. I have learned that “the principle for a wife is that once having gone forth to marry, she will not change over, and that she may keep all the rules of chastity and faithfulness.” To forget the dead and run to the living is not faithfulness; to be honored and forget the lowly is not chastity; and to avoid righteousness and follow gain is not worthy of a woman.

As time went on, the idea that widows should not remarry became steadily stronger and became more thoroughly incorporated into law and social practice.

Even though there was strong social pressure for widows not to remarry in many dynasties, remarriage still took place even among the reasonably well-to-do. Despite official encouragement of chaste widowhood (节夫), it was perfectly legal for a woman to remarry and surviving court documents indicated that many did.

During the Song dynasty, the government officially encouraged widows not to remarry and tended to look the other way regarding the occasional practice of following one’s husband into death by suicide.

The idea of “Three Obediences”  is rooted in history. In this view, a woman “follows” or “obeys” men throughout the three primary stages of life. Specifically, she follows her father as a girl, her husband after marriage, and her son in her old age.

The Four Womanly Virtues were sufficiently vague as to admit a wide variety of interpretations: womanly speech; womanly virtue; womanly deportment; and womanly work.

Ideally, husbands and wives tended to their respective functions with diligence, cultivated their moral virtue, and gradually became spiritually closer.

Romantic or passionate love was not the ideal historically, and husbands and wives often behaved quite formally in other’s presence. A typical image of a loving couple might show the two standing together in a pavilion watching the scenery with serene looks on their faces. They would not be holding hands, much less embracing each other. The classic symbol of marital happiness is the mandarin duck, which lives in pairs and mates for life.

A related development was the emergence of companionate marriage (才子佳人) as a literary ideal. In this vision of marriage, both man and wife should be well educated and compatible, both sexually and intellectually. Such a couple would be partners in love, lust, friendship, and scholarship. From the inner chambers, the wife would directly contribute to the advancement of the husband’s career in the outer realm. The prototypical example of a companionate marriage was a famous couple in the Song dynasty. Here is the wife’s poem written after her husband’s death:

We were happy together in those years,
Our lives like incense filling sleeves
By the fire we made tea.
We traveled on beautiful horses, by flowing streams, in light carriages,
Undaunted by sudden storms,
So long as we could share a cup of warm wine and sheets of paper.
Now embracing each other is impossible.
Can there be times like those ever again?

Edited and Translation by staff editor


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