This article explores how, during the Ming-Qing era, women writers used the persona and poetry of the great Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340?-278 bce). In order to establish the authority of their own voices, marginalized female writers often identified themselves with the mainstream male tradition. The legacy of Qu Yuan became one of their favorite examples to follow. Qu Yuan’s sao-style poems, especially the long poem “Encountering Sorrow,” are classics in the Chinese literary canon. Qu Yuan’s high moral standard and his eventual suicide for a just cause earned him a reputation as a patriotic poet-statesman much respected by later generations. Ming-Qing women writers made use of Qu Yuan’s literary and moral authority to create their own personal, political, and intellectual voices. By doing so, they demonstrated their efforts to upgrade their status in literary and social arenas.
Xie WuliangZhongguo funü23. Translated in Kang-i Sun Chang and Haun Saussy eds. Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1999)180–81. For more historical background on Ming widow chastity refer to Katherine Carlitz “Shrines Governing-Class Identity and the Cult of Widow Fidelity in Mid-Ming Jiangnan” Journal of Asian Studies 56.3 (1997): 612–40 and see pages 615–16 and her article “The Social Uses of Female Virtue in Late Ming Editions of Lienü Zhuan” Late Imperial China 12.2 (1991): 117–48 and see page 122.
Carlitz“Social Uses”122. This Ming trend of prizing virtuous women’s suffering continued and intensified in the Qing spurring a cult of widow chastity. Susan Mann “Widows in the Kinship Class and Community Structures of Qing Dynasty China” Journal of Asian Studies 46.1 (1987): 37–56.
Sima QianShiji84.5a in Siku quanshu. This image also becomes the basis for paintings of Qu Yuan see Ralph Croizier “Qu Yuan and the Artists: Ancient Symbols and Modern Politics in the Post-Mao Era” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 24 (1990): 25–50 and see pages 29–30.