Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Obscure Chinese lesbian stories, and also some poetry

Well, "lesbian". Insert generic explanation of the narrow cultural context surrounding the concepts of lesbianism and homosexuality in general here.

Last semester I took a history course, Women In Asia. One of our required readings was Jonathan D. Spence's The Death of Woman Wang, a charming, emotional, and very well-written portrait of China's tiny T'an-ch'eng Province during the 17th century. One of Spence's sources is P'u Sung-ling, a Chinese historian and storyteller living in the local city of Tzu-ch'uan at the time. This short story was included by Spence as an example of works satirizing virtuous women and widows.

An old widow was spinning one evening when suddenly a young girl pushed open the door and said with a laugh, "Old woman, aren't you tired?" The girl looked eighteen or nineteen; her face was beautiful, her clothes were bright and elegant. Startled, the old woman asked where she came from, and the girl replied, "I pitied your lonely life and came to keep you company." The old woman suspected that she had run away from some wealthy home, and kept on questioning her insistently. But the girl said, "Old woman, don't be afraid. I am alone in the world, just as you are. Admiring the purity of your life, I came to be with you; if we stay together, we can avoid lonliness--isn't that the best thing?" The old woman suspected that she must be a fox spirit, and stayed silent and suspicious. The girl climbed up onto the frame and started spinning in her place, saying, "You don't have to worry. I'm good at making my own living in this way, and you won't have to support me." When the old woman saw how friendly and helpful she was, and how sweet, she felt at ease.

When it grew quite dark, the girl said to the old woman, "I brought with me my covers and pillow, and they are still outside the door. When you go out to relieve yourself, please bring them in for me." The old woman went out and found a bag of clothes, and the girl laid them out on the bed; they were of some kind of brocaded fabric, incomparably fragrant and soft; the old woman laid out her own cotton quilt and lay down on the bed with the girl. Hardly had the girl slipped off her silken dress than a strange scent filled the room; and as they lay there the old woman thought to herself, What a shame to be next to such a beauty and not to have a man's body. From her pillow the girl smiled and said, "You're an old woman of seventy, how can you still have such restless thoughts?" And the old woman replied, "I wasn't." The girl said, "If you are not having reckless thoughts, why were you wishing that you were a man?" The old woman was now all the more sure that she was dealing with a fox spirit, and grew frightened. At which the girl smiled again, saying, "You are the one who wants to be a man, how can it be that you are afraid of me?"

In the same class, another reading dealt with love poetry, ostensibly heterosexual. The reading introduction introduced this poem as celebrating the historic freedom of Chinese women- but that's certainly not what I got out of it, and my judgment was verified by the poem's inclusion in the introduction of Bret Hinsch's book Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China.

How splendid he was!
Yes, he met me between the hills of Nao.
Our chariots side by side we chased two boars.
He bowed to me and said I was very nimble.

How strong he was!
Yes, he met me on the road at Nao.
Side by side we chased two stags.
He bowed to be and said "well done."

How magnificent he was!
Yes, he met me on the south slopes of Nao.
Side by side we chased two wolves.
He bowed to me and said "that was good."

This poem, obvious by itself in this context, was even more apparent next to the other selections, which emphasized the woman's loving subservience and contained feminine imagery rather than "Splendid"s egalitarian masculinity. We had an interesting in-class discussion in which my (correct) opinion was held to be equal to other arguments that this poem predated strict gender hierarchy, that the "woman" speaking was someone like the female general we had recently learned about, or that equality of spirit was more common than traditional Confucianism would have us believe, when all I could do was call bullshit. At least we agreed that the repeated "he met me" seemed to have a sexual undertone.

I didn't update for two months? Really? Well, it won't happen again. Watch this space!


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Hey, you. It's Monica. :] Just thought I'd drop by and say hello, and Thanksgiving is a few days away. Happy Thanksgiving and take care.