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Lienü Zhuan: Nurturing the Ideal Woman in Han Dynasty


PericlesofAthens,  Dahuting Tomb of late Eastern Han Dynasty, (11 October 2016), Public Domain. Alt Text: Coloured Mural of Eastern Han found in the Dahuting Tomb located in ZhengZhou, Henan, China. Mural illustrates a day activity of  two women along with a child following two men being on their way to make offerings.


Prior to the Qing Dynasty (1644), education for women in China was scarce and even if provided, they were restricted to the teaching of moral values and family traditions (p. 277). This was also the case during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), by which the Lienü Zhuan (Categorized Biographies of Women), assembled by Han scholar Liu Xiang, was one of the few books dedicated for women’s moral education. Thus, Lienü Zhuan was influential in teaching women ethics during the Han Dynasty, as the exemplary biographies of honorable women found in this book demonstrated the expected virtues that women ought to cultivate and learn from during that period.


Ksyrie,  woodcut from Lienü Zhuan, (31 August 2007), Public Domain. Alt Text: A black and white page from a story of Lienü Zhuan. Top right of the picture illustrates Duke of Jin and his wife Qijiang , while the top left illustrates the maid who who was order to be executed in the story. Bottom half of the picture contains the written story.

Due to its vital role in ethics education for women, the Lienü Zhuan significantly reflected the expectations of women’s behavior during the Han Dynasty, revealing the strict rituals that they had to abide by in order to earn the society’s acceptance. Consisting of eight chapters, this post will focus on just two: the "Maternal Models" and "The Chaste and the Compliant", to exemplify how the biographies in Lienü Zhuan conveyed the strict customs of women's behavior during the Han period.


Maternal models (p. 1-23)

The narratives in the Maternal Models depict teachings and disciplines that are expected of women in the family, bringing focus to maternal kindness and obedience. In this section, 3 stories will be discussed to analyze the virtues worthy and expected in women during the Han Dynasty. Enjoy!


1.1 The Two Consorts of Youyu (p.1)

This anecdote is about the two daughters of Emperor Yao, Ehuang and Nuying. From the recommendation by the “Chiefs of the Four Mountains” 1, Shun (the son of Gusou) and his deceitful mother were given permission to attend to the two daughters of Emperor Yao for marriage. Shun was a dignified calm man who always showed unconditional love and care for his mother despite her hatred towards him, even when she tried to kill him! Due to Shun’s admirable disposition, Ehuang and Nuying respected him and served him with good cause. Despite being the imperial daughters, they never treated Shun with arrogance. Instead, both Ehuang and Nuying advocated him in his family businesses and helped him with external errands that required his attention in manners of humility, frugality and respect. With the problems Shun faced with in-laws and outsiders, they never betrayed his trust and always prevailed his expectations in handling hardships.

Wang Hui,  Shun's wives, (2 February 2018), Creative Commons. Alt Text: A black and white illustration of Ehuang and Nuying in Lienü Zhuan, a pair of sisters who married Shun, one of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.

From the story, Lienü Zhuan has portrayed the significant role of the wife as a pillar of support for the husband in the family. It also appeared that women were responsible as the role of the wife in taking the side roles to provide aid for men, while men took the lead in managing family issues, such as handling major family conflicts. This reflected how women during the Han period were expected to be attentive to their husband’s struggles so as to lessen the husband’s stresses in protecting the family’s welfare. Though rarely acknowledged, this provided women with some authority in marriage as a wife (p.156, p.165) since they took on a supporting role in handling important family matters. Even so, this asserted men’s dominant status in a marriage, with the expectation that women should follow men’s order instead of taking the lead (p.152). Nonetheless, although women remained subjugated to their husband, this showed how the wife’s vital role in the family extended beyond merely childbearing duties and household chores during the Han Dynasty.


1.8 The Tutor Matron of the Woman of Qi (p.10)

The Tutor Matron 2 was known for cleansing bad qualities of the woman of Qi. The woman of Qi, named Zhuang Jiang, was infamous for her scandalous behavior as she was too easy-going with people, especially with men. Hence, the tutor matron saw it as a poor behavior and quickly corrected her. She told Zhuang Jiang that being a in a well-respected and reputable family, she should uphold the family’s prestige instead of behaving obnoxiously. To change Zhuang Jiang’s behavior, the tutor matron educated her on the value of self-nurturance in order for her to regain other people’s respect. From the teachings, Zhuang Jiang was then able to reflect on her misconduct and stopped her obnoxious behavior. As such, the tutor matron was praised and rewarded for reshaping Zhuang Jiang into a virtuous woman who brought honor to her family.

Thus, this story revealed how women in the Han Dynasty were expected to preserve the family’s good reputation by practising good manners. The Han society was very meticulous about women’s expected behavior, and this is especially so when it involved women’s sensuality (p.192). Furthermore, a woman’s behavior was also fundamental in shaping her family’s prestige (p.80), as a promiscuous woman would bring disgrace to the family, whereas a well-behaved, domesticated woman would boost the family’s reputation. That being so, families with well-brought up daughters attracted many males to come forth for marriage proposals, since having a chaste and obedient wife would bring prestige to the husband as well (p.192). Therefore, this asserted how being well-mannered and conservative is essential in women’s virtue during the Han period, as it played an essential role in shaping the family's reputation.


1.11 The Mother of Meng Ke of Zou (p.18)

Anonymous,  Half Portraits of the Great Sage and Virtuous Men of Old, (Yuan Dynasty 1279-1368), Public Domain. Alt Text: A book cover featuring a coloured half portrait of Meng Ke (孟軻), also known as Mencius.

During Mencius’s adolescence, Mother Meng had shifted their dwelling three times in effort to seek for the best education for Mencius. Once, she questioned Mencius about his progress in his studies and he replied that his studies had stagnated. Without a word, she snipped her weavings (their source of income) and it frightened Mencius! She then explained to Mencius that just like how a torn weave had no use, Mencius’s lack of knowledge would cause him to end up in a low-status labor and live a tough life in the future, expressing how an uneducated man would live a life of misfortunes.

As Mencius grew older, Mother Meng continued to discipline him to have reverence for his wife and to have respect for each other. Furthermore, she also counselled Mencius to share his worries and to handle each hardship with careful analysis. Hence, due to Mother Meng’s nurture, Mencius became a highly respected man. With her son's success being recognized by the public, Mother Meng was thus commended for her maternal benevolence and her efforts in inculcating Mencius with the right virtues from young.

The story of Mencius thereby significantly revealed the virtues expected of a mother in the Han period. During the Han Dynasty, maternal power was significant (p.59), as maternal roles and the continuing of the family’s lineage allowed women to gain recognition in the family. Women’s wisdom was also valued and they were often known as “exemplars of virtues and teacher of ethics” to their sons (p.119). As such, women played a vital role in bringing up their children and instilling the right values in them from young to become an upright adult in the future. Mothers were therefore influential to their children and acted as “agents of transformation” (p.176), where they were responsible in guiding their children on the right track in life. That being so, this depicted the role of the mother during the Han period as indispensable in the family, which suggested the greater respect that women were able to earn when they enter motherhood.


The Chaste and the Compliant (p.67-84)

This chapter focused on chastity, which touched on the virtue of purity and devotion of women to their husbands with reference to the perceptions towards remarriage. Furthermore, women’s level of freedom outside the domestic sphere and sexual segregation is also highlighted in shaping women’s virtues. Hence, the idea of chastity is not restricted to direct body contact, but also involved the practice of expected social behavior and rituals. Here are the two stories that demonstrated these virtues. Warning: extreme drama ahead!


4.6 Meng Ji of Duke Xiao of Ji (p.72)

Meng Ji was known for her purity and was kept in isolation within the domestic sphere, separated from interactions with men and the public before marriage. “She would not share a mat with a man, and her conversation never touched the affairs of the outside world.” After married to Duke Xiao, she once followed him on a trip but encountered an accident where she fell off the carriage. Help was then sent to the palace to deliver another carriage while the tutor matron stayed with Meng Ji.

However, when the new carriage arrived, Meng Ji refused to get on since the carriage was not well-covered. As it was against the ritual for a woman to reveal herself to the outside world, Meng Ji would rather kill herself than to get on the uncovered carriage. Hence, the messenger had to rush back to the palace to get a covered carriage. When the messenger came back, Meng Ji was already seen hanging herself! Upon seeing the new carriage delivered, the tutor matron quickly rescued Meng Ji from her suicide and told her the good news, where she finally agreed to return to the palace with them. Although her actions seemed extreme, she was praised for upholding her womanly virtues!

Gray,  China- a history of laws, manners and customs of the people, (1878), The Commons. Alt Text: Ancient China horse carriage for Nobles. Horse on the left pulling a squarish carriage built with one window in front and one on the left along with a door, on two large wheels. Carriage is decorated with a strip of detailed art beneath as well as at the top of the roof and tassels at the four corners of the roof.

Though Meng Ji was praised for preserving her virtues, such practices also revealed the prevalence of sexual segregation that oppressed women’s freedom of movement. Indeed,  sexual segregation was strictly abided during the Han Dynasty, where women were expected to stay away from the public's eye to preserve their purity. Additionally, frequent interaction between men and women was seen to bring about undesirable temptations for both sexes (p.604). Gender roles were also clearly established in a way that women belonged to the domestic realm, whereas men dealt with the outside world (p.601). Even within the domestic home during the Han period, women were separated from men and were only allowed to stay in the upper storey (p.614). Other forms of segregation included using separate toiletries, tableware and even cabinets (p.197)! 

Such practices were depicted in this story, as Meng Ji was confined in the home before her marriage. Moreover, she was also not allowed to show herself in public to avoid unnecessary attention from men. In essence, such sexual segregation thereby suggested a significant lack of women’s freedom in contrast to men during the Han Dynasty, by which men enjoyed greater privileges than women solely due to sexual difference.


4.14 The “Exalted Conduct” Widow of Liang (p.83)

After her husband's death, the widow of Liang refused to remarry despite receiving many rich nobles’ pursuit due to her belief that “a wife’s duty is to never change once she has gone out to marry.” She wished to be buried with her late husband, but was obligated to look after their children. Hence, to drive away her pursuers who were captivated by her attractiveness and to pay for the sin for not being able to show loyalty to her husband by killing herself, the widow of Liang resorted to cut off her nose out of repent! (Ouch!) Thus, due to her dedicated love for her late husband, the widow of Liang was respected for staying morally upright and untempted by her admirers' immense wealth!

That being so, this story reflected the expected roles of a wife during the Han Dynasty, whereby devotion to their husband even after the husband’s death is an expected behavior. In marriage, women hold little autonomy as patriarchy dominated in the family, despite it being a feminine space. Therefore, while men had the authority to end marriage or remarry, women had neither rights and were seen as disloyal if they were to remarry.

However, although there was hostility towards remarriage during the Han Dynasty, evidence also showed how the disposal of it seemed to be more concerned with one’s social status rather than viewing it as a moral misconduct since the wife’s family’s property might be taken back and passed to the next husband (p.45). Furthermore, widow remarriage was the norm for the upper-class despite breaking the virtues (p.131). Thus, though remarriage signified infidelity in Lienü Zhuan, there seemed to be other underlying rationale to oppose it. Nevertheless, the unfair opposition towards female remarriage undoubtedly revealed the lack of marital rights that women possessed during the Han Dynasty, thereby supporting how women were in a greater disadvantage in a marriage as compared to men.



Daderot, Tomb Figure during Western Han Dynasty (12 May 2013). , Creative Commons. Alt Text: Ceramic figure of a women kneeling.

As an important source of women’s moral education during the Han period, Lienü Zhuan was vital in demonstrating the ideals of the women’s virtues through highlighting the honor that women gained in following the expected behavior set by traditional customs. By revealing the expectations of women’s behavior, the disparity in freedom and power between men and women is also identified, as women were seen deprived of empowerment and contained in the domestic realm in most instances. Therefore, this has glorified the practice of hegemonic masculinity during the Han Dynasty, by which women lacked liberty due to the suppression by men.



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  1. According to the notes by Behnke (p.194), the “Chiefs of the Four Mountains” were officials in charge of the villages and areas surrounding the four sacred mountains. The four sacred mountains were also known as “The Four Holy Buddhist Mountains”. Click here for more information about the individual mountains.
  2. From the author of the translated Lienü Zhuan (Anne Behnke), "'tutor', is referred not simply to those assigned to take care of and instruct the young but also, in this case, to those who serve as personal advisors to aristocrats through adulthood". This is also exemplified in the later story at 4.6