Role and Characteristics of Women in Ming Novels

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In the Tang Dynasty, which ruled China from 618 to 907 C.E., the development of poetry reached its peak in literacy achievement (Watson 149). The Yuan Dynasty, during which the Mongol Empire occupied the Chinese region, saw great innovations in dramas, resulting in the Golden Age of dramas (Fung 118). By means of poetry and dramas, the literati aired their opinion on reality or the universe, fulfilled their responsibilities to society, and furthered their spiritual cultivation (Watson 152). However, during the Ming Dynasty, a new form of literacy - novels - flourished, and three of The Four Classic Novels in Chinese history were produced at that time. As a period of growth, refinement, and cultural development, Ming novels offer vital literacy value to modern novels, short stories, and plays (Anderson 47).

Many novels in Ming are character-based, like ambitious emperors fighting for new lands in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a persistent monk seeking immorality in The Journey to the West, and brave heroes keeping justice for the commoners in The Water Margin. However, most of the characters are male, and what about females? How did the novels during the Ming Dynasty portray the role and characteristics of women? Although some scholars such as David and Zuyan argued that women's portrayal in novels is valiant and fearless, which offers a positive perspective of women, novels during the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century offer a vivid picture of women's inequality in marriage, women's exploitation in political battles and women's being despised in a sexual relationship, which implies the harsh condition of women in society.

Some literati criticized the inferior status of women in marriage in Ming novels. In ancient China, the ideology of patriarchy is dominant, leading to the prevalence of polygamy. Women have to act in unquestioning obedience to the orders of their husbands, and they are not allowed to divorce or remarry. Once they were found to be unfaithful to their husband or family, they would be punished and abused severely, and even worse, died eventually. The Water Margin, one of the Four Classic Novels, is an example of inequality. The Water Margin is about the gathering of 108 heroes at Liangshan to rout the government forces that were ruled by corrupt ministers (Hsia 73).

Besides demonstrating the requital of official injustice, the Water Margin shows the punishment of adulterous women (Hsia 72). When one of the men characters, Wu sang, discovers the love between his wife, P'an Chin-lien and Hsi-men Ch'ing, he falls into a rage and decides to revenge. He not only sacrificed P'an Chin-lien in a gruesome ritual and slew Hsi-men but stabbed two innocent children in order to vent his anger (Hsia 90). As described in the novel, "P'an had barely cried out in alarm when Wu Sung thrust his sword into her chest. He stabbed the two children also; a stab to each, and they were dead" (Hsia 93). Though it was P'an's fault to commit adultery, her fault shouldn't lead her to death and shouldn't involve innocent people. The impulsive behavior Wu sang shows his disrespect and indifference toward his wife, which indicates the inferior status of women in marriage.

Another hero, Yang Hsiung, tormented his wife, P'an Ch'iao-yun, not merely because of her adultery with a monk but to preserve his positive reputation. "Yang Hsiung then went forward, pulled out her tongue with his knife, and with one stroke cut it off to make sure that the woman couldn't make any noise…… He took her heart, liver, and five entrails and hung them up on the pine tree" (Hsia 99). P'an Ch'iao-yun deceived Yang for her adultery and estranged Yang from his brother, but none of these sins should be a reason for Yang to torture her in such a brutal way. Yang was a well-known hero with integrity and good fame in that region, but his behavior toward his wife was against his public image. Actually, the reason why Yang killed his wife is that he wanted to maintain his positive public figure. He didn't want others to acknowledge that her wife was an adulteress, so he sacrificed his wife personally to endure his righteous heroic figure.

Furthermore, scholar Hsia points out that "The women in The Water Margin are punished not merely for their malice and treachery; they are punished for being women, for being such helpless creatures of lust" (Hsia 98). While Yang anguished his wife, one of Yang's male friends witnessed the whole process and even helped Yang. They killed the woman not only because of their unfaithfulness but being a woman. Whether a sacrifice or a helpless creature of lust, a woman suffers pretty low status in the novel compared to men, men could have many concubines and wives. They went to brothels to stave off their loneliness and fulfill their desire, which is impossible for a woman. This inequality is not confined to the women in the novels, and women, in reality, suffer the same.

As stated by the historical document in Ming Dynasty, women did not remarry if their husbands died, and some even remained unmarried throughout their lives in order to defend their chastity and faithfulness (Jo-lan 147). Women stayed at home, dealing with boring household affairs, and waited for their husbands from day to day, but most of the time, their husbands were busy with official duties or entertaining their friends or concubines. Over the long haul, they are more alienated from their husbands and gradually dissatisfied with their marriage. With the illusion and pursuit of a beautiful marriage, they betrayed their family and violated common morality. It's admitted that they are guilty and should be punished because of their adultery, but are men innocent in the marriage? What if they cared more about their family and wives rather than enjoying themselves outside the home? Yet, throughout Chinese history, rarely are men blamed for their neglect in the family. Accordingly, the tragic consequence of women in marriage demonstrating acerbically in The Water Margin is inevitable, which might be an implication to the condition of women in the Ming Dynasty.

Women's exploitation in political battles is well shown in the Ming novels like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As one of the Four Masterpieces in Chinese novel history, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms offers numerous heroic tales during the fall of the Han dynasty and three warring states after the division of Han (Roberts 409). Most parts of the novel depict men's wielding of startling and unsparing power, men's conduction of diplomacy, and men's planning and fighting of wars, along with a description of women's assistance (Roberts 410). The few female characters are subjected to heavy gender stereotyping like the Confucian virtues, loyalty and chastity, and attractive appearance (Tian 230). By making use of virtues and beauty, rulers, usually men, send beauty to their enemy's army purposefully and seduce the leader of the army.

Wang Yun, one of the ministers who wanted to assassinate the potentate Tung Cho used this schema to sow discord between Tung Cho and his aide Lu Pu and capitalize on Lu Pu to kill Tung Cho. In the novel, he says to a girl, "That wretch Tung Cho wants to depose the Emperor, and not a man among us can find means to stop him……He has a weakness for beauty, and I am going to use what I may call the "chain" plan. I shall first propose you in marriage to Lu Pu, and then, after you are betrothed, I shall present you to Tung Cho, and you will take every opportunity to force them asunder and turn away their countenances from each other, so put an end to the great evil" (Brewitt-Taylor 74).

Wang planned carefully and elaborately to take his revenge, but he never thought of the girl, the sacrifice in his plan. The girl needed to marry two times and, consequently, might be viewed as a slut in a society that valued the chastity of women. Moreover, it is possible that when Lu Pu found out about the relationship between Tung Cho and the girl, he was so furious that he might kill the girl together with Tung Cho. Women are compelled to marry people whom they have no passion with and live in danger, indicating their exploitation in politics and serving as a foil to men's ambitions and goals.

Aside from the ordinary women being a weapon, it was common in ancient China that princesses were sent to foreign lands and married the local emperor in order to keep pace with the minority nationalities on the border. In fact, women are captives, and their lives depend on the relationship between the two nations. Whether being a commoner or a palace princesses, women have no choice in their fate. In conclusion, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms implies the reluctant condition of women in political competition.

In addition to marriage inequality and exploitation, women were reduced to sexual commodities in fulfilling men's desires and pleasure in Ming novels. In Ruyijun zhuan, the author mentioned that due to the lack of persuasive power, people outweighed the fulfillment of human sexuality to social responsibility, which leads to the improper regulation of human desire (Stone 48) as a result of the increased desire in the ancient Chinese society where the ideology of patriarchy and the culture of heterosexual relationships dominated, women commonly suffered from unfair treatment, as seen from the prevalent practice of polygamy and the presence of marriage inequality.

The Plum in the Golden Vase, one of the most prominent novels that challenge gender imperatives, sarcastically reveals the unfairness of women in a sexual relationship. The Plum in the Golden Vase describes the main male character His-men Ch'ing took female partners as opponents and derives a sense of triumph by abusing their bodies (Zhou 50). He owns more than ten wives and hundreds of lovers, and what women mean to him are belongings and properties, not human beings. One of the chapters in the novel describes a scene when His-men Ch'ing's wife drinks His-men's urine in order to please him.

"My darling, no matter how much urine you may have, go ahead and piss it into my mouth, and I'll swallow it for you. It's ice-cold, and it would be better not to have to expose your warm body to the frigid temperature…… His-men Ch'ing pissed into the woman's mouth, while she allowed the urine to collect there, and then slowly swallowed it in one mouthful" (Roy 358). This disgusting scene implies that women have no dignity or respect in the face of men. No one wants to drink another's urine, and the woman, after trying various ways to gratify her husband came up with this idea of how despair was to request the crazy suggestion and to protect her love and marriage.

Besides, women are forced to bind their feet in the novels since the small foot symbolizes beauty, and it is what men like during sexuality. The bound foot is pretty customary in Ming-Qing Dynasty. People generally viewed their bound feet "as a bodily marker of status, purity, and good breeding" (Zhou 51). This oppressive custom makes women more dependent and vulnerable in family and society. Therefore, in a sexual relationship, women spare no effort to entertain men, which is so menial and ingratiatory, as shown in The Plum in the Golden Vase.
However, instead of picturing a tragic image of women, some novels during the Ming Dynasty reveal the heroic and brave figure of women.

As David L. Rolston stated, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms not only demonstrates the struggles for the power of dragons and tigers, implying the stories of heroic men, but the deeds of lady phoenixes, orioles, and swallows, implying the tales of beauties (Rolston 183). For example, the heroine, Lady Sun, loves weapons and armor, so she practices martial arts consistently with men (Rolston 190). Her braveness helps her escape from the enemy's tricks and assists her husband in winning several battles. Besides David, another scholar Zuyan Zhou continues to argue that, The Plum in the Golden Vase portrayed the woman character, Jinlian Pan, as a tiger, signifying her usurpation of male power in the battles between sexes (Zhou 54). After being betrayed and oppressed by her husband, Jinlian resisted and fought for her rights like a tiger eventually.

Nevertheless, after furthering the actual roles and outcomes behind these female figures, women are still at a disadvantage. Though there are some heroine figures in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, most of them, as stated before, focus on women's role as a tool to men's success, and none of them is a fully-developed female figure. Lady Sun was sent to marry the opponent Liu Pei by her brother, Sun Chuan, as part of the badger game. Relying on her distinguished battle skills and wit, she helped his husband escape from the trap of her brother several times, but eventually, Liu Pei was captured, and Sun, unwilling to be a widow, committed suicide. The courage and ingeniousness of Sun cannot help her avoid the tragedy, not alone the powerless normal woman.

For The Plum in the Golden Vase, the reason why the woman character turned into a tiger figure was that she had been abusing and oppressing for a long time. She was fed with her marriage and determined to resist and fight as a tiger. Thus, she betrayed his husband and let him be a cuckold so as to make him as painful as her. The consequence is not surprising that she was killed by her husband. The tragedy of Jinlian is just one of the many, and seldom did a woman resist successfully against men's power in ancient China. It is also interesting to notice that Jinlian's husband is praised as a tiger in the town because of his braveness at the beginning of the novel (Zhou 54). When Jinlian decided to combat, she converted to a tiger like her husband. It is so ironic that the only way Jinlian can be a heroine is to become a man-like woman. It is not the women's characteristics that make her so brave, but the imitation of a man. No matter how hard women strived to compete for their freedom, they were still enslaved and swallowed by society.

In most civilizations, the development of arts reflects contemporary social values or social conditions. After the fall of the Mongol Empire, Honghu Emperor founded the Ming Dynasty. Born as a peasant, Honghu was pretty arrogant when he became an emperor and was afraid of losing his power. Thus, he enforced many centralized laws and policies to consolidate his empire, which gave rise to social revolts and instability. Women, as a minority in society, suffer a lot. There are many scholars who argue about the decreasing social status of women in Ming society, and novels, as the most outstanding literature form at that time, reveal women's inequality in marriage, women's exploitation in politics, and women's inferiority in sexual relationships. The conditions suffered by women in their families and social context depicted in novels are miniature of the decadent and corrupt feudalism during the Ming. The distortion of human nature on women both mentally and physically and gender bias should be eliminated as history progresses.

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Role and Characteristics of Women in Ming Novels. (2023, Mar 09). Retrieved April 18, 2024 , from

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