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Dutiful Daughters: Seven Moral Exemplars in Chinese History

Barbara Bennett Peterson

    Throughout much of Chinese history, mortal-moral women have been held in highest esteem. There were empresses, diplomats, teachers, artists, philosophers, poets, dancers, mother models, wife models, political aides, warriors, writers, scientists, and craftswomen, among many others. The one central characteristic of their appeal was that they served as moral exemplars through the stories that were told about them. In other words, they functioned as role models and as ideal cultural archetypes. And while teaching morality through story-telling seems to be universal, these Chinese stories were rooted neither in fable nor religion, but in history. The women in these stories were not capricious goddesses who lived on Mount Olympus as in the Greek culture; they were not capable of both good and evil like Kali and Durga of the Hindu tradition; and they were not mystical figures associated with miracles, as in the Christian tradition. They were, instead, real people whose lives were documented and celebrated in official histories as well as in vernacular literature for their efforts to act morally on behalf of the Emperor, their fathers, their husbands, and their children. This article offers illustrative examples of mortal-moral women in Chinese culture from the Han (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) and Tang (618–907 C.E.) dynasties. The fundamental lesson of these stories was that women, in order to fulfill their highest moral duties, could not simply be passive, obedient figures. Instead, virtuous behavior required action. Only such active engagement could preserve family honor and sustain the Mandate of Heaven.
     It is thus no irony to find among these "dutiful daughters" (xiaonu) women going to war. Among them was the poet Xu Mu (ca. 7th century B.C.E.), who defended her native kingdom Wei against the Di people. When the Di conquered Wei in 660 B.C.E., Xu Mu left her husband's kingdom of Xu, rallied her brothers, and marshaled support from neighboring kingdoms to successfully defend her ancestral home. While the people of Wei long admired her sense of duty, her famous poem "Speeding Away" hints at the tension between competing duties to husband and to father and brothers:
The wheels turn fast, the horse trots on,
I return to my brother in Wei
A long, long way the carriage has come,
To Caoyi, my homeland to stay.
The lords who follow me, far and long,
Have caused no little dismay.

Harshly though you may judge me,
From my course I will not veer.
Compared to your limited vision,
Do I not see far and clear?

Harshly though you may judge me,
My steps you never can stay.
Compared to your limited vision,
Am I not wise in my way?

I've climbed the heights of A Qiu,
Gathered herbs on the slope alone.
All women are prone to sorrow,
Each follows a path of her own.
The people of Xu still blame me,
Such ignorance has never been known.

I walk the land of my fathers,
The wheat fields are green and wide.
I'll tell the world of my sorrow,
All friends will be at our side.
O listen, ye lords and nobles,
Blame not my stubbornness so!
A hundred schemes you may conjure,
None match this course that I know.

Xu Mu's patriotic poetry and self-reliance became legendary in Chinese history. She forged the armies of her brothers, who then defeated the Di invaders and forced them into retreat.
    Martial prowess also distinguished Princess Pingyang (ca. 600–623 C.E.), who helped bring her father Li Yuan to power as the first Tang Emperor. When Li Yuan's father ran afoul of the Sui court, he fled to Hu county and mounted a rebellion. Li Yuan and her husband Cai Shao, leader of the imperial guards, soon followed. Pingyang then negotiated alliances with other Sui defectors, bringing former Sui commanders Li Zhongweng and He Panren, and a former Sui Prime Minister to Li Yuan's side. Pingyang forbade her army from looting, ordering instead that food be distributed to hunger-stricken peasants, thereby winning their loyalty as well. Organizing a Woman's Army, Pingyang routed Sui forces in Hu county while Li Yuan and Cai Shao defeated them elsewhere. In the end, the Sui Emperor Yangdi was forced to flee.2 3
    As the newly proclaimed Emperor of the Tang dynasty, Li Yuan named his daughter a marshal, authorizing a staff to serve her in her command. However, exhausted by the struggle for power, she died soon after her father assumed the throne. Heartbroken and knowing what he owed to her valor, the Emperor venerated her memory. He named a strategic mountain pass in Pingding county 'the Young Lady's Pass' in her honor. At her funeral her father explained his devotion: "As you know, the princess mustered an army that helped us overthrow the Sui dynasty. She participated in many battles, and her help was decisive in founding the Tang dynasty. She was no ordinary woman." That judgment endured in later Chinese literature.3 4
    Though no "ordinary woman," Pingying upheld rather than defied tradition. Like Xu Mu, she served as an exemplar of the obligations that all women owed their husbands and fathers.
    Chinese histories also extolled the Imperial daughters designated to serve as diplomatic brides. These ties of marriage were not one-time arrangements, but were often renewed between Imperial and neighboring courts over several successive generations. To succeed over the long term, such politically expedient marriages required that brides take an active part in cultivating the political and cultural ties their marriages were intended to serve.
    One example of sustained marriage diplomacy was that linking the Han Empire and the Kingdom of Wusun. Located in modern Xinjiang to the north of the Silk Road, Wusun was vital to the security of western commerce. Allied with Wusun, the Han could fend off the Xiongnu, a people who dominated the steppe between Wusun and Han China in present-day Mongolia. Through marriage diplomacy, Han Emperor Wudi was able to "pacify the minority nationalities nearby externally, and proceed with large-scale economic construction at home."4(For the location of Xiongnu and a map of Han territories, see

    Twice (138 and 126 B.C.E.) Emperor Wudi dispatched envoy Zhang Qian to negotiate trade agreements in central and western Asia. To protect commercial routes, he also an concluded an alliance with Wusun. Wusun's King Lie Jiaomi then asked Wudi to seal the alliance with a marriage. Wudi chose his granddaughter, Liu Xijun, for this important role. Carefully groomed for her diplomatic role, Liu Xijun set out with her retinue in 110 B.C.E., carrying a vast array of gifts, clothes and food, a Han imperial court in miniature. Upon her marriage, the King of Wusun named Liu Xijun, many years his junior, his "right-hand lady" to whom his other wives (including his Xiongnu 'left-hand lady') now had to defer. Living in a yurt on the steppe, the King of Wusun traveled much of the year with his herds. Meanwhile, a palace built in the imperial style housed Liu Xijun and her retinue. There, it was said, she would await his return, appearing alongside her husband at public festivals. According to Wusun custom, upon the King's death, Liu Xijun married his heir and grandson Jun Xumi, by whom she had a daughter.5




    When Liu Xijun died (87 B.C.E.), the Han arranged for Jun Xumi to marry yet another Han princess, Jie You (ca. 121–49 B.C.E.). Like Liu Xijun, Jie You arrived with jade and silk treasures befitting an Imperial diplomatic envoy. The alliance paid off. In 75 B.C.E., twelve years after her marriage to Jun Xumi, Han and Wusun armies attacked the Xiongnu from east and west, dispersing them. Having done this, the Han and Wusun together were able to expand Silk Road commerce.
    When Jun Xumi died, Jie You married her husband's younger brother and heir Weng Guimi, who she also outlived.6 She then married Weng Guimi's stepson Nimi, son of Jun Xumi and his Xiongnu wife. Meanwhile, Yuan Guimi, her eldest son by Jun Xumi, succeeded to the throne. Nimi, however, had other ideas, and in an effort to supplant the new king, he pushed Jie You aside and threatened Yuan Guimi. In response, Jie You called upon Han Chinese troops, who assisted Yuan Guimi in defeating Nimi's son Xi Shenshou in battle. Nimi himself was killed by Jioutu, a rebel from the Tianshan mountains, who then challenged Yuan Guimi himself.
    Rather than call Han troops to attack Jioutu, Jie You pressed for a peaceful resolution, turning for aid to Feng Liao, her lady-in-waiting. Popularly known as Madam Feng, Feng Liao had come to Wusun as part of Jie You's retinue, had married a high-ranking Wusun general, and had become fluent in the Tocharian dialect spoken among the Wusun. While her husband invited Jioutu to lay down his arms and relinquish his claim to the throne to Yuan Guimi, Feng Liao toured the Tianshan Mountains, winning the allegiance of local peoples. The strategy worked: Jioutu recognized Yuan Guimi and, to ease tensions, the Emperor granted seals to both Wusun men, authorizing them to act as Han officials. The crisis averted, Han troops returned home.
     Because she spoke many of the region's languages, Madam Feng went on to become a trusted advisor to Yuan Guimi's son, King Xinmi. A poem composed centuries later commemorated her accomplishments:
A warm send-off for the royal caravan
Moving westward through the pass
Resourceful and talented,
The woman envoy
Studied history and emulates
Ambassador Su Wu.
Her sage, heroic deeds will be famous
Down through the ages.7
    For her part, Jie You had averted a disastrous fratricidal war in Wusun. Her children later extended Han influence in Central Asia: her first son became the king of Wusun and her second the king of Shache, a region allied with Wusun. Her eldest daughter Dishi was married to the king of Guizi, an ally of Wusun and of Han China; her younger daughter married Wusun nobleman Ruohu Linhou.8 13
    Chinese histories honored diplomatic brides for implanting Chinese culture as well as ensuring state security. During the early Tang, King Songzan Ganbu unified Tibet. To legitimize and strengthen the new state, he sought wives in neighboring Nepal and China. In 607 he sent a diplomatic party to Chang'an with 5,000 liang (nearly 9,000 oz.) of gold to seal trade and political agreements and to arrange a suitable marriage. Finding the gift appropriate, the Chinese Emperor Taizong chose Princess Wencheng (ca. 620–680 C.E.) to go to Tibet. Yet Wencheng was more than a diplomatic bride; she was also a cultural emissary. With her came a dowry of fine furniture, silks, porcelains, books, jewelry, and musical instruments, as well as seed, farm tools, and technical manuals to increase Tibetan agricultural productivity.9 (For a map of Tang territories, see
     On the Qinzang plateau, Tibetans greeted her retinue with a song of welcome:

Don't be afraid of crossing the prairie
A hundred horses are waiting for you.
Don't be afraid to climb over the snow
A hundred docile yaks are waiting for you.
Don't be afraid to ford the deep river
A hundred horse head boats are waiting for you.
    The Tibetan monarchy valued marriage ties to foreign courts for the alliances, prestige, and economic assistance they provided. Tang Imperial officials, however, hoped to bring Tibet into China's political and cultural orbit. From the Tang perspective, Princess Wencheng had a civilizing mission in Tibet whose success depended upon her own virtue. From the Chinese point of view, Wencheng succeeded spectacularly. She was later credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet through her patronage of the new Jokang Temple, later one of Tibet's holiest places. Chinese artisans accompanying the princess brought techniques of paper making, textile weaving, metallurgy and bronzework, architecture, calendar calculation, farming, and ceramics. Tibetans also soon adopted the Chinese postal system, building a network of way stations to provide fresh mounts and riders to carry mail throughout Tibet as well as between Lhasa and Chang'an. The relationship was renewed following Princess Wencheng's death when Tibetan king Chidai Zhudan married Tang princess Jincheng.11
    Inculcating ethical values in others was another path to acclaim. Ban Zhao (49–120 C.E.) was one of these women. She came from a respected family: the Eastern Han emperor Guang Wudi appointed her father Ban Biao (3–54 C.E.) county magistrate in Hebei province, while her twin older brothers Ban Gu (32–92 C.E.) and Ban Chao (32–102 C.E.) served the Han as court historian and general respectively. Still young when her husband Cao Shou died, she herself became a court scholar.
    Following the restoration of the Han in the east, the Emperor invited her father Ban Biao Luoyang to serve as a court historian at Luoyang. When her father retired, he returned to his country estate to write a general history of the Western Han period. He took as his model Sima Qian's Shiji (Records of the Historian), and completed sixty-five articles of the Han Shu (History of the Han Dynasty) before his death in 54 C.E.. Arriving from the Imperial College in Luoyang for the funeral, his son Ban Gu resolved to complete it. However, because the Emperor had not formally sanctioned the Han Shu, it was illegal: a fact which, when reported, landed Ban Gu in prison. The setback was temporary: not only did the historian's brother Ban Chao and sister Ban Zhao secure his release and pardon, the Emperor granted him the title lantai linshi (palace scholar) and authorized the project's completion. For the next twenty years, Ban Gu added essays on geography, literature, law, and cosmology to the Han Shu. Unfortunately, before he could finish the project, a new Emperor acceded to the throne. Unlike the previous Emperor, this one was suspicious of Ban Gu's political motives, and threw him back into prison.12
    With her brother back in prison, completing the manuscript fell to Ban Zhao, who the new Emperor appointed to manage the project. She revised the entire manuscript, checking facts, revising writing, tracking down sources, and polishing style. She then completed unfinished mathematical and astronomical tables, adding an erudite astronomical treatise of her own. Finally, she compiled genealogical tables encompassing all significant members of the court over the previous two centuries, supplementing this work with a "Table of Ancient and Current People" describing the backgrounds and family alliances of historic figures.
    Unlike previous dynastic histories, Ban Zhao's included biographical material on the female relatives of both the Empress and the Emperor's mother. These biographies were didactic, praising both women and men as "virtuous" and "displaying integrity" or condemning them as evildoers. The History of the Han Dynasty explained why the injustices of the Western Han had lost the Mandate of Heaven and how the Eastern Han Dynasty had acted with moral vigor. Generations of moralists drew lessons from Ban Zhao's work and, in turn, venerated the historian herself for her devotion to father, brother, and the ideal of duty.13 The Han Shu had established the idea that each subsequent ruling dynasty had a duty to write the history of each past dynasty for posterity, and was the prototype for accomplishing this ideal. 20
    The Han Shu's growing reputation enhanced Ban Zhao's influence in the court. Already a lantai linshi (palace scholar), she now became known as Cao Dagu (learned one). From her perch at the Imperial Library, she taught the Empress, who included Ban Zhao among her own retinue. When the Empress Deng's infant son assumed the throne as Emperor Shang, the Empress Dowager sought political advice from Ban Zhao and selected her to educate both the young Emperor and her other children. For Chinese scholars, Ban Zhao's virtue was further demonstrated by the lives of her sons Cao Cheng and Cao Gu, the former an official at Luoyang and the latter a county magistrate. That was not the end of Ban Zhao's legacy: her "Ni Shi" or Lessons for Women became a classic manual of conduct proper to a chun-tzu (person of virtue). Ban Zhao probably would have agreed with Thomas Aquinas, who insisted that history is a branch of ethics.14
    Ethical instruction has been an important part of Chinese philosophy and education for centuries. While other cultures employed gods, goddesses, virgins, and saints to convey ideals of female morality, China's lessons were rooted in history. The important role of these historical women in ethical instruction invites questions about the lives of women and the relationship between gender, history, philosophy, and the state. Such questions keep these stories compelling. 22

Further Reading: Standard histories of early imperial China, both accessible to college and advanced high school students, include John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer and Albert M. Craig, East Asia, Tradition & Transformation, (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989), particularly chapters 4 and 5 and Ray Huang, China: A Macro History (M.E. Sharpe, 1997). For more on Chinese women, see Barbara Bennett Peterson, ed. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century (M.E. Sharpe, 2000); see also Bret Hinsch, Women in Early Imperial China (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Barbara Ramusack et al., eds. Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History. Compare, for the 17th century, Jonathan D. Spence, The Death of Woman Wang (Penguin, 1998) and, for the late 20th century, The Search for Modern China (W.W. Norton and Company, 1999). Spence contends that Chinese values persisted despite political change. Original Chinese sources include Homer H. Dubs (trans.), Ssu-ma Ch'ien: Grand Historian of China (Columbia University Press, 1958) and The History of the Former Han Dynasty by Pan Ku (Ban Gu), 3 vols. (Waverly Press, 1938, 1944, 1955) and Arthur Waley (trans.), The Analects of Confucius (G. Allen and Unwin, 1938).

Biographical Note: Dr. Barbara Bennett Peterson has been a Senior Fulbright Scholar to Japan (1967) and to China (1988-89) and is an Emeritus Professor, University of Hawaii and a retired Adjunct Fellow, East-West Center. She was recognized as Outstanding Teacher of the Year at Wuhan University, China (1989) and the University of Hawaii (1993), receiving the Board of Regents' Medal of Excellence in Teaching. Following retirement, she was named a Professor of History at Oregon State University. Dr. Peterson presented a paper at the World History Association's Conference in Victoria, B.C. that was molded into this article. She was celebrated as a Distinguished Alumni of the University of Hawaii in 1997 and is a longtime member of the World History Association.


1 Ah Yuan, "First Patriotic Woman Poet in Chinese History," Women of China, (August, 1984), 40-41.

2 Cao Wenzhu, "From Insurgent to Princess," in Women of China (August, 1986), 42–43; Cao Wenzhu, "The Central Commander of the Woman's Army Supporting Her Father and Brother's Uprising," in Famous Women of Ancient Times and Today, edited by Chinese Woman Magazine, (Beijing: Hebei People's Publishing House, 1986). For a background of the Tang period see Barbara Bennett Peterson, He Hong Fei, Han Tie, Wang Jiyu, and Zhang Guangyu, eds. Notable Women of China, Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000) especially the section titled "The Sui Dynasty and China's Golden Age of the Tang Dynasty," 171–175. This section contains historiographical texts and additional sources for the Tang Dynasty.

3 Peterson, Notable Women of China, 180.

4 Peterson, Notable Women of China, 69.

5 Ban Zhao, Han Shu (History of the Han Dynasty) (Beijing: China Publishing House, 1988). See especially the sections titled "Biographies of Xiongnu," vol. 14; "Story of Zhang Qian," vol. 61; "Stories of the Western Regions," vol. 96; "Records of the Historians," vol. 110; "Liu Xijun," by Barbara Bennett Peterson and Yang Fanzhong in Peterson, Notable Women of China, 65-68. For a general discussion of Confucian ethics see Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, East Asia, The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1989). The Peterson volume has a historiographical and additional sources section titled "The Decline of the Zhou, the Period of the Warring States, and the Formation of the Qin and Han Dynasties," 39–44. For a Chinese history source on this early period see Pan Ku, The History of the Former Han Dynasty, translated by Homer H. Dubs, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1938–1955). For a court history see Burton Watson's translation of Ssu-Ma Chien (Sima Qian), Records of the Grand Historian of China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, third ed. 1993). Part VIII of this work contains a section on the biographies of the Empresses of this early dynasty.

6 Li Hu, "The Gemini in the History of Good Relations Between Western Han and the Minorities," in Famous Women of Ancient Times and Today, edited by Chinese Woman Magazine (Beijing: Hebei People's Publishing House, 1986); Xin Tianshou, "China's First Woman Diplomat," in Women of China (March, 1981), 16–17; Ban Zhao, Han Shu (History of the Han Dynasty) (Beijing: China Publishing House, 1988), vols. 8, 14, 61, 94, 96.

7 "Feng Liao," in The Famous Women in Chinese History (Shanghai: People's Press, 1988), 198; Peterson, Notable Women of China, 72–75; Xin Tianshou, "China's First Woman Diplomat," Women of China (March, 1981), 16–17.

8 "Jie You," by Barbara Bennett Peterson and Yang Zhong in Peterson, Notable Women of China, 68–72.

9 Ji Zhong, "Princess Wencheng, A Chinese Dance Drama," in Women of China (April, 1980), 20–21; Sui Xiaohuan, "A Friendship Carrier Who Promoted a Friendship Between Han Chinese and Tibetans," Famous Women of Ancient Times and Today, edited by Chinese Woman Magazine (Beijing: Hebei People's Publishing House, 1986); Bo Yang, Genealogical Tables of Chinese Emperors, Empresses, Princes and Princesses (Beijing: China Friendship Publishing House, 1986); Wan Shengnan, Princess Wencheng (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1988).

10 Peterson, Notable Women of China, 188.

11 "Princess Wencheng," by Barbara Bennett Peterson in Peterson, Notable Women of China, 186–191 and in Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, eds. Women in World History (New York: Gale Group, 1999–2002), vol. 9, 529-532; "Princess Wencheng," in The Famous Women in Chinese History (Shanghai: People's Press, 1988), 124.

12 K.T. Wei, Women in China (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984); Nancy L. Swann, Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China (New York and London: The Century Company, 1932, reprinted 1950); M. Wolf and M. Witke, eds., Women in Chinese Society (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975); Chen Zhi, Hanshu xinzheng (The New Text Research of the History of the Han Dynasty: The Biographies of Relatives on the Empress's Side) (Tianjin: Renmin Chubanshe, 1980); Li Cheng, C. Furth, Yip Bon-Ming, Women in China (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1984).

13 "Ban Zhao," by Barbara Bennett Peterson in Peterson, Notable Women of China, 98-103; Danielle Elisseeff, La Femme au Temps des Empereurs de Chine (Paris: Stock/L. Pernoud, 1988); Famous Women of Ancient Times and Today, edited by Chinese Woman Magazine (Beijing: Hebei People's Publishing House, 1986); Fan Ye, Hou Han Shu (History of the Later Han Dynasty) (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1965); Liu Naihe, "China's First Woman Historian," in Women of China (April, 1980), 40–41; Brief general overviews of selected Chinese women appear in Dictionary of Famous Women of Hua Shia (China) (Beijing: Hua Shia Publishing House, 1988).

14 Ban Zhao, Han Shu (History of the Han Dynasty); Peterson, Notable Women of China, 98-103. "Ban Zhao," in The Famous Women in Chinese History (Shanghai: People's Press, 1988), 823; Fan Ye, Hou Han Shu (Post Han History) (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1965).


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