The Lienüzhuan (LNZ) or the Collected Life-Stories of Women complied by the late-Western Han Confucian scholar Liu Xiang (79-8 B.C.E.), consists of 125 exemplary life stories of women covering a broad period from earlier legendary time to the Han Dynasty. LNZ, like many other narratives in the early Chinese tradition, is a form of character-focused narrative based on quasi-historical accounts. To locate this Han text in a comprehensive framework of Confucian moral philosophy is not an easy task, and neither is recreating the moment of interpretative creativity. What intrigues the reader today about this work is not whether it accurately represents the lives of early Chinese women, but how it represents an ideal of female virtues within the Confucian ethical system, especially Confucian morality on life and death.
The LNZ has eight chapters, of which six are devoted to six forms of virtuous conduct: (1) maternal rectitude (muyi); (2) sage intelligence (xianming); (3) benevolence and wisdom (xianzhi); (4) purity and obedience (zhenshun); (5) chastity and righteousness (jianyi); (6) skillfulness in argument, rhetorical/ tactical skill (biantong). Each form of conduct is exlicated in a specific narrative. This essay focuses on two chapters of the book, “Purity and Obedience” (zhenshun) and “Chastity and Righteousness” (jieyi), which explore the ethical dimension of female virtues and suicide.
The LNZ offers various stories about why women commit suicide, and they all deal with the female virtues of chastity, loyalty, and righteousness. Some stories give examples of women who refuse remarriage. This kind of practice became an ethical norm in the following dynasties, emphasized by what is called “the cult of chastity”. Other stories talk about the importance of women practicing traditional rituals and customs. The “Wife of the Duke of Song” （《宋恭伯姬》）gives an account of how a woman refused to flee a fire because she insisted on performing the ritual that does not allow a woman to walk out of the inner chamber alone at midnight. But there are exceptions to this kind of gender-based ethics in the LNZ. For instance, the “Chaste Woman from the Capital” （《京師節女》）is a totally different kind of story where a woman’s husband is in the danger of being murdered. The assassin hears that this chaste woman possesses the virtues of benevolence, filial piety, and righteousness, and kidnaps her father as a hostage to get to the husband. Here the woman is facing a moral dilemma: if she does not meet the assassin’s demand, her father will be killed. That would violate the virtue of filial piety; if she were to turn her husband in, that would violate the virtue of righteousness. “Without filial piety or righteousness, I am not worthy living in this world,” says the woman. It follows that the woman decides to sacrifice her own life to save the lives of her father and husband. At the end of the story, she tells the assassin that she will help him to have her husband murdered. She tells him that she will open the window that night and the one lying on the east side of the house will be her husband. That night, the assassin goes in through the window and murders the one lying on the east side, only found out that it is the wife. The murderer is deeply touched by the woman’s heroic act and decides to give up the killing altogether (LNZ 5.15). The eulogy states: The woman of chastity shows benevolence and filial piety, and values righteousness more than her life. In this story, the notion of benevolence, filial piety, and righteousness fits perfectly into Confucian virtue ethics.
From such narratives the author draws the contention that the Confucian notion of “honor” in terms of chastity, filiality, and righteousness is by no means a simple moral principle to be taken as dogma. The gender-based suicide has to be explicated within the broad framework of Confucian moral philosophy, especially its view of life and death. The essay attempts to show that the moral dilemma exemplified by female virtues in the case of the LNZ is much more complicated than the dichotomy between corporeality and spirituality, or the self-regarding suicide and other-regarding suicide. Furthermore, the embodiment of a particular virtue has always been influenced by a broader social context and the established value system that is based on its own understanding of early tradition. The moral ambiguities of suicide cases represented by the “cult of chastity” (Ming and Qing periods in particular) lie in its misinterpretations of the moral pronouncements and properties of suicidal actions advocated by early Confucianism.