Ann Pang-White’s recent work, The Confucian Four Books for Women: A New Translation of the Nü Sishu and the Commentary of Wang Xiang, is a gift for Anglophone scholarship on Chinese philosophy and religion. It is also a major step for feminist reclamation. This is the first time these texts have been translated together in their entirety, and Pang-White situates each text in its historical and cultural context with her introduction, commentary, and annotations.
Pang-White opens the introductory section on the Nü Sishu with this question: “How do Confucian women perceive their own identity and how do these women teach other women about women’s roles in the household and in the social and political realms of a Confucian society?” (15). This question firmly establishes this translation project as intervening in both feminist reclamation and transnational feminism.
Furthermore, not only does this text bring to light the work of these women authors—Ban Zhao (ca. 45–117), Song Ruoxin (d. 820) and Song Ruozhao (d. 825), Empress Renxiaowen (1361–1407), and Madame Liu (aka Chaste Widow Wang, ca. 16th century)—a crucial part of feminist reclamation that is still in its infancy in Confucian/Ruist traditions, but these works help us to bring critical evidence to bear against the universalizing and neo-colonial tendencies toward judgment of non-western views and practices related to women. This isn’t to suggest that because of these texts Confucianism is necessarily feminist. Instead, by foregrounding the work of these women as women writing to and about other women, in the context of a tradition that was seriously patriarchal in its ideology and practice, Pang-White gives us resources to reevaluate common perceptions of women. As she explains:
A rereading of the canons in consideration of contemporary feminist concerns does not do violence to these texts. Rather, there are hidden threads of thought in need of contextualized reappropriation in order to reveal their relevance to the audience of different times and ages. The women authors of the Nü Sishu did exactly this . . . It is therefore essential for modern readers to see these women (and their appropriation of Confucian traditions) not as helpless passive victims who could only perpetuate oppressive patriarchal values, but as independent thinkers who could articulate their aspirations in their own terms even under strenuous social constraints. (22)
Three examples may be useful here. First, in previous translations of Ban Zhao, the first female court historian in China, the text tends to read at best as conservative, and at worst as hostile and derogatory to women. However, Pang-White provides careful guidance that allows us to see both Ban Zhao’s motivations in writing this text, and the places where she is being intensely critical of her society and innovative in her philosophical approach.
Second, in highlighting these women’s agency, Pang-White gives us a new way to read what otherwise seem, on the surface, to be restrictive texts that reinforce Confucian patriarchy. She is especially effective in this regard in her introduction to and translation of the Analects for Women. Written by the wealthy and well-educated Song sisters during the Tang Dynasty, on the surface this text reads like a Victorian etiquette manual, emphasizing chastity and the particulars of women’s ritually bound lives: “When walking she should not turn her head and look back. When speaking, she should not open her lips too wide . . . When sitting, she should not shake her knees. When standing, she should not sway her skirt. When happy, she should not laugh aloud” (83). But as Pang-White demonstrates, this was a text written to help lower-class women learn to read. That means it was more likely to be successful if it followed gendered conventions of the time. However, as a project for teaching women to read, this text is interventionist, as in a Confucian framework one cannot really self-cultivate without being able to read. Approaching the text in this way reveals so much more about it than the traditional approach of a text that speaks only to women’s subservient position in a male-dominated society.
Third, throughout each of the translated texts and related materials, Pang-White is careful to emphasize how radical it is that each of these authors argue for the value of women in both personal and political contexts, and the ability of women to engage in the broader Confucian project of self-cultivation. This may not seem all that shocking, until we remember that even to this day, there is real and sustained controversy over whether or not the ideal of the junzi applies to women. With this text, Pang-White has enriched both the historical materials available to Anglophone scholars and resources available for contemporary feminist and Confucian scholarship.
One of the exciting features of this text is that it does contain all the original Chinese, making it a useful resource for scholars who want to work between the original text and the translations. While I might have the occasional quibble over translation of a term or phrase, on the whole the translation is smooth and precise. In teaching with it over the past year, I did wish that Pang-White would have included a little more material providing comparisons to other texts of the same time and type written for men. Ritual manuals, for instance, appear terribly restrictive from a contemporary perspective, regardless of whether they are telling women when to get up in the morning and how much tea to offer their mothers-in-law, or whether they are telling men the angle their hat ought to be worn at and the depth of the bow to make to what level of minister. As it stands, the text is an incredible resource to both scholars and teachers, and I hope to see many using it to reread and reappropriate Confucian canons in new and interesting ways.
Sarah Mattice is Associate Professor in Philosophy & Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.
Sarah A. Mattice
Date Of Review:
August 12, 2020
Ann A. Pang-White is Professor of Philosophy and Founding Director of Asian Studies at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She is the editor of Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Chinese Philosophy and Gender (2016) and the author of over a dozen articles on Chinese and comparative philosophy as well as medieval philosophy.
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