Skip to main content

As part of the Translations from the Asian Classics of Columbia University Press, Professor Anne Behnke Kinney’s new book will be published in February of 2014. The book is a translation of the Lienü zhuan, the earliest Chinese text devoted to the moral education of women, recounting the deeds of both the virtuous and the wicked, with stories that have inspired writers and artists for more than one thousand years.

Advance praise for Kinney’s book:

     “Finally, the 125 women who lived their honorable, violent, pernicious, or mythical lives in China centuries before the birth of Christ have met the interlocutor worthy of their name. Anne Behnke Kinney has changed our views about governance, Confucian morality, and social civility in the early empire by showing the centrality of women in politics and society.”
—Dorothy Ko, Barnard College

     “Valuable not only for what it reveals about the culture of early China but also because of the influence the Lienü zhuan had in the centuries that followed. Kinney’s faithful and elegant annotated translation makes this classic of women’s history accessible to both students and scholars.”
—Patricia Ebrey, University of Washington

     “Kinney’s painstaking translation fills a curious lacuna by making this foundational work available to a broad audience of scholars and students of Asian history. The book is a significant contribution in terms of its efforts to illuminate the history of gender relations in East Asia and the quality of its translations.”
—Miranda Brown, University of Michigan

“Essential for understanding China’s premodern gender regime, Confucian ideology, and women’s sense of self. The Lienü zhuan provided later authors and artists with an endlessly rich source of moral exemplars to reveal behavioral norms for both genders. Kinney’s elegant and erudite translation brings to life the words and deeds of these remarkable women. Wonderfully inspiring.”
—Robin D. S. Yates, McGill University


In early China, when was it appropriate for a woman to disobey her father, contradict her husband, or shape the public policy of a son who ruled over a dynasty or state? According to the Lienü zhuan or Categorized Biographies of Women, it was not only appropriate but necessary for women to step in with wise counsel whenever fathers, husbands. or rulers strayed unchecked from the path of virtue. A large number of the biographies found in the Lienü zhuan thus describe the strategic and rhetorical skills of women who successfully battled various forms of injustice, ignorance and ineptitude.

Compiled toward the end of the Former Han dynasty (202 BCE—9 CE) by Liu Xiang (79—8 BCE), the Lienü zhuan is the earliest extant book in the Chinese tradition solely devoted to the education of women. While it consists primarily of biographical accounts of women in early China who were noted for various virtues, the final chapter concerns exemplars of feminine wickedness. The Lienü zhuan inspired generations of Chinese women to cultivate traditional virtues such as filial piety and maternal kindness, but it also lauded a diverse range of practices. Thus, at one extreme we see exemplars who resort to suicide and self-mutilation as a means to chastity and ritual orthodoxy, and at the other, bold and outspoken women whose mastery of rhetoric allows them to correct rulers, sons, and husbands who stray from the path of virtue. The collection thus draws upon not one point of view but on the wide range of positions on women’s roles that were current in early China.

The Lienü zhuan encompasses a large array of textual sources including early legends, formal speeches on statecraft, and highly fictionalized historical accounts. But it is also an important source of information about an aspect of early China that is often overlooked in many textual sources from the period: the daily life, ritual activities and concerns of the domestic realm. Furthermore, the text was illustrated from its inception, and its stories continued to inspire artists across the millennia who depicted its stories on screens, paintings, lacquer ware, murals, and stone relief sculpture. In subsequent periods, collected biographies of women also became a regular feature of dynastic and local histories, serving in each period and locale as an important vehicle for expressing and transmitting concerns about women’s social, political, and domestic roles. Given the innovative nature of this book in Han times as well as the continuity of its influence, it deserves our scholarly attention.
--- Anne Behnke Kinney