Sharing the Light

Representations of Women and Virtue in Early China

By Lisa Raphals

Subjects: Chinese Studies
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Paperback : 9780791438565, 348 pages, July 1998
Hardcover : 9780791438558, 348 pages, August 1998

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

List of Tables


Note on Transcription


Introduction: Gender and Virtue

Women As Intellectual and Moral Agents

The Differentiation of Men and Women


1. Women As Agents of Virtue and Destruction

Women and Ministers: Ties That Bind

Female Virtue and the Dynastic Cycle

The Lienü zhuan

The Intellectual Virtue Stories


2. Women As Prescient Counselors


Sage Intelligence

Benevolent Wisdom and Prescience

Skill in Argument and Admonition

Intellectual Virtue Stories in Other Warring States and Han Works

Biographical Formulae

Two Modes of Thinking?


3. Demonic Beauties and Usurpatious Regents

Warring States Legends of Destructive Women

Empress Lü

Virtuous and Vicious Consorts of Han Cheng Di


4. The Textual Matrix of the Lienü zhuan

Lienü zhuan Stories in Warring States Sources

The Lienü zhuan Text and Its Attribution to Liu Xiang


5. Talents Transformed in Ming Editions

Ming Publishing

Shifting Virtues

Illustrated Editions


6. Yin and Yang

Yin-Yang As Two of Six Qi

Yin-Yang As (Ultimate) Polarity

Correlative Cosmology


7. Yin-Yang in Medical Texts

The Fifty-two Ailments and Mawangdui Medical Literature

The Twenty-five Cases of Chunyu Yi

The Huang Di neijing


8. Nei-wai : Distinctions between Men and Women

Zhou Norms in the Changes and Odes

Correct Distinction between Men and Women Defines Civilization


9. Nei-wai in Ritual Texts and Social Practice

Subordination of Women

Monogamy and Marriage Choice

Physical Separation of Men and Women

Names, Ranks, Titles, and Social Identity

Intellectual Distinction between Men and Women


10. Instruction Texts

Ban Zhao's Admonitions for Women

The Decline of the "Learned Instructress" Motif

The Rise of Instruction Texts



Appendix 1: The Lienü zhuan

Chapter Titles

Dateable Incidents in the Life Stories

Appendix 2: The Intellectual Virtue Stories

Synopsis of the Intellectual Virtue Stories

The Learned Instructress Motif

Appendix 3: Vicious and Depraved Women

The Destructive Women of Lienü zhuan 7

Biographies of Empress Lü

Biographical Formulae in the Lienü zhuan , Shi ji , and Han shu

Appendix 4: The Textual Matrix for the Lienü zhuan

Chronology of Lienü zhuan Editions

Provenance of the Lienü zhuan Intellectual Virtue Stories

Appendix 5: Ming Transformations

The Intellectual Virtue Stories in Ming Editions

The Gui fan Reclassification of the Lienü zhuan Intellectual Virtue Stories

Appendix 6: Yin-Yang in Warring States Texts

Appendix 7: The Medical Cases of Shi ji 105

Summary of the Twenty-five Cases

Treatment Methods and Outcomes of the Twenty-five Cases

Appendix 8: Occupations and Activities

Appendix 9: Traditional Reign Dates


Primary Sources and Collectanea

Secondary Sources


Explores historical and philosophical shifts in the depiction of women and virtue in the early years of the Chinese state. Includes an examination of the history of yin-yang theories.


Sharing the Light explores historical and philosophical shifts in the depiction of women and virtue in the early centuries of the Chinese state. These changes had far-reaching effects on both the treatment of women in Chinese society and on the formation of Chinese philosophical discourse on ethics, cosmology, epistemology, and self-cultivation. Warring States and Han dynasty narratives frequently represented women as intellectually adroit, politically astute, and ethically virtuous; these histories, discourses, and life stories portray women as active participants within their own society, not inert victims of it. The women depicted resembled sages, ministers, and generals as the mainstays and destroyers of dynasties. These stories emphasized that sagacity, intellect, strategy, and statecraft were virtues proper to women, an emphasis that effectively disappeared from later collections and instruction texts by and for women. During the same period, there were also important changes in the understanding of two polarities that delineated what now is called gender. Han correlative cosmology included a range of hierarchical analogies between yin and yang and men and women, and the understanding of yin and yang shifted from complementarity toward hierarchy. Similarly, the doctrine of separate spheres (inner and outer, nei-wai) shifted from a notion of appropriate distinction between men and women toward physical, social, and intellectual separation and isolation.

Lisa Raphals is Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Chair, Asian Studies Program, Bard College. She is the author of Knowing Words: Wisdom and Cunning in the Classical Traditions of China and Greece.


"This book challenges several widely held paradigms concerning women in traditional China that are in dire need of the kind of nuanced and sustained reassessment present throughout the work. It is a fine piece of scholarship. " — Sarah A. Queen, Connecticut College