Heroines of Jiangyong

Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script

Translated by Wilt L. Idema

  • Published: 2009
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / China; Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; Performing Arts
  • Bibliographic information: 192 pp., 2 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

Heroines of Jiangyong is the first English translation of a set of verse narratives recorded in the unique women's script (nushu) of rural Jiangyong County, Hunan, in southern China. This selection of Chinese folk literature provides a rare window into the everyday life of rural daughters, wives, and mothers, as they transmit valuable lessons about surviving in a patriarchal society that is often harsh and unforgiving. Featuring strong female protagonists, the ballads deal with moral issues, dangers women face outside the family home, and the difficulties of childbirth.

The women's script, which represents units of sound in the local Chinese dialect, was discovered by scholars in the late twentieth century, creating a stir in China and abroad. This volume offers a full translation of all the longer ballads in women's script, providing an exceptional opportunity to observe which specific narratives appealed to rural women in traditional China. The translations are preceded by a brief introduction to women's script and its scholarship, and a discussion of each of the twelve selections.
Wilt L. Idema is professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. He is the translator of Meng Jiangnu Brings Down the Great Wall: Ten Versions of a Chinese Legend and the author (with Beata Grant) of The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China.

"An excellent entry into a form of writing widely noticed only in the last few decades, the 'women's script' of a small area in southern Hunan in central China."
-Robert E. Hegel, T'oung Pao, v96, 2011

"For the first time Western readers will be able to appreciate some of the most popular stories composed in Women's Script and survey the kind of stories and songs enjoyed by these village women. Thanks to the detailed notes provided, readers will understand the cultural context within which these texts were interpreted by the women of Jiangyong. The introduction succinctly summarizes the various theories concerning the origin of Women's Script material, and the uses and social function of Women's Script within Jiangyong. . . Heroines of Jiangyong will be favoured reading for all those with an interest in Chinese popular literature, Women's Script, Chinese oral and literate culture, folklore and gender studies."
-The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

"The stories and songs translated here are gems of folk literature. For the first time, Western readers will be able to appreciate some of the most popular stories composed in women's script and survey the kind of stories and songs enjoyed by these village women."
-Anne McLaren, University of Melbourne

"Contributes to the study of Chinese literature, history, and society by filling the void of research on rural women in imperial China - a field grossly underexplored due to the lack of historical documentation."
-Fei-wen Liu, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taipei

Introduction: Women's Script

Part One Moral Tracts
1. Admonitions for My Daughter
2. The Ten Months of Pregnancy
3. The Family Heirloom
4. The Lazy Wife

Part Two Narrative Ballads
5. The Tale of Third Sister
6. The Daughter of the Xiao Family
7. Lady Luo
8. The Maiden Meng Jiang
9. The Flower Seller
10. The Demonic Carp
11. The Karmic Affinity of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai
12. Fifth Daughter Wang

Chinese Character Glossary

"A valuable addition to contemporary scholarship of Chinese literature, especially regarding studies of Chinese peasant women and changben. . . . Heroines of Jiangyong serves as an excellent point of departure for exploring rural women's complex lifeworlds . . ."
-Fei-wen, Nan Nu, v12 2010

"The book represents a significant contribution to Chinese history, language, and culture, as well as to global literature and women's studies."
-Jeana DelRosso, Feminist Formations, v24(1)

"The book provides a wealth of comparative thematic, topical, and motif material for folklorists, ethnographers, and anthropologists, and is highly recommended."
-James H. Grayson, Folklore, December 2010

"Heroines of Jiangyong provides a paradigm for Chinese feminists to better understand and recognize the hidden tensions of traditionally imposed gender roles in China in order to move toward gender equality."
-On the Issues

"Idema brings a sensitive literary perspective to nushu texts. The result is a set of translations through which, it is easy to believe, the Jiangyong women's voices may be heard . . . . The Heroines of Jiangyong is a valuable contribution to English language studies of nushu."
-Journal of Folklore Research

"... provide fascinating glimpses into the trials and tribulations, as well as the ideals and aspirations, of rural women... the protagonists of these ballads, while they may weep, lament and wail, also shout and curse and scold and, for the most part, do indeed emerge as 'heroines'... translations such as these... should be especially welcomed by those who teach China in the classroom. For the language of these ballads, deftly conveyed by Idema's translations, is lively, earthy and often... refreshingly vivid."
-The China Quarterly