An overwhelming majority of old literature works, especially those considered as ancient and medieval, focused on the male perception of the world and portrayed females differently. However, females usually assumed subservient roles comparing to their male counterparts because of traditional gender stereotypes and gender dynamics present in the society. Moreover, patriarchal societies like Chinese had clear divisions of gender roles, which were often reflected in literature. At the same time, literature provided a venue for expressing alternative views on the role women played or could play. In any case, literature is able to provide an invaluable insight on how medieval Chinese society has been organized, as well as on social dynamics and patriarchal norms governing personal inter-and intra-gender relations. These issues are especially visible in medieval mythological tales, including ghost and fox stories. Based on the analysis of some Chinese ghost and fox tales, it becomes evident that they could be roughly divided into several categories from the perspective of feminist and gender literary criticism. Hence, one group of stories portrays traditional patriarchal relationships within the society and between genders, whereby a male is a central powerful figure and a female’s primary duty is to be a dutiful wife and caring mother. The other group of stories envisions women as concubines betrayed by their male lovers who are ready to give up their lust for the sake of creating families. These stories oppose decent women to indecent concubines. Another group of stories envisions females as powerful figures who are wiser than their male counterparts are, yet for the sake of love sacrifice their freedom or other virtues for male lovers. Finally, some stories represent a combination of the above-mentioned features relating to roles and perceptions of the two genders. With account for these distinguished groups, the below analysis of medieval Chinese ghost and fox stories is aimed at determining the role gender plays in these stories and establishing whether the tales undermine or promote women’s roles.
As mentioned above, one group of stories tends to portray traditional patriarchal relationships within the society. Hence, in these stories males and females take traditionally accepted gender roles that are stereotypical for any patriarchal society, where males occupy a dominating position, while the role of females is to subordinate and serve them. One of the medieval Chinese stories belonging to this group is called “The Corpse on the Coffin.” The protagonist of the story under consideration is a young man from the family of the Lius. It is common for the story to have a male protagonist whose strength, cleverness, and other typical male virtues are emphasized. Hence, this Liu was “a daring tough who had spent most of his adulthood in Huaiyin County, associating with the town thugs” (“The Corpse on the Coffin” 269). He also served for some time in the army, after which he reunited with his old friends, drinking wine, having fun, and betting. Therefore, a young man from a relatively poor family is traditionally described as a daring and strong man who has no fear and, thus, can go to the cemetery at night. However, the story also shows that such man cannot marry a young woman from a decent and well-to-do family, as her father will not bless such marriage. Thus, in terms of gender relations the story portrays social dynamics of a typical patriarchal society where men decide among themselves the fate of women. Even though Liu takes away from the cemetery a corpse of a young woman to make her his wife, who also appears to be Wang’s daughter he once wanted to marry. It the girl one of the key characters of the story, however, she does not have voice and remains an object rather than a subject of action. Moreover, the fact that she is portrayed as a corpse, which Liu takes to be his wife, may be regarded as a metaphorical representation of the women’s power in the society, and in affairs that directly concern it. Hence, Wang’s daughter is not given a name in the story and remains a daughter of a man. Moreover, she did not have any say in her arranged marriage that she escaped by dying, and, thus, married Liu as a corpse. Moreover, the girl’s resurrection is not viewed as a miracle happening to her thanks to some merits or other unknown factors, but rather as a “predestined marriage bond” for Liu or “a reward for his bravery” (“The Corpse on the Coffin” 271).
Overall, it is typical for the overwhelming majority of medieval Chinese stories like “The Corpse on the Coffin” to glorify bravery, strength, and other distinguished achievements of men be it their position in the society, richness, or character. In turn, women originating from decent families are admired for their beauty and ability to be subservient and obey men, including initially their fathers and then their husbands. Just like the Wang’s daughter in the above story, women have no choice when it comes to their marriage and have to marry a man their fathers chose or, the one who proves to their fathers that he is worthy to enter the family. Therefore, marriage is a political, dynastic, or business bond between representatives of the two families where women become an instrument of increasing men’s power or ensuring position in the society. Besides, these stories display a typical male gaze in most stories irrespective of the country of origin and the epoch, whereby women are treated as objects of beauty to be desired and lusted by men or as instruments, their fathers and husbands use to strengthen useful connections (Tyson 83).
The depiction of women as objects is evident not only in “The Corpse on the Coffin” that belongs to the group of stories with stereotypical gender roles division, but in other types of tales being a minor motif. For instance, arranged marriage intended to promote a man in his service is a minor motif present in the story entitled “Wang Kui Betrays Guiying.” In this story, Wang Kui’s father arranges for him a marriage “with the Cui family” and little is known about the bride but her origin and her ability to promote the man in service (“Wang Kui Betrays Guiying”). In the story “Ren the Fox Fairy,” the protagonist is known in the society and becomes a key character of the story only thanks to his marriage to a cousin of a young lord Wei Yin “who was the ninth son of the daughter of the Prince of Xinan” (Jiji 15). Afterwards, Zheng’s wife is a silent character, who stays at home while her husband, who starts an affair with a concubine and builds his career. Though the above quote mentions daughter of the prince, which could have served as a testimony of the woman’s prominent position in the society, she is not praised or admired. The matter is that this prince’s daughter is mentioned thanks to the merit of her belonging to the royal family. The same disregard for personal qualities of females originating from decent, rich, and powerful families is traced throughout all medieval Chinese stories, where only foxes and concubines can become protagonists with some relative degree of personal power granted to them despite their belonging to the female sex.
Nonetheless, concubines occupy a more prominent role in stories under consideration and may be viewed as individuals, who have more personal freedom irrespective of their gender. At the same time, they are assigned some gender-stereotypical roles in addition to being stigmatized because they enter relationships with other men without marrying them, which often results in their portrayal as indecent women. Such clear division of women based on their behavior and sexuality can be observed in literatures of most male-dominated societies where female characters “are stereotypes as either ‘good girls’ (gentle, submissive, virginal, angelic) or ‘bad girls’ (violent, aggressive, worldly, monstrous)” (Tyson 88). Moreover, these bad girls, who are represented as concubines in Chinese stories, “violate patriarchal sexual norms in some way” (Tyson 89). Therefore, they are doomed to fall into disgrace and die because of their supposed lack of virtue (Tyson 89). In terms of medieval Chinese ghost and fox stories, tales featuring concubines may be united into the second group mentioned in the introduction. Stories from this group show concubines deemed as indecent women, whom their male lovers cannot marry and whom they betray for the sake of marrying decent women from good families who will make respectable wives, which often results in these concubines’ deaths.
One of the vivid examples representing this group is the story entitled “Wang Kui Betrays Guiying.” The protagonist of the story is a man named Wang Kui who fails the examination and has to find a place to live, which he happens to find in a home of “a very beautiful lady” (“Wang Kui Betrays Guiying”). This beautiful woman is Guiying. She becomes Wang Kui’s lover and provides for his living and entertainment while the man is waiting for the next spring to attempt to pass the examination again. The woman is portrayed as selfless and loving since she tells her lover: “As long as you work hard in your study, I will take care of all of your expenditure” (“Wang Kui Betrays Guiying”). At first, Wang Kui admires her beauty and appreciates her help, which is evident by countless poems he writes in her honor and his agreement to take a vow before he has to leave to serve in another part of the country. Their vow is as follows: “We will never betray each other. If one dumps the other one while still alive, let God strike that one to death” (“Wang Kui Betrays Guiying”). Although Guiying remains faithful to the vow and reasonably expects that Wang will marry her one day, he is not as loyal to his lover and starts seeing her as “a prostitute”, who will “disgrace…family reputation” (“Wang Kui Betrays Guiying”). Thus, he completely abandons her once he finds money to support his living and his father arranges a marriage with a girl from a decent family (“Wang Kui Betrays Guiying”). The woman is shocked and feels betrayed by Wang Kui, therefore she commits suicide and her spirit starts haunting the man. She claims, “I will never stop until I get your life” and even monks cannot break the oath that links former lovers (“Wang Kui Betrays Guiying”). Finally, Wang Kui dies. On the one hand, the story is about the man’s betrayal and indecent behavior, which results in his rightful death. On the other hand, implicit and explicit prejudice against the concubine is apparent. Thus, the story shows that females who take lovers before marrying them are indecent and are treated as prostitutes who can disgrace family’s reputation, which is unacceptable. In turn, men can take many lovers without any repercussions unless they take some oath, which then binds them to their word. However, in the latter case man suffers from some detrimental consequence not because of his betrayal of concubine, but because of breaking the promise, which disgraces him as male.
In turn, seemingly nothing can improve the image of females who go against the patriarchal societal norms. For instance, concubines who want to avenge themselves are seen as vicious and vengeful, which only worsens the society’s attitude towards them and warns decent men against tying their lives with such spiteful women. Besides, it is supposed that these women deserve their fate because of their promiscuity and inability to behave like decent females. This way, social and gender stereotypes dictate traits and destinies of female characters in stories, as a result integrating deeper into social consciousness and becoming the reality. Besides, concubines are always beautiful, which allows them to seduce powerful, rich, and decent men, yet this beauty does not ensure presence of virtues and may result in a tragedy as it has happened to Py Fei-Yen who is a concubine of Wu Kung-yeh (“The Tragedy of Pu Fei-Yen”). The woman falls in love with a neighbor and dies because of her sexual promiscuity and inability to remain faithful to her lover. Her lover has beaten and whipped her to “violent death”, but she claims that “Since my life has been blessed with love, I feel no regret at meeting death” (“The Tragedy of Pu Fei-Yen” 175). Hence, the attitude towards concubines was mixed and ambiguous. On the one hand, they were admired for their beauty and pitied for the tragedy of their lives, as they often did not a have a choice before becoming concubines. On the other hand, public despised them and regarded their sufferings and deaths as a logical consequence of their lack of virtue and conscious violation of patriarchal societal norms and rules.
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At the same time, some stories, including primarily fox stories, portray females as powerful figures who are wiser than their males. Nonetheless, these women often have to sacrifice their freedom or other virtues for the sake of love from their male lovers. For instance, “Ren the Fox Fairy” is one of such stories portraying a female protagonist Ren, who is a cunny, loyal, and loving fox-woman who does her best to make Zheng happy and rich. Male stupidity and disregard for Ren’s opinion, which has benefitted both Zheng and his powerful cousin, result in the woman’s death. Despite a positive portrayal of Ren, she is opposed to females who are human beings: “It is sad to think that a beast assuming human form should resist violation and remain chaste and faithful to her lord till death, while few women nowadays are equal to this!” (Jiji). Therefore, it cannot be said that this story qualitatively differs in the gendered description of males and females from other stories, since the author does not view Ren and other positively described and admired female protagonists as women, but rather as beasts taking the female form.
Of course, the above division of medieval Chinese stories into groups based on their perception of the two genders is schematic and can hardly be deemed as exhaustive. However, the brief analysis shows that women were viewed as subordinates to men in the medieval Chinese society that was male-oriented and patriarchal. In turn, women were considered as objects of beauty and lust or instruments for establishing relations with useful and powerful families, receiving promotion in service, and continuing the dynasty by giving birth to children. In any case, the above discussion shows that medieval Chinese ghost and fox stories tend to undermine women’s role and reflect traditional gender stereotypes related to women’s and men’s roles in the society. Although fox stories have positive female protagonists who deemed to be wiser than their male counterparts, these protagonists are not perceived as women per se, but rather as beasts taking on a female form. This fact does not allow concluding that fox stories promote women, as virtuous female foxes are opposed to human women, who lose in this comparison.