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Gender, genre, and discourse: the woman avenger in medieval Chinese texts.

The figure of the woman avenger appears in many medieval Chinese texts, testifying to this figure's persistent appeal and importance to contemporary literati. These texts consist of three types, namely, biographies in official histories, yuefu (Music Bureau) poems, and independent prose narratives outside historiography and poetry, which I here refer to as "unofficial prose accounts." (1) Unofficial prose accounts of women avengers have received the most critical attention: scholars have analyzed two groups of unofficial prose accounts from the Tang dynasty (618-907), focusing on "narrative variations," that is, the retellings of a story by different writers over time. (2) In this article, I will examine these two groups, placing them in the broader context of medieval narratives on female vengeance from roughly the third to the eleventh century. By comparing official biographies, Music Bureau poems, and unofficial prose accounts, we will see more clearly how genre conventions or the lack thereof shaped the ways in which stories of female vengeance were recounted. The representations of the woman avenger in unofficial prose accounts, in particular, reveal the formation of a discourse on women and sanctioned violence that is distinct from its counterparts in official histories and Music Bureau poetry.

Unlike the male avenger, whose action is clearly defined by Confucian principles of ethical duty, the woman avenger embodies a fundamental tension between femininity and violence. The principles of blood revenge were prescribed in Confucian ritual texts and commentaries. The Li ji (Book of rites), for example, stipulates an avenger's duty according to a hierarchy of patriarchal relations: avenging one's parents takes priority over other social obligations, while the duty of avenging one's brother, uncle, or cousin is regarded as less urgent. (3) The obligation to avenge a father, or filial revenge, is epitomized by the widely quoted maxim, "One should not live under the same heaven as the enemy who has slain one's father" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (4) Such a duty of revenge, however, was expected to fall on a male descendant or relative; there was no explicit canonical support for female vengeance. The problematic nature of female vengeance derives from the contradiction that in taking up sanctioned violence, the woman transgressed her designated space of domesticity and her submissive feminine roles. (5)

Medieval writers of official biographies, Music Bureau poems, and unofficial prose accounts adopted different strategies in dealing with this tension and hence developed distinctive discourses on women and sanctioned violence. Official biographies and Music Bureau poems were relatively consistent in their representations of the woman avenger. Due to limitations of space, I will discuss the major features of these two genres briefly to illustrate their differences from unofficial prose accounts. I will devote more attention to the idiosyncrasies of unofficial prose accounts, in particular those from the Tang, to show the nature of this type of narrative as a flexible mode of discursive production, especially in comparison to the carefully circumscribed discourses of the more established biographical and poetic genres.


Official biographies of women avengers were an integral part of an official discourse on female virtue that imperial courts tried to promote. While these biographies endorse the moral righteousness of female vengeance, they also carefully delineate its ethical and legal parameters, revealing the ideological interest of official discourse in containing such violence.

Since official histories focus on male-centered politics, only women of exceptional status and qualities were recognized and commemorated. Sima Qian's (145 or 135-86 B.C.E.) Shi ji (Records of the grand historian) included the first annals in Chinese history for a woman, Empress Dowager Lu (241-180 B.C.E.), who monopolized the court of the early Western Han (202 B.C.E.-9 C.E.). Later, Ban Gu (32-92) created the "Houfei zhuan" (Biographies of empresses and consorts) in his Han shu (History of the Han), while Fan Ye (398-455) established the "Lienii zhuan" (Biographies of exemplary women) in his Hou Han shu (History of the Later Han). Both categories were adopted by later historians. As Stephen West has put it, "shi [official history] is a form of tautology bounded by homological rules of genre," confirming "a pre-existent conclusion already in play about the value and shape of those incidents." (6) The expansion of biographies for women indicates historians' increasing emphasis on gender as a fundamental ideological dimension: royal consorts constituted indispensible links in the imperial lineage, while exemplary women embodied ideal female virtues. As Sherry Mou has argued, biographies of exemplary women from Hou Han shu to Xin Tang shu (New Tang history, comp. 1060) participate in a trend to downplay literary talent and scholarly learning and promote the extraordinary devotion of women as daughters, wives, and mothers. (7) Such devotion is often manifested in the woman's death, mutilation, or lifelong rejection of sexual activity and material comfort. In contrast to these forms of self-destruction or self-suppression, female vengeance represents a problematic case in the official discourse on female virtue because the woman avenger directs her violence outward, targeting her male enemy.

Only two modes of female vengeance are endorsed by official histories: a daughter's revenge for her father and a wife's for her husband, each carefully circumscribed. The earliest official biography of a daughter avenger is that of Zhao E by Chen Shou (233-297), attached to that of Zhao's son, Pang Yu (fl. 210-220), in the Sanguo zhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms) and later included by Fan Ye in his "Biographies of Exemplary Women" in Hou Han shu. The biography is paradigmatic in the way it represents the daughter avenger:
   In the past, [Pang] Yu's maternal grandfather Zhao An was killed by
   Li Shou from the same county. Yu's three maternal uncles all became
   ill and died at the same time, and the family of Li Shou was
   pleased. Saddened by the fact that her father's death had not been
   avenged, Yu's mother, E, then hid a sword in her sleeve and rode in
   a curtained cart [to wait for the enemy]. She stabbed Shou to death
   in front of the county pavilion in broad daylight. After that, she
   unhurriedly went to the county office, her facial expression
   undisturbed. She said, "Having avenged my father's death, I request
   to be executed." Yin Jia, the magistrate of the Lufu County, gave
   up his official seal and set her free. Since she refused to leave,
   the magistrate forcibly transported her back to her home. She was
   exonerated because of a general amnesty. In great appreciation of
   her deed, the prefecture established a stone inscription at the
   entrance to her neighborhood to commemorate it. (8)

Chen Shou's terse account offers only basic information on the incidents, creating an effect of verisimilitude with an authoritative, matter-of-fact tone while defining the ethical and legal parameters of a daughter's filial revenge. By noting that Zhao E takes on the duty of vengeance only after the death of her three brothers, Chen presents a daughter's filial revenge as a behavioral "cross-dressing" in the sense that she steps into the role of a son when such an expected avenger is absent. She is commendable precisely because of her capacity to rise to the higher physical and moral standards required of a man. In addition, her voluntary submission to the authorities and ultimate exoneration are also crucial for showing her as a good subject of the state. Although private vengeance helped to define and maintain social relations in early China, the court outlawed such acts beginning in the Han dynasty because they could spark feuds and threaten state control. (9) But the moral rectitude of blood revenge, especially filial revenge, was widely accepted by officials and the public throughout the history of imperial China. (10) The court itself was not consistent on the issue: some avengers were pardoned while others were executed, pointing to an acute tension between li (rites) and fa (law) in state governance. (11) In Chen Shou's account, although Zhao E's pardon occurs more or less accidentally, the sympathy and support of county and prefectural officials constitute official endorsement of her action. This instantiates the ideological interest of official discourse in asserting the state's commitment to Confucian ethics and jurisdiction over its subjects. Zhao E is considered exemplary because she affirms both li and fa: she upholds filial piety through her assassination of the enemy and respects the authority of the law with her willing acceptance of the death penalty. (12) Although she might have overstepped gender norms, her transgression is temporary because she ultimately returns to her proper roles in the domestic sphere.

Later official biographies followed the same narrative conventions, which enabled them to ameliorate the dangerous implications of a daughter's filial revenge. The Sui shu (History of the Sui, comp. 636), for example, recounts that a woman named Wang Shun joined with her two younger sisters to kill their distant uncle and his wife for murdering their father. (13) In addition, histories of the Tang report that a Ms. Wei beat her father's killer to death with bricks during the reign of Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649) and a Ms. Jia reared her little brother to adulthood and assisted him in avenging their father's death during Emperor Gaozong's reign (r. 649-684). (14) With a concise and brief narrative style, these biographies reiterate the same ethical and legal boundaries: they not only indicate the acceptable circumstances and the daughter's role in revenge (e.g., because of the presence of a brother, Ms. Jia's role is limited to that of a helper), but also emphasize the role of the state (i.e., the emperor's pardon).

In contrast to their unanimous endorsement of the daughter avenger, official biographies evince subtle variations in their representations of the wife avenger. In Hou Han shu, for example, Fan Ye honors Xu Sheng's wife, who persuaded the prefect to allow her to behead the bandit arrested for killing her husband. (15) The widow's violent act joins private vengeance with legal justice: the bandit would have to be executed by the authorities anyway. Her reliance on the local authorities contrasts with Zhao E's hunting and killing of her enemy, suggesting that during this time a wife avenger was not entitled to the same mobility and violence as a daughter, probably because canonical endorsements of vengeance in the death of one's parents, brother, or cousin, as we have seen in the Book of Rites, leave no place for a wife. Another case in point is the biography of Heng Fanghou's wife in Jiu Tang shu (Old history of the Tang, comp. 945), which commends her precisely for bringing the case of her husband's wrongful death to the court's attention and obtaining revenge through legal means. (16)

Other historians, however, present the wife avenger as being more like the daughter avenger by emphasizing her violent retribution. The Wei shu (History of the Wei) by Wei Shou (505-572), for instance, features a woman called Sun Nanyu, who beat her husband's murderer to death and was sentenced to death before the emperor eventually pardoned her. Unlike the daughter avenger, who needs no justification other than the fact of her father's death, Sun is represented as stating, "After women get married, they consider their husbands as their heaven". (17) The account indicates her involvement only in the final execution, not the hunt for the murderer. Tellingly, when Li Yanshou (fl. 627-659) compiled Bei shi (Histories of the northern dynasties, comp. 659), he adopted Wei Shou's version almost verbatim but with an adjustment: "After Nanyu pursued and captured the enemy, she wanted to kill him herself. Her brother tried to stop her but she refused to listen". (18) This emphasis on Sun Nanyu's role in both tracking down and executing the enemy in person further aligns her with the daughter avenger in terms of mobility and violence. Moreover, the judicial condemnation and the imperial pardon of Sun Nanyu show that like the daughter avenger's, the violence fomented by the wife is represented as being contained by legal parameters.

Commemorations of daughter and wife avengers in official biographies indicate the ideological interest of official discourse in promoting a woman's devotion to her father and her husband. Although a woman's resort to violence is potentially dangerous, the historians present it as a form of self-sacrifice (she risks her own life) and emphasize her submission to the patriarchal and state authorities (she defends the honor of her father or husband and accepts legal consequences). Female vengeance is also described as a single process of personal will and fulfillment, without touching upon any potential conflicts with other womanly duties.


In contrast to official biographies' strategies for endorsement and containment, Music Bureau poetry aestheticizes the link between women and sanctioned violence by presenting female vengeance as a melodrama. Taking for granted the moral righteousness of such vengeance, the poems elaborate on its sensational elements as spectacle and turn the subversive implications of the violent yet virtuous woman into the very source of dramatic tensions. In so doing, they create a continuous poetic discourse that aestheticizes the image of the woman avenger and her violence.

The earliest extant narrative poem on a woman avenger, the "Qin Nuxiu xing" (Ballad of Qin Nuxiu) attributed to Zuo Yannian (fl. 220-227), illustrates the way in which dramatic contrast serves as a fundamental mechanism of aestheticization. (19) Probably a court musician, Zuo Yannian is known for his musical innovations at the court of the Wei Kingdom (220-265). The attribution of "Ballad of Qin Nuxiu" to him may be tenuous, since early Music Bureau poems often had roots in folksong. These poems display features of what Hans H. Frankel believes to be characteristic of an oral tradition, including formulaic language, lines of uneven length, evocation of cardinal and intermediate directions, the inclusion of speech and dialogue, abrupt shifts, and a sudden ending. (20) The "Ballad of Qin Nuxiu" shares all of these attributes. After the death of her enemy, for instance, we are told that Qin Nuxiu goes west into the mountains where she encounters mountain-pass guards. These guards could easily be understood as her apprehenders, but the poem presents them as the audience for her somewhat disorderly speech recounting her revenge and escape from the death penalty.

Despite its confusing storyline (likely a remnant of an oral performance tradition), the ballad demonstrates a strong narrative interest in melodramatic contrasts rather than verisimilitude. We are simply told, "The Qins had a beautiful girl, / who called herself Nuxiu. / She was about fourteen or fifteen, / when she took revenge for her clan". (21) The vague relationship between the heroine and the person for whom she takes revenge indicates the poem's lack of concern with the specific circumstances of or justification for the vengeance. Meanwhile, the poem is preoccupied with establishing a series of poetic contrasts. In addition to the heroine's youth and beauty vis-a-vis her feat of violence, the sudden changes in her status from the "wife of Prince Yan" to a "prisoner" parallels her heroism vis-a-vis her brothers' selfishness, as in the lines: "Clearly knowing that murder would be met with the death penalty, / the older brother said [taking revenge] was reckless, / while the younger brother said he saw no reason to feel aggrieved". These contrasts build increasingly powerful tensions, culminating in Nuxiu's seemingly inevitable demise and the dramatic reversal at the end of the ballad: "Before the swords fell, / Boom!--Drums were sounded and the order of amnesty arrived". Through these dramatic contrasts, Zuo's poem effectively aestheticizes female vengeance by poeticizing its unorthodox implications in a series of dramatic snapshots.

By contrast, Fu Xuan's (217-278) version of the "Ballad of Qin Nuxiu" centers on casting female violence as spectacle. A well-known scholar-official of his time, Fu Xuan has been hailed as a crucial innovator of Music Bureau poetry. (22) The "Ballad of Qin Nuxiu" demonstrates his ingenious integration of the poetic trope of the woman avenger with the specific incident of Zhao E's revenge. This is indicated by the opening lines in which the heroine is introduced as a member of the Pangs, the family of Zhao E's husband as identified in the official biographies: "The Pangs had a heroic woman; / Her righteous reputation spread in Yong and Liang". (23) Fu Xuan's ballad presents a much more lucid story than Zuo Yannian's, not just because he composed the poem as a coherent whole, but also because he followed the basic storyline described by Chen Shou and other historians. At the same time, poetic conventions also seem to have played an important role in Fu Xuan's retelling. For instance, while Zhao E's three brothers had died, in the case of Fu Xuan's heroine: "Although she had brothers, / Their wills were too weak to shoulder [the task of revenge]". Here, the characterization of the weak-willed brothers clearly echoes that in Zuo Yannian's rendition. In addition, the killing itself occurs not in front of the county pavilion as in the official biographies, but in the marketplace, which calls to mind Zuo's lines, "I killed the man in the middle of the city marketplace, / and was arrested to the west of the streets". (24)

In fact, Fu Xuan turns the marketplace into a central stage for the heroine's valiant performance and the celebration of her bravery. Her attack on her enemy is described in graphic detail:
   Hiding the shining blade of her sword,
   She dashed ahead and killed him in no time.
   His head and body were severed;
   His corpse lay beside the various shops.
   The flesh and dirt mixed into mud;
   The splashed blood stained the building beams.
   Her heroic spirit reached up to the clouds and rainbows;
   The enemy's relations lost their morale and gave in.
   The whole marketplace commended her heroism and righteousness;
   Observers held back tears, feeling solemn and inspired. (25)

These lines aestheticize violence by redefining its gruesomeness as the heroine's glory and by presenting the killing literally as a performance in front of an enthusiastic audience. Moreover, unlike Zuo Yannian's portrayal of Qin Nuxiu as a fugitive after her act of manslaughter, Fu Xuan foregrounds Zhao E's voluntary submission to the law, a second display of heroism that further inspires the sympathy and support of officials at various levels. Through his careful staging of the poetic melodrama in an idealized social world, for which he is a spokesman, Fu Xuan thus fully elaborates on the performative nature of female vengeance as spectacle.

The famous poet Li Bai (701-762) also plays an important role in the development of the poetic theme of female vengeance. Li Bai wrote many of his best-known pieces in Music Bureau poetic forms; his full participation and creative energy, as Joseph Allen believes, "brought the genre to completion and exhaustion at the same time." (26) Regarding the specific trope of female vengeance, however, Li Bai chooses to compress and distill the "Ballad of Qin Nuxiu." He states in the preface: "This ancient ballad was composed by Zuo Yannian, Director of Imperial Music of the Wei kingdom. (1) now imitate it." (27) Eliminating the heroine's monologue from Zuo Yannian's version and adopting a consistent third-person narrative voice, Li Bai's ballad offers a streamlined, much more concise version of the melodrama. The mountain-pass guards, for instance, are turned into the heroine's apprehenders, and the references to her weak brothers and other secondary figures are abandoned. With such changes, Li Bai gives the spotlight solely to the heroine in order to foreground her bravery in slaying the enemy and in facing execution. Her image thus embodies distilled poetic tensions defining female vengeance. The following lines are a good example:
   The Qins of the Western Gate had a daughter,
   Her beauty was like a jade flower.
   Wielding the Baiyang Sword,
   She killed the enemy in clear daylight.

The heroine's beauty marks her femininity while her violence subverts the conventional expectations of such femininity. Her subsequent fortitude as a prisoner adds another layer of dramatic tension: she is able not only to inflict fatal violence upon her enemy, but also to calmly accept the same violence when it is imposed on herself.

In addition, Li Bai also introduces an important new thematic variation, wifely revenge. In his "Donghai you yongfu" (There was a brave woman in Donghai), although he evokes devoted wives and daughters lauded by earlier poets, he uses these figures as precedents to set off his unique heroine, who "would lay down her life to avenge her husband, / and was willing to suffer ten-thousand deaths". In addition to spelling out the positive meaning of the Donghai woman's violence, Li Bai also casts her as a knight-errant, as shown in the couplet: "She learned the art of swordsmanship from the maiden [master] of Yue, / and was able to leap and soar like a shooting star". (28) This innovation is significant in that it not only distinguishes the wife avenger from the earlier poetic images of Qin Nuxiu as well as other exemplary women, but also endows her with a new level of mobility and power not seen before.

The Music Bureau poems by Zuo Yannian, Fu Xuan, and Li Bai thus demonstrate the development of a poetic discourse that defines and amplifies the poetic persona of the woman avenger. The connections among these poems embody what Joseph Allen calls the "intra-textuality" of Music Bureau poetry, characterized by literati writers' creative imitation of earlier poems with the same or related topic. (29) Taken as a whole, this poetic discourse on women and sanctioned violence developed a different set of concerns from its counterpart in official histories. The poems are preoccupied with the aesthetic dimensions of female vengeance rather than its real-life conditions, and they exploit the heroine's frustration of gender expectations as the very source of poetic tensions. In light of the poetic tradition, however, the poetic persona of the woman avenger is both related and opposite to the common female subjectivity defined by passivity and sentimentality. The conventional abandoned woman, for instance, is portrayed as a pitiful figure lamenting her sad fate and lonely life, while the heroine of boudoir plaints is usually confined to the inner chambers, longing for her absent beloved through nights sleepless in sorrow, nostalgia, and anxiety about her fading beauty. (30) By contrast, the woman avenger, because of her mobility and violence, represents an active mode of poetic femininity. Whereas male abandonment or absence is the condition of the passive mode of poetic femininity, the active mode continues to affirm male power in that the woman avenger kills for her family, or more specifically, for her father or husband. In complementary ways, then, both modes reinforce the fundamental gender ideology of women's submission to men.


Compared to official biographies and Music Bureau poetry, unofficial prose accounts did not constitute any well-defined genre, but shared an equivocal status as writings falling into the ambiguous territory beyond established genres. The absence of consistent genre status and conventions allows greater flexibility and diversity in storytelling. The Tang unofficial prose accounts that feature a woman avenger, in particular, problematize the links between women and sanctioned violence by exploring the inherent gender tensions. These accounts indicate the development of a distinctive discourse that is concerned with the potentially dangerous implications of female vengeance.

Medieval unofficial prose accounts were notoriously hard to classify. The Song scholar Zheng Qiao (1104-1162) famously comments:
   From ancient times to the present, there are five categories that
   bibliographers cannot keep straight: the first is called
   "transmitted records," the second "the eclectic school," the third
   "minor discourses," the fourth "miscellaneous histories," and the
   fifth "accounts of the past." All books in these categories tend to
   be confused with each other. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE EN ASCII]. (31)

The porous boundaries among different categories of unofficial prose accounts show their genre ambiguities. Although such ambiguities were a nightmare for bibliographers, they defined a discursive space available to contemporary writers who wanted to explore issues not covered by established genres, or to explore them more flexibly.

The biography of Pang Eqin by Huangfu Mi (215-282), a variant version of Zhao E's revenge discussed above (Pang is her husband's family name), illustrates the fundamental features of unofficial prose accounts. Huangfu Mi was a famous hermit and productive writer who compiled biographies of exemplary figures, among them the no longer extant collection Lienii zhuan (Biographies of exemplary women). (32) His biography of Pang Eqin was appended to Chen Shou's official biography of Zhao E by the commentator Pei Songzhi (372-451). (33) In contrast to Chen Shou's concise version, Huangfu Mi includes a number of minor characters to present a more full-fledged story. These include the heroine's son who relays information on the enemy, the woman next door who tries to dissuade her, as well as county residents and various levels of officials who admire and support her. Moreover, he also gives the heroine a fuller, stronger character. Unlike Chen Shou, who simply states that she stabs the enemy to death, Huangfu Mi describes in vivid detail how she grabs his horse's halter and attacks him with her sword both before and after he falls from the saddle; how she wrestles with him after she breaks her own sword; and finally how she catches hold of his sword and cuts off his head with it. In addition, Huangfu Mi gives the heroine numerous opportunities to articulate her thoughts, as she defies the advice of others to take on the mission and later as she repeatedly rejects opportunities to escape legal punishment. In other words, Huangfu Mi's account is much more elaborate, ten times the length of Chen Shou's.

Although Huangfu Mi might have had more detailed knowledge of the story than Chen Shou, the differences between their accounts have more to do with the divergent modes of representation. If Chen Shou's version is a quintessential official biography, as noted above, Huangfu Mi's illustrates the flexibility of unofficial compositions in foregrounding the details of the heroine's deed. Although Huangfu Mi was following the example of Liu Xiang's (ca. 77-6 B.C.E.) collection of the same title, Lienu zhuan, he moved beyond Liu Xiang's model of simply recompiling brief narratives about exemplary women from earlier histories and legends. (34) The account of Pang Eqin's revenge illustrates Huangfu Mi's focus on more recent examples, as well as his elaboration of extraordinary performances, even to the point of sensationalizing the story. Sensationalism is precisely the criticism that the famous historian Liu Zhiji (661-721) levels at pre-Tang minor historical records, in particular those in the categories of yishi (anecdotes) and zaji (miscellaneous records), which Liu believes contain stories that are "meant to astonish the unenlightened populace" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE EN ASCII]. (35) Although Liu's criticism did not target Huangfu Mi's works specifically, it shows a historian's response to the liberties that writers of unofficial prose accounts could take even as they claim to be reporting real-life incidents and writing in the tradition of historiography.

As if anticipating such criticism, Huangfu Mi includes an epilogue to articulate his personal opinion and justify his writing:
   I, Master Xuanyan, believe that refusing to live between the same
   sky and earth with the enemy who has slain one's parents is what
   males should do. Yet despite her weakness as a female, Eqin dwelled
   on the deep pain of her father's humiliation. Moved by the cruel
   words of the enemy and his associates, she struck him in the neck
   with her sword and destroyed both the man and his horse. This
   staunched the resentment of her father's spirit and wiped away the
   eternal regrets of her three [deceased] younger brothers. There has
   been no other like her in recent history. The Book of Songs says,
   "Sharpening my dagger-axe and spear, / I will take revenge together
   with you." This refers to someone like Eqin. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE
   EN ASCII]. (36)

Huangfu Mi attempts to mitigate the ethical implications of both the heroine's violence and his representation of it. While he acknowledges the gender transgression inherent in her revenge, he justifies it in terms of her moral duty toward her father and brothers and her selfsacrifice in risking her own life to take on a much stronger opponent. In addition to stating his personal admiration, he also finds canonical support for her in the Book of Songs. The moral justifications for the heroine also legitimate his own writing in the self-appointed role of historian.

Huangfu Mi's biography thus illustrates basic features of unofficial prose accounts in terms of narrative representation. Without the constraints of established genre expectations and thematic conventions, these accounts are free to take on any subject and to explore what makes a story controversial, pushing the ethical, gender, or other relevant social parameters. Meanwhile, these explorations can also become a source of anxiety for those individual writers who try to come to terms with the implications of their stories. In the following two groups of Tang narratives featuring women avengers, we will see more clearly how the flexibility of unofficial prose accounts enabled writers to fully explore the problematics of female vengeance.

1. The Female Knight-Errant

The first group of Tang unofficial prose accounts explores the tensions between female violence and proper femininity by turning the woman avenger into an unnamed knight-errant. These stories include "Qie bao fu yuan shi" (A concubine avenges her father's death) by Li Zhao (fl. 806-820), "Guren qi" (A merchant's wife) by Xue Yongruo (fl. 806-827), "Cui Shensi" by a Mr. Huangfu (fl. 841), and "Yi (Inspiring righteousness) by Cui Li (fl. 810-840). These accounts present the woman avenger's capacity for violence as the super-human power of a knight-errant, but they shift the narrative focus from her pursuit of the enemy to her temporary affair with a man. In particular, the creation of a surprise ending, in which the woman avenger before her final disappearance kills the infant son(s) she has borne the male protagonist, marks an audacious departure in this group of tales from earlier representations in which the heroine resumes her domestic roles after her vengeance.

Li Zhao's "A Concubine Avenges Her Father's Death" offers a concise version of the basic plot with the key elements shared by the group. A scholar-official who had a relatively successful official career, Li Zhao is best known for his Guoshi bu (Supplements to the state history), a historical miscellany that gathers anecdotes about people active during the eighth and early ninth centuries. (37) "A Concubine Avenges Her Father's Death" is an entry in this collection. The story goes:
   In the Zhenyuan reign period [785-805], a temporary resident in
   Chang'an bought a concubine. He lived with her together for several
   years; then suddenly she disappeared. One night, she showed up
   carrying a human head. She told her husband, "My father was
   wronged, and so I came to this place. Now he is avenged!" She
   requested to go home. She parted from him in tears, going out the
   gate swift as the wind. After a short time she came back, slit the
   throats of the two sons she had borne, and left [for good]. [TEXT

Li Zhao's version shows a straightforward vision of the paradoxical relationship between female violence and feminine roles. Just as the woman avenger's murder of the enemy is supposed to defend the honor of her father and her natal family, her capacity for violence, derived in part from the subversive power of knight-errantry, is also presented as a threat to her married family. (39) Killing the infant sons is a potent gesture that breaks the continuity of the patriline; although it is different from her father's, she, as her husband's mate, is responsible for carrying it on. The story highlights the sequence of her escalating violations of female norms, from her sudden disappearance, to her display of the human head, to her abandonment of her husband, to the final murder of her sons. In stark contrast to the early medieval renditions, in which the heroine returns to her roles as wife and mother after taking vengeance, Li Zhao's construction of the woman avenger's devotion to her deceased father and her repudiation of her wifely and maternal roles after accomplishing the revenge establishes an opposition, revealing a perception of the dangers posed by such an empowered heroine. The deeply unsettling ambivalence concerning female violence is epitomized by her effortless metamorphosis from the mere object of a business transaction--a concubine bought by a master--to a merciless killer who overrides all authority.

Though following the basic storyline illustrated by Li Zhao's brief account, Xue Yongruo's "A Merchant's Wife" shifts the focus of the story by linking female violence to sexuality. Little is known about Xue Yongruo except that he served as a prefect at some points in his life. He included "A Merchant's Wife" in his Jiyi ji (Record of gathering the extraordinary), a collection of both historical anecdotes and supernatural stories. (40) Xue's version presents a love affair between a beautiful woman who claims to be a merchant's widow and Wang Li, a low-level functionary who cannot get reappointment because of a bureaucratic glitch. (41) Unlike Li Zhao's account, the woman's vengeance is not identified as filial revenge. This suggests either a lack of concern about justifying the moral righteousness of her violence or an intentional omission made to render her more frightening. Before her final departure, the heroine entrusts her property and their son to Wang Li, but she returns claiming, before committing infanticide, that she needs to nurse the baby in order to ease the sorrow of separation. Such details on her emotions and motives are absent in Li Zhao's version. (42)

These differences indicate that Xue Yongruo's version has subordinated the woman avenger storyline to a more prominent concern about the danger of female sexuality. The romance has no effect on her vengeance per se: the woman is presented as financially and socially independent and she does not seem to need the affair in order to advance her cause. Similarly, the emphasis on the heroine's beauty may be inconsequential to her fulfillment of vengeance, but it is essential to the story of a man's sexual adventure. The motif of the hero's sexual encounter with a young, often attractive woman who is not what she appears to be is common in early medieval as well as Tang stories. (43) These stories problematize the enticing beauty of the heroine by revealing her otherness as non-human. (44) Although Wang Li's lover turns out to be a killer rather than a spirit, she still embodies the alien qualities of female sexuality. The first half of the story subverts narrative convention: the sexual encounter leads not to any dramatic revelation of the heroine's alien nature, but instead to the mundane normalcy of family life, in which the woman fulfills her "wifely" duty by taking good care of Wang Li. If the couple can be said to constitute only a pseudo-family because there is no marriage bond between them, the birth of their son helps to formalize the relationship. This is the turning point into the second half of the story, where narrative convention is reaffirmed with the surprise disclosure of her identity as a woman avenger.

Although the murder of the baby shatters the familial bond here as it does in Li Zhao's version, the threat of female violence in Xue Yongruo's version is directed more specifically toward Wang Li, the male sexual adventurer. On one hand, the heroine's entrustment of the baby to Wang Li demonstrates that she has genuine love for the child. On the other hand, her later murder of the baby suggests that it is precisely her attachment to the child that prompts her to repudiate it. Although she leaves without doing any harm to Wang Li, the death of the baby proves that she is quite capable of doing otherwise. In other words, her love for the baby and her subsequent murder of it suggest that her earlier display of feelings for Wang Li by leaving him all her possessions could become the very reason for her to kill him. In fact, the baby can be seen as the substitute for Wang Li in that by killing it she ultimately severs her emotional bond with Wang. It is no coincidence that the story is the only one in the group that elaborates on the responses of the hero. Wang Li is said to be "shocked" when he sees the head of his lover's enemy. He becomes "scared and unable to sleep throughout the night" after he discovers the son's severed head and body. (45) Also, he travels to nearby towns, not simply to avoid being implicated in the woman's vengeance case (the circumstances of which are considered so marginal that they are skipped altogether), but, perhaps more importantly, to run away from her. By conflating the woman avenger story with that of male sexual adventure, Xue Yongruo's rendition intriguingly recasts the dangerous female in terms of sex and violence.

By contrast, in "Cui Shensi" the author Mr. Huangfu tries to rationalize the dangers of the woman avenger, which have been foregrounded by Li Zhao and exploited by Xue Yongruo. Mr. Huangfu is an obscure figure believed to be the compiler of the collection Yuanhua ji (Record of investigating transformations), in which "Cui Shensi" was included. (46) In his rendition, Mr. Huangfu consistently emphasizes the heroine's feminine virtues. The scholar Cui Shensi steals glimpses of a beautiful woman living in seclusion and becomes so attracted to her that he proposes marriage. (47) The woman has always acted properly. She never peeks at Cui Shensi, and after deciding to become his concubine instead of his wife (on the grounds that she is not from the same scholar-official background), she appears to be a devoted mate. When she bears a child, motherhood only enhances her feminine qualities, and by avenging her father's death she fulfills yet another feminine duty--that of the filial daughter.

Furthermore, the heroine's use of violence is carefully justified. After showing up with a dagger and a human head in her hand, the woman explains to Cui Shensi that her father was wrongly executed by the prefect. This detail indicates that the legal administration itself is corrupt, giving her no other alternative than to take upon herself the time-honored act of filial revenge. Moreover, at the end of the story after the infanticide, Mr. Huangfu steps in to comment: "By killing her son she repudiated her emotional attachment to him. Of the ancient knights-errant, none could surpass her." [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE EN ASCII] If. (48) By explaining that the woman killed her son in order to prevent future longing for him, Mr. Huangfu tries to argue against the potential interpretation that she intended to do harm to her husband's family. His further comparison of her to ancient knights-errant casts her controversial behavior as self-discipline, a classical virtue of the knight-errant. (49) Although the code of knight-errantry does give her murder of the baby a certain logic, the implicit acknowledgment that the act is outside the bounds of normal ethical values paradoxically emphasizes its alien nature. Moreover, taking her son's life for her own sake makes her seem cold and selfish, and contradicts the feminine virtues that Mr. Huangfu underscores earlier. Thus despite his efforts to rationalize female violence, a residual uneasiness remains which speaks to the difficulty of dissolving her threatening power.

Compared to these versions, Cui Li's "Inspiring Righteousness" is distinctive in terms of its attempts to present the female knight-errant as a moral exemplar and to connect her with counterparts in official biographies. A holder of the prestigious jinshi (presented scholar) degree, Cui Li enjoyed a successful career and rose to the position of military governor. (50) In his "Inspiring Righteousness," he is even more systematic than Mr. Huangfu in trying to fill the gaps of the story and improve the heroine's image. Apart from highlighting her feminine virtues, Cui Li makes her marriage a precondition for her revenge: the woman decides to get married because she realizes that her solitary life in a rented home has aroused the suspicions of neighbors. This arrangement distances the story from liaison plots and gives the sexual relationship a moral end in order to create a more coherent vengeance story. Furthermore, the woman does not leave and then return to kill her son, feigning the need to nurse the child as she does in "A Merchant's Wife" and "Cui Shensi." Instead she commits the act in front of her husband after revealing her hidden identity. She explains that she is killing her son in order to preclude future shame for him at being the son of a murderess. With this detail, Cui Li succeeds where Mr. Huangfu fails: the murder of the baby is now made consistent with motherly altruism. In addition, as Sarah Allen points out, the woman's departing words of benevolence and righteousness to her husband imply that she herself has acted consistently with these principles. (51)

Moreover, like Mr. Huangfu, Cui Li offers an interpretive framework for his story. His commentary on the moral significance of the woman's actions and his own agenda is lengthy:

Coda: The woman of Shu had sought to avenge her father for years and she finally had her wish fulfilled. Moreover, she killed her son and repudiated her husband so that the son would not be burdened with the maternal tie and her husband would not be implicated. In light of [the principle of] filial piety, this was certainly filial piety; in light of [the principle] of righteousness, this was indeed righteousness. Filial and righteous--she was one such filial [sic] woman. During the two hundred years since the beginning of our dynasty until now, there have been loyal, righteous, filial, and chaste women and girls, whose deeds will not be surpassed in tens of thousands of years, such as Compassionate Girl Gao, who is known for her filial piety, as well as Righteous Woman Geng and Heroic Woman Yang. The woman of Shu should be considered on par with these three. In the past, because Li Duanyan from Longxi was amazed by her deeds, he wrote a biography of her, a detailed one. I, Cui Li from Boling, have also written an essay entitled "Inspiring Righteousness," hoping that together with Duanyan, we can inspire and move people with this righteous example. The woman from Shu stayed in Chang'an for three years altogether. She came in the twentieth year of the Zhenyuan Reign [804], got married in the twenty-first year [805], and left at the beginning of the Yuanhe Reign [806],


Cui Li's epilogue employs the strategy of moral categorization and establishes a historical lineage of female virtue in order to legitimate his heroine. As Sarah Allen has noted, his rendition turns the heroine from "a suspicious stranger" at the beginning to "a paragon of principled action" in the end. (53) In the coda, his placement of her actions within major moral categories such as filial piety and righteousness further affirms her virtue as daughter, mother, and wife. Moreover, by grouping her with other exemplary women of the Tang, Cui argues that she is not a threat to patriarchy, but one of its moral icons.

Anticipating readers' question of why he has to offer an additional, alternative account to Li Duanyan's biography (no longer extant), Cui Li tries to justify himself. He stylistically distinguishes his version as an "essay" (wen) meant to illuminate the moral significance of the heroine's actions for readers, (54) in contrast to Li Duanyan's presumably matter-of-fact "biography" (zhuan). The end of Cui Li's account, with the "historical" information on the heroine's arrival, marriage, and departure, does not simply reiterate the veracity of his account. It also implies a distinction between the factual and the dramatic elements of the story. The omission of this information from the essay proper indicates that Cui Li's focus is on the more exciting, dramatic aspects of her performance. Consistent with his goal of using the story to inspire people, this inclination toward dramatization, which is already discernible as early as Huangfu Mi's third-century account of Pang Eqin's revenge, suggests Cui Li's sense of his own literary power. Yet this self-positioning, which inadvertently calls attention to Cui Li's own role in shaping his account, is carefully submerged under his moralistic persona: he is allegedly interested only in ensuring that readers are moved and stimulated by his extraordinary heroine.

2. The Female Masquerader

The second set of Tang unofficial prose accounts consists of the "Xie Xiao'e zhuan" (The story of Xie Xiao'e) by Li Gongzuo (fl. 797-818) and "Ni Miaoji" (Nun Miaoji) by Li Fuyan (fl. 830-847). These narratives show a different thematic innovation, giving the heroine a dual agenda of avenging both her father and her husband. Both versions elaborate on the extraordinary measures that the heroine takes to accomplish her mission, especially her use of male disguises. These stories thus make literal the figurative cross-dressing that occurs when a daughter performs the duty of a son, as mentioned in our discussion of Zhao E's official biography, to explore the issue of women avengers traversing gender boundaries.

"The Story of Xie Xiao'e" provides a first-person narrative of the author's encounters with the heroine of the title. Li Gongzuo, who served in low-rank positions, was an avid storyteller and wrote multiple narratives that later became well known. (55) "The Story of Xie Xiao'e" describes how, after bandits kill Xie's father and husband, their spirits appear to her, the sole survivor of the attack, in two separate dreams, revealing the names of their murderers in two riddles. (56) Years later she encounters Li, who helps her solve the riddles. Xie then disguises herself as a man and finds the murderers. After serving her father's killer, Shen Lan as a trusted servant for two years, she kills him and then turns in Shen Chun her husband's killer, to the authorities. Shen Chun is executed and Xie is pardoned. After declining marriage proposals from prominent local families, Xie becomes a Buddhist nun. (57)

In contrast to the knight-errant tales, which highlight the conflict between the female avenger's filial duty and her commitments to her husband or lover and her son(s), the conflation of Xie Xiao'e's revenge for her father with that for her husband in Li Gongzuo's account serves to eliminate any tension between her feminine roles. By having the spirits of her father and husband appear in her dreams, the narrative not only creates mystery and suspense, but also endorses her cause in that their voices represent both worldly patriarchal authority and otherworldly supernatural power. That Xie treats her enemies differently, killing her father's murderer on the spot but turning her husband's over to the local authorities for execution, demonstrates a prioritization of the duties of female vengeance: filial revenge, the ultimate source of ethical justification for female violence, is more urgent than wifely revenge.

The combination of filial and wifely revenge maximizes the difficulties of the task, allowing the story to justify the heroine's gender transgression while carefully tempering its sub-versiveness. Her cross-dressing is presented as a necessary condition for the success of the double revenge. Since the only clues to the enemies' names are rendered in the form of riddles, she must first complete the difficult task of finding a riddle-solver. Once armed with the names of the accused, she must travel extensively to locate them, and she also has to get close to them in order to verify that they are indeed the bandits responsible for the crimes. With their identities confirmed, she must wait for the right opportunity to bring them both to justice. It is only with the mobility and independence afforded by her cross-dressing that she is able to achieve each step. These challenges go well beyond the sphere of any traditional female social role and even beyond the parameters designated for earlier women avengers.

Moreover, Li Gongzuo's version presents Xie's masquerade as a matter of self-sacrifice, a key part of an escalating process of devotion. While she begs for food and wanders in search of a riddle-solver, she abandons material comfort. Disguising herself as a man to locate, verify, and capture her enemies, she voluntarily abandons her gender identity and consciously suppresses her sexuality. In contrast to her famous predecessor Mulan who puts on men's clothing and takes her father's place in the army but returns to her boudoir after the campaigns, (58) Xie's refusal to remarry and her decision to become a Buddhist nun after the fulfillment of vengeance push her performance of devotion to a new height. While the goal of revenge requires only a limited term of sacrifice, the religious pursuit prolongs it until the end of her life. Most tellingly, the retention of her given name, Xiao'e, as her Buddhist name runs contrary to the normal practice of adopting a new religious appellation to show one's determined repudiation of worldly ties; instead, the name highlights her resolve to stay connected with her earlier life. Her religious turn is also significant in reclaiming her submissiveness: she converts to a religion known for its repudiation of material comfort, sexuality, and violence.

Despite the narrative's emphasis on Xie's merits, the very success of her masquerade also creates a paradox by illustrating the dangerous power of female gender mobility. Her sustained interactions with men call into question the sexual division of social space and the hierarchy between men and women. Most disturbingly, her adoption of male clothing and performance of male tasks reveals the constructed nature and performativity of gender identity. (59) Although the story has highlighted the higher purpose of the heroine's cross-dressing, her power to usurp gender identities is still disturbing. Similar to Mr. Huangfu and Cui Li, Li Gongzuo adds a commentary to contain the ambivalence of the story. He states:
   The superior man says, "She never gave up her vows [of vengeance]
   and eventually avenged her father and her husband--that is loyalty;
   she mixed with servants and yet never betrayed her sex--that is
   chastity. And only with loyalty and chastity can a woman keep her
   conduct consistent and complete."


In contrast to Cui Li's stress on filial piety and righteousness, attributes that may be found in either gender, Li Gongzuo's emphasis on loyalty (jie) and chastity (zhen) as womanly virtues functions to reiterate Xie's identity as a woman. Li thereby attempts to assert the limit of gender cross-dressing: a woman may masquerade as a man, but it is only a performance; her physical body underneath still confirms the "natural" distinction between men and women. In this sense, it is highly symbolic that the heroine keeps her original feminine name, Xiao'e (literally, "little beautiful woman"), (61) even after she has presumably renounced all worldly ties including sexual and gender roles. Nevertheless, Li's attempt to essentialize the heroine's gender identity reveals precisely his awareness of and anxiety about the subversiveness of her cross-dressing.

Meanwhile, Li Gongzuo's commemoration of his heroine is in effect a self-glorification. He tries to promote the significance of his writing a zhuan, a historical biography:
   I am familiar with all the circumstances of the case, and my
   unraveling of the conundrum coincided with [the ways of] the
   netherworld and conformed to public morality. If I did not record
   the good, I would violate the principle of the Spring and Autumn
   Annals. I thus have written this biography of Xie Xiao'e to
   commemorate her virtue.


Li emphasizes his special role as a direct participant in and first-hand witness to her revenge, thereby establishing his narrative authority. Moreover, he states that he solved the riddles, fulfilling the precondition of his heroine's success. This puts him in line with both worldly and supernatural morality and also brings a mystical aura to the accidental riddle solution, implying that he too has been chosen by cosmic forces. In addition, the assertion that his biography of the heroine embodies the principles of Confucius's Spring and Autumn Annals elevates the status of his writing and allows him to claim the prestige and respect of a historian. Thus in the name of paying tribute to his heroine, he effectively establishes his own intellectual, moral, and narrative authority.

Unlike Li Gongzuo's "Story of Xie Xiao'e," Li Fuyan's "Nun Miaoji" is narrated mostly from a third-person perspective, but has the heroine herself recount retrospectively her masquerade and the capture of her enemies. Apart from his compilation of Xu Xuanguai lu (Sequel to the Records of the mysterious and the strange), we know almost nothing about Li Fuyan. (63) Compared to Li Gongzuo's "Story of Xie Xiao'e," Li Fuyan's account goes even farther to avoid controversy and contain the heroine's power. First, in contrast to Xie Xiao'e, who travels with her father and husband and barely escapes death, Miaoji stays at home with her mother and younger sister and has dreams of her father and husband after their deaths. This arrangement not only emphasizes her domesticity, but also makes explicit the supernatural endorsement of her departure from that condition by identifying her as a chosen one. As her father says in the dream, "Because you seem to be a person of determination, Heaven has given you permission to take revenge" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (64)

Second, Miaoji becomes a nun at the local temple in order to find a riddle-solver among the educated men who visit the site. After acquiring the names of her enemies, she adopts male garments and identity, and she returns to the religious order immediately after bringing the bandits to justice. This early conversion to Buddhism is important for diminishing the heroine's transgression: she remains faithful to the central tenet of Buddhism, killing neither of the murderers herself, but rather turning them over to the authorities. Unlike the other women avengers we have seen, Li Fuyan's heroine is not associated with violence. Moreover, her change in gender identity seems to be in line with Buddhist stories of wise women who transform their bodies into male form before attaining Buddhahood. (65) When she disguises herself as a man, her name change from Miaoji to Shiji. is consistent with her cross-dressing: while nil ft (female, woman), the radical of the character miao, points to femaleness, the word shi (man, scholar-official) deliberately evokes maleness. The sharing of the character ji (quietude, silence) in both names highlights the consistency and continuity of her religious identity beneath her masquerade. The careful circumscription of the heroine's power in Li Fuyan's account, though successful, renders her the least threatening woman avenger in the two Tang story sets. This cautiousness suggests an ambivalence toward the inherently disturbing nature of female masquerade and vengeance.

Consistent with this careful containment of the heroine's vengeance, Li Fuyan positions himself as a distant transmitter of the story. He explains the circumstances of his writing as follows:
   In the gengxu year of the Taihe Reign [830], I, Li Fuyan from
   Longxi, traveled to the south of Sichuan and met Shen Tian, a
   Presented Scholar examinee, in Pengzhou. Because we conversed about
   marvelous events, Shen Tian showed this story to me. I read it once
   and returned it to him. When I was compiling my own collection on
   the strange, I wrote down and included this story.


Li Fuyan presents himself as an honest reporter and collector. As Sarah Allen has pointed out, the epilogue indicates that he read a written version in Shen Tian's possession and later wrote out the story from memory. (67) By explaining the source and the transmission of the story, Li tries to offer a convincing personal account of his relationship with this narrated tale. The explanation emphasizes his trustworthiness in the sense that he did not invent the story, but has simply recorded what has been passed down to him. He is thus not to be held responsible for the content of his account, whatever fault people may find with it. In light of the efforts of Mr. Huangfu, Cui Li, and Li Gongzuo to shape the interpretation of their narratives, Li Fuyan's self-protective gesture shows an alternative strategy for dealing with a potentially controversial subject.

These two groups of Tang unofficial prose accounts indicate the diversity and complexity of literati approaches to stories of female vengeance, and represent the formation of a distinctive discourse on women and sanctioned violence. In contrast to its counterparts in official histories and Music Bureau poetry, this discourse tests the limits of endorsed female transgression by exploring the uncharted territory of the potential dangers of women avengers. The female knight-errant disguises herself as a normal woman so that she can form and take refuge in functional social relations, only to destroy them later. Her namelessness in all versions functions to embody subversive female power defined in terms of sex and violence. Likewise, the female masquerader disguises herself as a normal man to infiltrate a household in order to apprehend its patriarchal head. Because the emphasis is on her usurpation of male identity, her name is carefully noted to mark her point of origin and return. Both groups of Tang unofficial prose accounts thus foreground the heroine's unsettling power to transform and deceive.

By having the heroine disappear from the family structure in the end, these accounts also consistently try to dissolve the threat she poses. Unlike the earlier representations of the woman avenger who returns to the domestic sphere and finds her rightful place in the patriarchy as a wife and mother, the careful construction of the female knight-errant's rejection of her wifely and maternal identities emphasizes that she is unsuited to these traditional female roles. This sort of ending leaves no position for her within an existing, functional, patriarchal family, and in effect turns her departure into an exile from society. By the same token, the female masquerader's religious conversion is actually a parallel form of exile from the patriarchy because she is now contained by the world beyond. Yet these attempts at exile reveal the ultimate impotence of patriarchy in restraining the woman avenger's subversive powers: the female knight-errant is essentially let loose, while the life of the female masquerader as a Buddhist nun expands the spectrum of her gender mobility, from woman to man and further to a state of transcendent gender ambiguity. These exorcisms, so to speak, of the woman avenger indicate that insofar as literati writers affirmed the moral rectitude of female vengeance in principle, they were also concerned about its implications in terms of the dangerous empowerment of women. The discourse on women and sanctioned violence in Tang unofficial prose accounts thus illustrates a deep ambivalence among contemporary literati regarding women's power as moral agents. Except for Li Zhao and Xue Yongruo, the other writers all make explicit efforts to reconcile the troubling implications of their chosen story subject and to justify their own fascination with it.


Our comparisons of medieval narratives featuring women avengers shed light on both their cross-genre connections and their disparate interests and strategies. The filial revenge of Zhao E or Pang Eqin as represented in the forms of official biography, Music Bureau poetry, and unofficial prose accounts, for example, illuminates the porous boundaries among the three types of writing, although it is not clear whether these different renditions were indebted to each other directly. This porous nature can be seen more clearly in the case of Li Gongzuo's "Story of Xie Xiao'e," which was later included in the New Tang History (comp. 1060) by Song historians. Entitled "Duan Juzhen qi Xie" (Ms. Xie, the wife of Duan Juzhen), this brief biography conforms to historiographic conventions by presenting only the core storyline and eliminating all other details. (68) Meanwhile, the divergent portrayals of women avengers in medieval narratives also bring into sharper focus the different modes of representation in each textual tradition, which shed useful light on the development of distinctive discourses on women and sanctioned violence.

If official histories and Music Bureau poetry focus respectively on circumscribing female vengeance as a feasible action and on aestheticizing it as a poetic theme, the Tang unofficial prose accounts explore its problematics as an inherently transgressive subject. Compared to the early medieval rendition of Pang Eqin's revenge by Huangfu Mi, the Tang narratives on the female knight-errant and those on the female masquerader offer important innovations that thematize the radical implications of female vengeance. Produced by writers from diverse backgrounds, these accounts narrativize the concerns and anxieties of their recounters and audiences. In other words, they constitute a discourse on female vengeance that expresses literati interest in and ambivalence about the potentially dangerous power of women as moral agents. Such innovations are consistent with the flourishing of literati storytelling as a medium of communal discourse for scholar-officials in the late medieval period, demonstrated by the emergence of an unprecedented number of unofficial prose accounts and new, extensive thematic explorations. (69)

Because revenge by a daughter or a wife affirms a woman's strong commitment to father and husband, respectively, the representations of the woman avenger in the Tang unofficial prose accounts also indicate the writers' particular interest in the relationship between these two duties. The female knight-errant's repudiation of her wifely and maternal roles indicates a belief in the precedence of a woman's duty toward her father over that toward her husband and his family. Meanwhile, Li Gongzuo's "Story of Xie Xiao'e" clearly prioritizes filial revenge, whereas Li Fuyan's "Nun Miaoji" is neutral, treating filial and wifely revenge as equally important. These representations constitute an intriguing contrast to the particular promotion of the wife avenger by the Tang historian Li Yanshou and the poet Li Bai, which is also at variance with a third group of Tang unofficial prose accounts that rejects wifely revenge. This group of narratives on the wife as non-avenger describes how the wife is forced to marry the murderer of her husband but raises her son to take filial revenge. (70) In light of these differences, it is clear that contemporary ideas about women's commitments to her natal and married families were divergent, complex, and even contradictory. More studies are needed to better understand how the ideas of Tang literati were related to shifting conceptions of women's roles and responsibilities, which are significant to our understanding of issues such as the developments underpinning the ultimate ascendance of the so-called "cult of female chastity" in the late imperial period. (71)

Moreover, examinations in Tang unofficial prose accounts of the problematics of female vengeance also opened up fertile exploratory grounds for later writers. The "Huaiyin yifu shi bing xu" (The poem on the righteous woman of Huaiyin, with preface), included in the Jiexiao ji (Collection of the chaste and the filial) by Xu Ji (1028-1103), for instance, gives wifely revenge new twists by having the heroine unknowingly marry the murderer of her husband and then drown herself and her two sons from the second marriage, after realizing the truth and bringing the murderer to justice. (72) Rendered in both prose and poetic form, the story exemplifies a new group of narratives that combine a growing interest in female chastity as well as wifely revenge with the trope of infanticide in the Tang accounts of the female knight-errant discussed above, and with the trope of marriage with the husband's murderer in Tang stories of the wife as non-avenger. (73) Other innovations in the image of the woman avenger can be seen in narratives throughout post-Tang periods, indicating the continuing appeal of the subject. (74) The motivating forces behind such transformations in post-Tang unofficial prose accounts, narrative poetry, and other genres are important issues that require further study.

Manling Luo

Indiana University

I would like to thank Robert E. Hegel, Lynn Struve, Edith Sarra, Heather Blair, Yue Hong, Kevin Martin, Kevin Tsai, Graham Sanders, Morten Oxenboll, Joannah Peterson, and Daniel Hsieh for their invaluable suggestions that helped me improve this article over the course of its development. I presented a version of it at the 2014 Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference and I am very grateful for the useful feedback from the discussant Beverly Bossier and the audience. Julia Whyde and Ben Garceau's editorial assistance was crucial for me. I appreciate in particular the anonymous reviewer's insightful comments and advice.

(1.) Although many scholars have called these narratives xiaoshuo (minor discourses, fiction), I use "unofficial prose accounts" as an alternative term because my focus here is not on debates about the fictional nature of these materials.

(2.) For examples, see Sarah M. Allen, "Tales Retold: Narrative Variation in a Tang Story," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 66 (2006): 105-43; Wang Meng'ou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Tangren xiaoshuo yanjiu siji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Taipei: Yinwen yinshuguan, 1978), 194-203.

(3.) Li ji Zheng zhu (Taipei: Xinxing shuju, 1977), 2.12b-13a.

(4.) Ibid., 1.16b. James Legge, tr., Li Chi (New Hyde Park: University Books, 1967), 92.

(5.) In this regard, the woman avenger is similar to the female knight-errant and the woman warrior. For discussions of the female knight-errant or warrior, see Roland Altenburger, The Sword or the Needle: The Female Knight-errant (xia) in Traditional Chinese Narrative (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009), 9-10; Sufen Sophia Lai, "From Cross-dressing Daughter to Lady Knight-errant: The Origin and Evolution of Chinese Women Warriors," in Presence and Presentation: Women in the Chinese Literati Tradition, ed. Sherry J. Mou (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), 77-107; Louise Edwards, "Women Warriors and Amazons of the Mid Qing Texts Jinghua yuan and Honglou meng," Modern Asian Studies 29.2 (1995): 225-55.

(6.) Stephen H. West, "Crossing Over: Huizong in the Afterglow, or the Deaths of a Troubling Emperor," in Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China, ed. Patricia B. Ebrey and Maggie Bickford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006), 606-7.

(7.) See Sherry J. Mou, Gentlemen's Prescriptions for Women's Lives: A Thousand Years of Biographies of Chinese Women (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2004), 171-79.

(8.) Chen Shou, Sanguo zhi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1982), 18.548.

(9.) See Mark Edward Lewis, Sanctioned Violence in Early China (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1990), 80-94; Anne Cheng, "Filial Piety with a Vengeance: The Tension between Rites and Law in the Han," in Filial Piety in Chinese Thought and History, ed. Alan K. L. Chan and Sor-hoon Tan (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 29-43; T'ung-tsu Ch'u, Law and Society in Traditional China (Paris: Mouton & Co, 1961), 78-90.

(10.) Such sympathetic sentiments continued into the modern era, as evinced by the exoneration of the daughter avenger Shi Jianqiao (1906-1979) in 1936. See Eugenia Lean, Public Passions: The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2007).

(11.) Ch'u, Law and Society in Traditional China, 87, 226-47.

(12.) In fact, Xu Yuanqing was both executed and honored for his filial revenge by the Tang court, as proposed by Chen Zi'ang (661-702). Chen believed that this solution met the demands of both li and fa. Liu Xu et al., Jiu Tang shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975), 190.5024.

(13.) Wei Zheng et al., Sui shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1973), 80.1805. The Jin shu (comp. 648) relates the story of Wang Guang's daughter, who failed to assassinate his killer and committed suicide. Fang Xuanling et al., Jin shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 96.2520.

(14.) Jiu Tang shu 143.5141-42. Ouyang Xiu et al., Xin Tang shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975), 205.5818, 205.5820.

(15.) Hou Han shu 84.2795.

(16.) Jiu Tang shu 193.5150-51.

(17.) Wei Shou, Wei shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 80.1980.

(18.) Li Yanshou, Bei shi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 91.2997.

(19.) Cao Zhi's (192-232) poem "Jingwei pian" mentions Nuxiu as well as a daughter avenger called Su Laiqing, suggesting that the story was well known. Cao Zhi, Cao Zijian shi zhu (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1957), 118-19. For a discussion of historical avengers that the poem might have been based upon, see Ye Wenju, "Qin Nuxiu xing benshi kao", Guji zhengli yanjiu xuekan 1 (2006): 42-44, 11.

(20.) Hans H. Frankel, "Yueh-fu Poetry," in Studies in Chinese Literary Genres, ed. Cyril Birch (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1974), 69-107. Also see Anne Birrell, Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai'i Press, 1988); Zong-qi Cai, The Matrix of Lyric Transformation (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), 21-59.

(21.) Guo Maoqian (Taipei: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1968), 61.727-28.

(22.) Okamura Tadao, "Gakufudai no keisho to Fu Gen", Shinagaku kenkyu 35 (1970): 8-18.

(23.) Yuefu shiji 61.727.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Joseph R. Allen, In the Voice of Others: Chinese Music Bureau Poetry (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992), 165-206. Also, Stephen Owen, The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T'ang (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), 119-30.

(27.) Li Bai, Li Taihai quanji (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1977), 6.308. The Yuefu shiji version of the poem does not have the preface.

(28.) Ibid.. 5.275.

(29.) Allen, In the Voice of Others. Owen emphasizes "fictionality" in the sense of the poet's playful experimentations with different poetic personae. Owen, The Great Age of Chinese Poetry, 94.

(30.) For an overview of the poetic tradition of women and the boudoir, see Xiaorong Li, Women's Poetry of Late Imperial China (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2012), 20-51.

(31.) Zheng Qiao, "Jiaochou lue", Tongzhi lue (Taipei: Taiwan Shangwu yinshuguan), 22: 124.

(32.) For Huangfu Mi's life, see Jin shu 51.1409-18.

(33.) Sanguozhi 18.548-50.

(34.) For a detailed discussion of Liu Xiang's collection, see Lisa Raphals, Sharing the Light: Representations of Women and Virtue in Early China (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1998), 20-112.

(35.) Liu Zhiji, Shitong tongshi (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1978), 10.275-76.

(36.) Cited in Sanguo zhi 18.549-50.

(37.) See Li Jianguo, Tang Wudai zhiguai chuanqi xulu (Tianjin: Nankai daxue chubanshe, 1998); Allen, "Tales Retold," 105-8.

(38.) Li Zhao, "Qie bao fu yuan shi," Tang guoshi bu Beijing: Gudian wenxue chubanshe, 1958), 2.48. Sarah Allen's translation with modifications. See "Tales Retold," 106.

(39.) Knights-errant follow their own code of behavior, and their practices of violence challenge state laws and even social ethics. For studies of knights-errant, see James J. Y. Liu, The Chinese Knight-Errant (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967); Cui Fengyuan, Zhongguo gudian duanpian xiayi xiaoshuo yanjiu (Taipei: Lianjing chuban shiye gufen youxian gongsi, 1986); Wang Hailin Ti#!#, Zhongguo wuxia xiaoshuo shilue (Taiyuan: Beiyue wenyi chubanshe, 1988); Cao Zhengwen, Zhongguo xia wenhua shi Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1994).

(40.) Li Jianguo, Tang Wudai, 508-19; Allen, "Tales Retold," 105-8.

(41.) Sarah Allen points out that the story overlaps with a number of Tang liaison plots. "Tales Retold," 110-16.

(42.) Xue Yongruo, "Guren qi," in Taiping guangji, comp. Li Fang et al. (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1959), 196.1471-72.

(43.) For early medieval examples, see Gan Bao, Soushen ji (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979), 19.443; Zhenyi zhi, cited in Taiping guangji 468.3861. The theme also runs through many Tang stories, such as Xue Yongruo's "Daodeli shusheng", Shen Jiji's (c. 750-c. 800) "Ren shi zhuan", Zheng Huangu's (fl. 806-824) "Li Huang" "Li Guan", and Pei Xing's (fl. 860-878) "Sun Ke", the heroines of which turn out to be a ghost, fox, snake, and ape respectively. See Taiping guangji 331.2630, 452.3692-97, 458.3750-52, 445.3638-41.

(44.) For a discussion of the theme, see Daniel Hsieh, Love and Women in Early Chinese Fiction (Hong Kong: Chinese Univ. Press, 2008), 33-57.

(45.) Xue Yongruo, "Guren qi," in Taiping guangji 196.1472.

(46.) Li Jianguo, Tang Wudai, 650-57.

(47.) Sarah Allen points out that the clandestine peek overlaps with some other Tang liaison plots. "Tales Retold," 117.

(48.) Huangfu shi, "Cui Shensi," in Taiping guangji 194.1456.

(49.) Altenburger, The Sword or the Needle, 26-32.

(50.) For his life, see Jiu Tang shu 117.3403.

(51.) "Tales Retold," 124.

(52.) Cui Li, "Yi ji," in Li Fang et al., Wenyuan yinghua (Taipei: Huawen shuju, 1965), 379.4b-5a; I have translated "zhuan" here as "biography" because I believe Cui deliberately evoked the generic meaning of this word. For Sarah Allan's translation of part of the passage, see "Tales Retold," 125.

(53.) "Tales Retold," 125.

(54.) Interestingly, Cui's account was later included in the Song anthology of high literature, Wenyuan yinghua (Finest flowers of the literary garden).

(55.) Li Jianguo, Tang Wudai, 305-6, 399-401.

(56.) The story does not explain why the spirits would not reveal the murderers' names directly. This detail, however, creates the condition for Li Gongzuo's performance as a riddle-solver. This is consistent with early references to linguistic riddles, which generally feature educated men. See Chen Guangyao, Miyu lishi (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1930), 15-40. Li Fuyan's "Nun Miaoji" rationalizes this riddle motive by stating that "the underworld Bureau of Darkness did not want to explicitly identify [the murderers' names]".

(57.) Li Gongzuo, "Xie Xiao'e zhuan," in Taiping guangji 491.4030-32.

(58.) See Lai, "From Cross-dressing Daughter"; Joseph R. Allen, "Dressing and Undressing the Chinese Woman Warrior," Positions 4.2 (1996): 343-79. For related discussions, see Altenburger, "Is It Clothes that Make the Man? Cross-dressing, Gender, and Sex in Pre-twentieth-century Zhu Yingtai Lore," Asian Folklore Studies 64.2 (2005): 165-205; Wilt Idema, "Female Talent and Female Virtue: Xu Wei's Nii zhuangyuan and Meng Chengshun's Zhenwenji," in Ming Qing xiqu guoji yantaohui lunwen ji, ed. Hua Wei and Wang Ailing (Taipei: Zhongyanyuan wenzhesuo choubeichu, 1998), 551-71.

(59.) Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (New York: Routledge, 1991), 13-31; idem, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993).

(60.) Li Gongzuo, "Xie Xiao'e zhuan," in Taiping guangji 491.4032.

(61.) Intriguingly, the name Xiao'e also echoes those of Zhao E and Pang Eqin in the early medieval texts discussed above.

(62.) Li Gongzuo, "Xie Xiao'e zhuan," in Taiping guangji 491.4032.

(63.) Li Jianguo, Tang Wudai, 692-706. Wang Meng'ou, Tangren xiaoshuo, 26-51.

(64.) Li Fuyan, "Ni Miaoji," in Taiping guangji 128.907.

(65.) For a discussion of this theme in early sutras in Chinese (3rd to 8th c.), see Nancy Schuster, "Changing the Female Body," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4.1 (1981): 24-69.

(66.) Li Fuyan, "Ni Miaoji," in Taiping guangji 128.908. For Sarah Allan's translation see "Tales Retold," 135.

(67.) "Tales Retold," 134-35.

(68.) Xin Tang shu 205.5827-28.

(69.) See Manling Luo, Literati Storytelling in Late Medieval China (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2015).

(70.) See "Cui wei zi", in Taiping guangji 121.856-57; "Chen Yilang", in Taiping guangji 122.858.

(71.) For scholarship on the shifts, see Wang Nan, "Tangdai nuxing zai jiazu zhong diwei de bianqian: Dui fuquan dao fuquan zhuanbian de kaocha", Zhongguo shehui lishipinglun (2001/3): 135-67; Bettine Birge, Women, Property, and Confucian Reaction in Song and Ytian China (960-1368) (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002); Beverly Bossier, Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity: Gender and Social Change in China, 1000-1400 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Asia Center, 2012).

(72.) Xu Ji, Jiexiao ji, Siku quanshu zhenben ba ji vol. 148 (Taipei: Taiwan Shangwu yin shuguan), 5b-7b.

(73.) Zhuang Chuo (b. 1078) recounts a version by Lu Xiaqing (1015-1068) which does not mention the infanticide. See his Jilei bian (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1983), 3.98-99. Hong Mai (1123-1202) includes two other variant versions in Yijian zhi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981), zhiding, 9.1039; bu, 5.1590-91. For post-Song examples, see Lu Rong Shuyuan zaji (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985), 3.31-32; Lunhui xingshi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2008), 12.421-24.

(74.) Wang Li E and Liu Weiying eds., Zhongguo gudai xiayi fuchou shiliao cuibian (Jinan: Qilu shushe, 2009), esp. 180- 266.
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Author:Luo, Manling
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Date:Oct 1, 2014
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