Weijing Lu. True to Her Word: The
Faithful Maiden Cult in Late Imperial
The book is divided into three main sections. The first lays out the
Lu shows how the cult emerged in the second half of the Ming dynasty,
encouraged by a number of political trends like the focus on chastity
public obsession with extreme forms of behaviour like loyal suicides
Manchus came to favour this
behaviour because it fitted their larger agendas. Lu demonstrates that
by the High
Qing, the honouring of faithful maidens had developed a strong
imbalance centred on
The second section, ‘Choices’, centres on the psychology, emotions and beliefs of the girls and their relatives. How did parents react to a daughter’s desire to become a faithful maiden? How did the dead man’s family feel about the prospect of their ‘daughter-in-law’ moving in? Lu shows that girls were not always the powerless, insignificant members of Qing patriarchal families that they have been painted. Often they were able to get their own way due to the family dynamics or won when they pitted their wills against those of their parents. Even as they desired to be faithful to their fiancés, the girls were still torn by their responsibilities as filial daughters. This was especially true of those who committed suicide. Living as a faithful maiden was certainly not the coward’s way out. While feted for their brave stance, they remained vulnerable figures not least because of their youth and beauty. Their main defences in their new homes were the moral authority attached to their status and the opportunity that their ‘widowhood’ provided to take charge of household management in some cases. The less fortunate were never truly welcomed and faced the same abuses suffered by other brides. The faithful maiden’s position became increasingly vulnerable if she did not succeed in adopting and raising an heir, especially if her parents-in-law’s wealth declined. She might then be taken back by her parents, but Lu notes faithful maidens were given priority of admission to charitable homes set up for chaste widows in the late Qing (p. 210).
In her third section, ‘Ideology’, Lu describes the moral dilemma faced by literati. As the cult grew, some of their daughters or relatives became faithful maidens. How could they reconcile what was in some cases their strong intellectual opposition to this behaviour with their personal emotions or family ties and loyalty? What is particularly interesting in the summary of intellectual positions is the seemingly deliberate distortions to which some scholars resorted. This twisting of sources to support their arguments sheds interesting light on the world of evidential scholarship.
Lu demonstrates that far from being voiceless and obedient young women, faithful maidens were agents of historical change. They considered themselves to be the ultimate ‘filial’ daughters, by insisting on honouring an engagement made by their parents. Notions of honour-bound duty (yi), tender feelings of love (qing) and religious faith were all present to varying degrees in their decisions. These were promoted in popular theatre, which, together with other practices such as childhood and long betrothals, fuelled the cult. Ultimately, Lu concludes, it was the widespread elite championing of female chastity and government awards for such behaviour (jingbiao) that enabled the cult to last so long and become so widespread.
Inevitably in such a wide-ranging work, some
the cult could not be covered in great depth. While discussions of the
intellectual debate on faithful maidens have been well summarized,
wish to supplement their reading with the work of Taiwanese scholar
True to Her Word gives slightly short shrift to the
late Qing and Lu has
chosen not to deal with the early Republican decades.
However, the former period is well covered by
Joan Judge in her latest book, The
Precious Raft of History.
Although Lu says that faithful maidens came from all classes, the
her mentor Susan Mann can clearly be seen in the concentration on the
Ming and Qing elite. In part this is probably also dictated by the
accessibility of the sources. However, she has not completely proved
analysis is valid for faithful maidens from the non-elite and more work
be done on this. None of these matters detract from the contribution of
work. It is a must read for social historians of gender in
(Julia Stone, Freie Universität Berlin)
 Chang So-an. Shiba shiji lixue kaozheng de
Lijiao lunzheng yu lishi chongxing
Neo-Confucian Ritual Orthodoxy: Evidential Studies and the
Social Relations in Eighteenth-Century China). Monograph Series 86.
Judge. The Precious
Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in