The perfect wife

Three things to use in class

Epitaph for Mme Ren, titled Lady of Virtue (shuren)
The Honorable Bao Deming, the Assistant Regional Military Commander for my province, lost his first wife. Prior to her burial, he came to me, saying: “My first wife attended to me most diligently. Now that she has died and left me, I wish to request her epitaph from you.” My epitaph is as follows: Mme Ren was the daughter of Wei Qing, of the Xinyang Guard Battalion. When she married the Assistant Commander, she was honored with the title Lady of Virtue. This Lady of Virtue exemplified womanly virtues in her person, and wifely deportment in her household. In managing the concubines, she was not jealous. In her treatment of the servants, she was not cruel. Indeed, she was a woman who behaved as a gentleman (junzi) would do. When the Honorable Bao became Assistant Commander, the Lady of Virtue was very supportive, and kept her household domain perfectly in order. She did not regard household matters, large or small, as requiring Bao’s attention. Bao managed his official domain, and the Lady of Virtue managed her domestic realm. In this way, Bao was able to devote his entire attention to the public realm, with no worries at all about domestic matters.”

Li Mengyang’s epitaph for his own wife

Weeping, I said to someone: “Only now when my wife has died do I know my wife!” This person asked how that might be? I replied: “Previously I studied and took office, and paid no attention to household matters. Now, nobody pays attention to things, and they don’t get done. When I had guests, food and drink suitable to their needs were supplied. Now no more guests come, or if they do, nothing is suitable. Previously, I used things without any attention to where they belonged. Now, everything gets thrown about and nobody puts anything away, but everyone’s good at breaking things! Previously, we never lacked for pickles and sauces and salted beans, but now, it’s not like before! Chickens, ducks, sheep, and pigs were all fed at the proper time — now, they’re not fed at the proper time and they’re all too thin! When my wife was alive, there was no whispering and giggling inside. If I went out, the door was not barred when I came back at night. Now the door is barred, and inside I hear that giggling! Before, I had no idea of what dirty clothes were. Now, if I don’t order them washed, they don’t get washed. My wife’s hands were constantly busy with sewing, cutting, drawing, and embroidering; now, no hands are busy. Formerly, when I wanted to groan about past and present but did not want to talk with friends, I could talk to my wife. But now when I come
home, I have no one to talk to. That’s why I say: only now that my wife is dead do I know my wife!

Both of these are somewhat problematic, since they both reinforce the idea that students come in with that the 19th century western model of the woman’s sphere is a historical universal. Still, the first one is a nice Confucian version of governing the family, and the second one a more practical version.

The one thing these texts only hint at, and that was taken very seriously as the greatest danger to the household, was the threat of jealousy between wives and concubines. Fortunately, this article also has a story about this.

Here is Li Mengyang talking about a family he knew.

Originally, Dong had taken a wife from the Li family, but as Mme Li was sickly and had no sons, he took another wife from the Chen family. Shortly thereafter Mme Li died, and Dong took Shen as the wife who would succeed her. Chen felt greatly wronged by this, and she protested vigorously, saying: “I am the daughter of a scholarly family! My father and brother only let me become your secondary wife because they knew that Mme Li was sick, and had no sons. Day and night they repeated that if Mme Li happened by some misfortune to die, I would succeed her. And now you’re marrying Shen, are you?” When Dong’s relatives and members of the community heard this, they worried on Dong’s behalf, saying that when Shen entered the household the two women were bound to compete.

Still, Shen’s wifely competence won the whole family over, and soon, says
Li Mengyang, Chen herself began to pay Shen the deference due to a principal
wife. The two became like sisters, and the relatives and community
members were all delighted, saying to each other that Dong was a happy
man to have obtained two such sage and virtuous wives. Shortly, however,
the process of Chen’s erasure began:

After about a year, Chen bore a son Lan. Shen held him in her arms, and treated him as though he were her own. Chen bore another son Run, and then a daughter. Shen treated them all as her own, and none of them knew that Shen was not their mother. Someone teased them, saying: “You are not really Shen’s children!” The children did not believe it, and when finally they did learn the truth, they felt all the more strongly that Shen was their real mother.

“Even I,” marveled Li Mengyang, who had been a close friend of the family,
“had no idea that these were not Shen’s children.”

If you are wondering why I am starting to post things like this, it is because I am toying with the idea of assigning way less reading (they never do it) and instead selecting snippets from articles and chapters and having them read them at the beginning of class and going from there.


-Kathrine Carlitz “Lovers, Talkers, Monsters and Good Women: Competing Images in Mid-Ming Epitaphs and Fiction” From Joan Judge and Ying Hu, Beyond Exemplar Tales: Women’s Biography in Chinese History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).



  1. Have you thought about using something like collaborative annotation on the articles, where students read the articles on Perusall or Hypothesis and comment on it together? I’ve had some success with Perusall in writing courses with common readings.

    1. I have tried Perusall, and I may try it again. It worked great in the first Covid half semester, when they were all enthusiastic. After that, not so much. Answers started to devolve into discussion board level “interesting” “I agree” for most of them

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