An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Lienüzhuan 列女傳

Jul 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Lienüzhuan 列女傳 "Biographies of outstanding women" is a collection of biographies of eminent women compiled by the Former Han-period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) scholar Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 or 77-6 BCE). It is traditionally classified as a Confucian treatise because the women are categorized according to moral values. From the Tang period 唐 (618-907) on it was classified as a collection of biographies.

At that time it was 15-juan long and included illustrations and a short laudatory poem (song 頌) for each person. There were also pictures in ancient versions attributed to the Jin period painter Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之 (348-409). During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the original text was already lost. The received text is an arrangement by Su Song 蘇頌 (1020-1101), who assembled the poems into one chapter. The scholar Wang Hui 王回 (1048-1100) further separated the biographies with poem from that without poem.

In each of the the first seven chapters of the Lienüzhuan the biographies of 15 women are included, altogether 105 biographies. Chapter 8 were the poems, with an appendix of the illustrations. Sixteen biographies were added by later scholars and describe the lives of women living during the Former Han period. The old version only included women from the age of the mythological emperors down to the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). While these first seven chapters are called Gu Lienüzhuan 古列女傳, a supplement was known as Xu Lienüzhuan 續列女傳. The author of the Xu Lienüzhuan is not known, but there are attributions to Ban Zhao 班昭 (45?-117?), sister of the historian Ban Gu 班固 (32-92), or to Xiang Yuan 項原.

In most editions the Xu lienüzhuan is dealt as an appendix of the (Gu) Lienüzhuan.

The earliest commentaries were written by Cao Dajia 曹大家 (i.e. Ban Zhao; her husband was called Cao Shishu 曹世叔), Zuanmu Sui 綦母邃 and Yu Zhenjie 虞貞節 that are only preserved in fragments. There is a commented version called Lienüzhuan buzhu 列女傳補注 published by the Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholars Wang Zhaohuan 王照圜 and Liang Duan 梁端. It is included in the reprint series Haoshi yishu 郝氏遺書.

Figures 1-2. Illustrations from the Lienüzhuan
Illustrations to the chapter "Mother of Meng Ke (Mengzi 孟子) from Zou" (Zou Meng Ke mu 鄒孟軻母) from various editions. Left: Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 edition, facsimile of the print of the Guangu Studio 觀古堂 of Mr. Ye 葉 (Ye Dehui 葉德輝, 1864-1927) from Changsha 長沙, Hunan, dating from the Ming period. Right: Edition of the Wenxuanlou congshu 文選樓叢書, owner Ruan Heng 阮亨 (1783-1859).

The best print dates from 1812. The Lienüzhuan is included in the series Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 and Siku quanshu 四庫全書. There is a modern commented edition called Lienüzhuan zhu 列女傳注 by Chen Hanzhang 陳漢章 (1864-1938) from the 1920s.

There is a separate book called Xu lienüzhuan that was compiled by the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Shao Zhengkui 邵正魁. This 9-juan long book is a supplement to Liu Xiang's Lienüzhuan and imitates the structure of the Han period book. It includes biographies of eminent women through Chinese history, some of them identical to that in the old Lienüzhuan.

An English translation was published by Anne Behnke Kinney (2014), Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang (New York: Columbia University Press).

Table 1. Contents of the Lienüzhuan 列女傳
1. 母儀傳 Muyi Maternal and polite
2. 賢明傳 Xianming Enlightened and intelligent
3. 仁智傳 Renzhi Unselfish and virtuous
4. 貞順傳 Zhenshun Compliant and chaste
5. 節義傳 Jieyi Moderate and righteous
6. 辯通傳 Biantong Convincing and perceptive
7. 孽嬖傳 Niebi Evil and parasitic
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