Teaching Module

Late Imperial China

Meng Ch'iu, Empress Ma in coarse-woven silk… [Literary Excerpt]

Annotation

"Meng Ch'iu" translates as "Beginner's Guide." This text by Li Han, who lived during the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), presented the stories of famous figures in China's history and legendary tales. It joined a prominent genre of literature for children as one of the many instructional texts that took both history and biography as its focus. Not only would Meng Ch'iu serve as an educational text, it would also have an influence on popular drama through the dramatic stories it shared—thrilling stories that, for critics of a later day, particularly during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), were criticized as lacking in the proper themes for a moral education.

This excerpt, "Empress Ma in coarse woven silk…" offers a depiction of an ideal female figure from an ancient period in Chinese history, her childhood accomplishments and lifetime course as she rose in modest yet powerful fashion to the role of empress. The passage offers evidence of the ways in which the ideal female role among elite women was imagined, the important relationship between child and parent – particularly mother and son. Indeed, this was often a powerful relationship in Chinese society as while daughters married "out," moving in and taking on another family, most sons spent their lives at home. The relationship of mother and son was thus often a close one of both emotion and obligation. This text also offers evidence of the complexity of Chinese families in an imperial period in which wealthy men would have multiple consorts and children themselves both "birth" mothers and official mothers by way of marriage.

Source

Li Han and Hsü Tzu-kuang. Meng Ch'iu: Famous Episodes from Chinese History and Legend. Transl. by Burton Watson. New York: Kodansha International, 1979, 129–30.

Primary Source Text

Excerpt: #55 "Empress Ma in coarse-woven silk…"

Empress Ma of the Later Han, whose posthumous name was Ming-te or Bright Virtue, was the youngest daughter of Ma Yüan, the General Who Calms the Waves. By the age of ten she was already able to direct household affairs with the competence of an adult. Once, when she had been suffering from a long illness, her mother employed a diviner to divine her fate by means of the milfoil stalks. The diviner replied, "Though this girl has been ill for a long time, she will later become highly honored. The omens are such that I can hardly describe them!" Later the mother called in a physiognomist to examine her daughters and see what fate lay in store for them. When he examined the future empress, he said in astonishment, "The Time will surely come when I will acknowledge myself a subject of this girl!"

In time she was chosen to enter the women’s quarters of the palace, and when Emperor Ming came to the throne [A.D. 58], she was given the rank of Noble Lady. At this time Lady Chia bore the emperor a son, the future Emperor Chang. Emperor Ming instructed the future empress Ma to raise the child, adding, "I only hope that you will not fail to show the child affection although he is not your own son." On the contrary, however, she took even greater pains in raising him than if he had been a child of her own. The boy in turn proved to be intensely filial in nature, endowed by Heaven with a sense of kindness and gratitude. The love and affection that existed between adopted mother and son showed not the smallest trace of discord.

The authorities presented a memorial to the throne asking that Lady Ma be established in the Long Autumn Palace [i.e., declared empress]. The emperor had not yet expressed his opinion in the matter when his mother, Empress Dowager Yin, exclaimed, "Lady Ma is the crowning virtue of the women's quarters. She is the very person to be made empress!" In time Lady Ma was accordingly set up as empress. After assuming the place of honor in the inner palace, she conducted herself with even greater modesty and circumspection than before. She was thoroughly versed in the Book of Changes, loved to read the Spring and Autumn Annals and the Elegies of Ch’u, and was particularly fond of the Chung-shu. She always wore simple robes of coarse-woven silk with no decorative border at the hem. . .

How to Cite This Source

Sue Fernsebner, "Late Imperial China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #221, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/221 (accessed August 27, 2014).