Fables for the Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse
Exploring issues of gender in Tang-dynasty literature and culture, Jowen R.Tung draws on a comprehensive range of historical, literary, and social texts to unravel the complex mechanisms of one of the world's oldest patriarchal systems. The author reveals the profound damage inflicted by the masculine state ideology on its subjects by illuminating the problematics of male sexuality under the hovering phallus of the emperor, the construct of male and female psyches within the pseudo-monogamous household, the logic of the collective unconscious in the literati's writings, and a female tradition desperately trapped inside the law of the father. Tung poses urgent questions about a civilization that builds itself upon the sacrifice of human lives and arrives at a rather dark interpretation of the Tang_for many the epitome of the Chinese empire. As such, the book moves beyond the confines of gender studies to propose a heightened agenda for feminist studies, which the author argues now stand at a critical conjecture.
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Fables for the Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse. By Jowen R. Tung. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2000. Pp. xvi + 255
Dedicated to her female ancestors, Fables for the Patriarchs, by Jowen R. Tung, is a provocative yet refreshing feminist critique of Tang gender politics accomplished through a careful and interesting analysis of various Tang discourses. Rejecting the all too common nostalgic view of the Tang, Tung’s (re)interpretation of the period paints it in a much darker light. One of Tung’s primary concerns is analyzing, “the patriarchal mechanisms of oppression” (p. xiii). Through this analysis she tries to connect patriarchal oppression to her perceived decreased in the vitality of the Chinese culture. Tung clearly states that her, “purpose is threefold. First, to present the problematics of ethical codification and its damaging effects on both genders. Second, to bring insight into sexuality as defined by the state and its profound influence on the shaping of Chinese cultures. Third, to search for a female consciousness in the belief that Tang women were apprehensive about the patriarchal constitution of meanings and power” (p.xiii).
Setting out to accomplish these goals, Tung divides her work of thirteen chapters into four parts which each address a different theme. Part one, Imperial Discourse and Its Discontent, is comprised of the first four chapters and is concerned with aspects of Tang imperial life which contributed to and fostered the oppression of women. While discussing Tang princesses and the female Emperor Wu Zhao, Tung repeatedly portrays women as belonging to the ‘outside’ or as an ‘Other.’ Tung ends the first part with an analysis of the death of Precious Consort Yang and how it is essentially a form of female/human sacrifice. Containing chapters five through seven, Part two is titled Internal Split of the Imperial Subjects and deals with some of the contradictions which were inherent in Tang life. Issues of wives and concubines are explored, and Tung keenly points out that, “the battlefield of home was principally one between women” (p. 96). The third part of Fables for the Patriarchs is Self-Representation of the Tang. One of the more interesting aspects of this part is the attention paid to male representations of the female versus male self-representations. She also addresses the magical realism so prevalent in Chinese fiction and postulates it can, “reveal a non-rational perception of reality that serves as the basis of the logic of the narrative” (p. 126). The last part, aptly named Resurrected Voices, sees Tung’s presentation of the scant number of female self-representations in poetry. These include courtesans and Taoist priestesses. She reminds the reader of the lamentable, “tyrannic erasure of [women’s poetry from] history” (p. 180). In the Epilogue, Tung ends her work on the admittedly dark note of foot-binding and discusses the, “suppressions of women’s literary creativity and claims to property rights” which began in the Tang and developed further during the Song (p. 215).
Tung utilizes a large number of resources while exploring her topic. The sources include, but are not limited to, imperial memorials, official histories, legal and ethical codes, social documents such as tombstone inscriptions and contracts from Dunhuang, literary writing such as narratives and poetry, and miscellaneous records. Drawing on these wide-ranging literary, social, and historical texts, Tung carefully constructs her arguments concerning the outright oppression of Tang women through language.
Because Tung’s book is titled Fables for the Patriarchs, it can be supposed that the fables, which were written by Tung and prepend most chapters, are directed at the Patriarchs (i.e. “every man”) who established and supported such a harmful system (p. xiv). Over and over again, she makes the point that these various forms of oppression also had an effect on the men who implemented them. However, sometimes Tung seems to make
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