Ya-Chen Chen: A Sinological Breakthrough of Gender Studies: Budoir Lament
Articles » April 2001

Stephen Owen, a highly venerated professor in classical Chinese literature at Harvard University, anthologizes six poems (See my Appendix) of boudoir lament by adopting the term, "motif of a drunken husband’s return," regardless of how rarely known or how frequently ignored these poems are in traditional orthodox sinology. In this paper, I have the following two targets: first, the cross-field-ness or interdisciplinari-ness Owen’s anthologization of this particular motif methodologically signifies; second, how to comparatively apply both a feminist perspective and cultural studies as interdisciplinary approaches to cope with this motif of boudoir lament based upon conventional sinological texts.

Stephen Owen’s anthologization of this motif serves as a refreshing flavor of the traditional Confucian and orthodox sinological androcentric methodology, which reads boudoir laments as political allegories between officials and their emperor and at the same time silences true cries about gender issues. This rediscovery of women’s voices in literary history is the most feminist and anti-traditional value that his anthologization of classical Chinese literature contains. Hence methodologically speaking, Owen does not belong to traditional Confucian and conventional sinological male-centered tradition. He brings a perspective of gender studies into the field of classical Chinese literature by challenging, diversifying, or modernizing the ancient sinological research methodologies. Critics might argue that there have been sundry anti-traditional feminist sinologists in the modern era. However, Stephen Owen’s anti-traditional feminist sinological approach is still extremely eye-catching at least because of the following two reasons: first, his sex; second, the comparative and interdisciplinary perspective of his methodology.

Except for a limited number of exceptions, not do many male sinologists adopt such a feminist methodology in Stephen Owen’s way. Chinese feminist literary critics [1] rely on their background of western languages and western comparative literary theoretical studies. Feminist sinologists, who adopt anti-traditional Confucian methodologies, usually have either comparative literary or interdisciplinary backgrounds. Stephen Owen’s strategy, therefore, is in fact not to apply a traditional Confucian sinological approach but a cross-field one. In other words, Stephen Owen uses an anti-traditional feminist interdisciplinary methodology, which is comparatively adopted based upon his Confucian sinological literary background.

As for what is complained in boudoirs, the problem of the unfair double standards for the two sexes--instead of problems of getting drunk and returning late--is truly what ladies lament though the motif is termed "a drunken husband’s return." A combination of feminist perspective and cultural studies about the heterosexual problematic-ness in the set of six poems is applied in this paper.

lament has been one of the most well-known literary traditions in ancient
China. The scene of boudoir lament is seldom outside of ladies’ bedrooms. The
tone is forever plaintive, hurtful, saturnine, disconsolate, and dolorous.
Usually a poem of boudoir lament must be composed of the following elements:
first, strong needs in romantic love; second, specially emphasized sensitivity
about subtle psychological ups and downs; third, lovers’ absence; fourth,
complaints in private chambers. One of the earliest sources of this tradition
is in the Feng (Airs) [2], which occurred in the seventh or
eighth century B.C.. "[T]he longs of
separated lovers ... [remain] among the most
appealing poems of the collection" (Owen, 53). One of the best examples might
be the following stanzas cited from Shijing ( style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:PMingLiU;
mso-ascii-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-hansi-font-family:"Times New Roman"'>詩經
Classics of Poetry), which represent the early song convention in the
Zhou Dynasty:

My prince has taken the
field,

He sets no time of
return. When at last will he come? ...

My prince has taken the
field, how can I not long for him? ...

My prince has taken the
field, no term of days, no term of months,

When at last will we
meet? (Owen, 55-56).

Following the early footsteps of poets in the Zhou Dynasty, numerous poets in later eras continued the literary tradition of ancient Chinese boudoir lament. Generally speaking, the sorrow or complaint revealed in this literary tradition shows the negative emotions about problems in heterosexual interactions. Since this tradition of boudoir lament started such a long time ago and had lasted for so many centuries, a more detailed probe into what is lamented in ancient ladies’ chambers may not be more significant.

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