In the "Traditions of Exemplary Women" research collection, the term "theme" refers to a topic that is critical to the study of women in early China. First of all, we use the term “theme” to signify a motif with a particular set of established conventions that writers in early China self-consciously employed, such as the theme of "widow suicide." Second, we use the term “theme” to refer more generally to a topic that is relevant to post-modern scholarship on women, but which writers in early China did not recognize or did not single out as a category of primary interest or significance. Thus, in many cases, the themes we include in this collection do not represent “conscious thoughts or elaborated theories” so much as “unspoken or unconscious assumptions.”[1] The student of early China is therefore “placed in the complex (and sometimes unenviable) position of pushing our sources to tell us what it is we want to know, rather than what it is they want to tell us.”[2] "Clothing," for example, is a fruitful topic of scholarly inquiry but we rarely see it used as either the main (or even as the minor) focus of a biography. To study the cultural history of social groups that are not well-represented in early sources we are forced to sift through voluminous texts to gather as many references as possible, however brief. While a few scattered accounts will not produce a coherent or accurate picture of women’s lives in antiquity, with the accumulation of large amounts of terse and previously unconnected data, patterns begin to emerge. The Themes database is a tool for collecting information in great enough quantities to allow these patterns to emerge.

Similarly, the themes database will allow users to search for categories of information that a simple word search would otherwise miss. For example, hypergamy” (i.e., any marriage with a partner of higher social standing) functioned as a consideration in marriage decisions in early China, but since there is no equivalent term in classical Chinese, a word search or concordance will not register this information. Alternately, a biography may focus on an event such as miraculous conception but never use that specific term in the biography. The themes database provides access to this sort of information.

It is essential to note that we will never know for certain the extent to which literary representations translated into actual practice, since many of the primary sources we include in our collection, such as ritual texts and legal codes, are prescriptive rather than descriptive. As such they tell us about how things ought to be but not necessarily about actual conditions. But for all their imperfections, early Chinese texts still render important insights into the various ways that people thought about and discussed women. We can therefore use many of the references that collect around a certain theme not as accurate pictures of the social reality for women, but as indicators of the "presuppositions, expectations, questions, arguments, and justifications" surrounding discourse on women in early China,” and to observe how these discussions evolve over time.[3]

Using the database

A few themes, such as “virtue” are general to the point that if we were to list related biographies, we would have to list all 120 biographies in the Lienü zhuan. In cases where it is not practical to list related biographies, the related texts linked to a particular theme will not include biographies from the Lienü zhuan but relevant essays or passages from related texts. We include these general categories but with the addition of more specific terms in the main list. For example, “virtue” appears in the main list of themes but in conjunction with other terms denoting specific virtues such as filial piety, benevolence, etc. Both the general categories (e.g., virtue) and the specific categories (e.g.,chastity) will be treated the same way, but we will omit links to related texts when it is not practical to do so (e.g., we will omit list all 120 biographies of Lienü zhuan because each one focuses on virtue).

[1]Peter Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (Cambridge: England: Polity Press, 1997), p. 163.

[2]Ann Waltner, “Infanticide and Dowry in Ming and Early Qing China,” ed., Kinney, p. 193.

[3]Alistair C. Crombie, Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition (London: Duckworth, 1994), vol. 1, p. 7.


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