Li Ju‐chen Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Li Ju‐chen c. 1763-‐c. 1830

(Also transliterated as Li Ruzhen) Chinese novelist and nonfiction writer.

Li Ju‐chen was an accomplished scholar living in a time of transition in China. He is best known for his 1828 novel, Ching‐hua yuan (The flowers in the mirror), in which Li Ju‐chen denounced his country's educational system and its treatment of women. Through his novel, he attempted to reconcile classical Confucianism with Neo-Confucianism and meld traditional values and aesthetics with modern ideas. Li Ju‐chen is remembered today as an erudite social critic and early feminist.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Li Ju‐chen's life. He was born c. 1763 at Ta‐hsing in Chih‐li district, near Beijing. He failed to pass the Imperial Civil Service Examination beyond the county level, earning only the Hsiu‐ts'ai degree. Li Ju‐chen's two brothers—far less talented intellectually—both passed and became government officials. Li Ju‐chen was married twice. His first wife died at a very young age, and his second wife was the sister of two associates, the famous phoneticians Hsü Kuei‐lin and Hsü Ch'iao‐lin. In 1782 Li Ju‐chen moved to Hai‐chou in northern Kiangsu province to live with his elder brother and to study under the famous philologist Ling T'ing‐k'an. He remained there for almost twenty years, doing research and writing his first book. From 1801 to 1807, Li Ju‐chen served as an assistant magistrate in Honan province, where he was occupied with problems of flood control. He left that position determined to continue his research and writing, but with no means of support he found it necessary to depend on his brother and brothers‐in‐law. Around 1810 he began to write his novel, a work that took ten years to complete and first appeared in print in 1828. Li Ju‐chen died in obscurity and poverty in approximately 1830.

Major Works

The novel, The flowers in the mirror, Li Ju‐chen's most important work, is the only extant text attributed to him. His 1805 treatise on phonology, Li‐shih yin‐chien (known simply as Yin‐chien), and his 1817 chess handbook, Shou‐tzu p'u, are apparently lost, as is the original (c. 1820) manuscript of the novel. The original text of the 1828 edition is preserved in the library of Beijing University.

The novel consists of one hundred chapters and is set in the time of Empress Wu (690‐705). Li Ju‐chen’s breadth and depth of knowledge is displayed in the wide variety of subjects covered. Alternatively considered a satire, an allegory, and a novel of ideas, The flowers in the mirror has challenged critics seeking to assign it an appropriate generic classification. One of its most remarkable sections involves a society in which gender roles are reversed and men are subjected to the same types of cruel and discriminatory practices inflicted on women in Chinese society. Li Ju‐chen's representations of social reform include ending the practice of foot-binding, as well as creating special civil service exams so that women might be eligible for government positions normally restricted to men.

Critical Reception

Criticism of Li Ju‐chen's work is confined to The flowers in the mirror and addresses three main issues in the novel: the breadth of learning Li Ju‐chen demonstrates in the text; his criticism of the education and examination systems of China; and his denunciation of harmful and discriminatory practices against women. Several critics classify the work as a scholarly novel, saying it is designed to display the scholar's extensive knowledge. An‐chi Wang provides an extensive discussion of the problems scholars have encountered in trying to categorize The flowers in the mirror because the work displays the features of several genres. Wang reports that Chinese critic Heh Man‐tzu has recently coined the term “miscellaneous novel” to describe the mixture of genres and subjects Li Ju‐chen covers. Although most critics agree that The flowers in the mirror was unusual in its support for women’s rights, many critics note, however, that Li Ju‐chen's proposed reforms did not include complete equality for women. Nancy J. F. Evans points out that Li Ju‐chen's version of Utopia is ruled by men, which “serves to substantiate the fact that The flowers in the mirror does not present a completely revolutionary vision.” Frederick P. Brandauer cautions modern scholars to avoid projecting the principles of modern feminism onto Li Ju‐chen's writings. According to Brandauer, “Li Ju‐chen does advocate a kind of feminine emancipation,” but this should not be confused with modern notions of sexual equality. Stephen J. Roddy suggests that Li Ju‐chen's criticism of the treatment of women and of the examination system are combined in The flowers in the mirror. According to Roddy, Li Ju‐chen's description of the physical constraints (such as foot‐binding) on women serves as an analogy for “the personal frustration stemming from the restrictive requirements placed on literati by the examination system.”