Li Ju‐chen Criticism - Essay

Nancy J. F. Evans (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Evans, Nancy J. F. “Social Criticism in the Ch'ing: The Novel Ching‐hua yuan.Papers on China, no. 23 (1970): 52‐64.

[In the following essay, Evans examines the characters and events in Li Ju‐chen's novel and concludes that the work is an important piece of social criticism.]


The influence of the West on the thinking of Chinese intellectuals too often has tended to obscure the period prior to Western contact, for it has lulled students of Chinese history into overlooking the diversities within the Chinese scene itself. The novel Ching‐hua yuan (The flowers in the mirror) by Li Ju‐chen, published by about 1828, provides an intriguing challenge to the view that dissent came only after the Western impact.

Since the source of information about the social and political thought of Li Ju‐chen was a novel, conclusions about his social message are impossible to substantiate fully. As a result much of this paper is necessarily inferential. Whereas the philosopher or the political propagandist is moved to make his position definite, the author of a piece of fiction leaves much for the reader to glean for himself. It is my belief that much can be deduced from the novel Ching‐hua yuan through interpretation of the description of characters and events, and that the implications of the novel make Li Ju‐chen an important figure of social dissent in the early nineteenth century.

The framework that he used for his ideas makes this study a difficult one in quite another way as well. It would be extremely useful and interesting to know more about the life and personal contacts of Li Ju‐chen: in what school of thought did he belong, if any? Who were his friends? What ideas did they hold? What impact did his ideas have? Yet, because he was a dissenter who disliked the “eight‐legged” essay style, he failed to make a name in the world of officialdom, a world he could only have entered through the very examination system which he thought too narrow. He dared to spend 10 years writing the very least “serious” and “respectable” kind of literature, a novel. Even in his special field of learning, phonetics, his ideas were unorthodox. For these reasons information about him is extremely scarce; he is not listed in any of the official biographies. Interesting dissenters are often the most difficult to investigate, since none of the orthodox channels provide us with information about them. This fact often deepens the impression that there was actually little dissent.

Li Ju‐chen was born in Ta‐hsing prefecture in Chihli about 1763. He followed his elder brother Li Ju‐huang to Hai‐chou prefecture in 1782 where the latter served as salt receiver at Panp'u until 1803. There Li Ju‐chen met Ling T'ing‐k'an, a friend of Juan Yüan, and studied literature and phonetics under him. Li Ju‐chen later said that he obtained the “utmost benefit” from Ling's instruction. In Hai‐chou he also met Hsü Ch'iao‐lin and Hsü Kuei‐lin (c. 1778‐1821, chü‐jen of 1816) who became his brothers‐in‐law. After an interlude of a few years in the position of assistant magistrate in Honan, Li Ju‐chen settled in the north, in or near Peking.1 Perhaps because of his lack of patience with an examination system based on the “eight‐legged” essay he failed to receive any degree higher than that of hsiu‐ts'ai.

The study of phonetics had been well developed by this time but the major emphasis was on researching ancient sounds rather than studying current phonology. Li Ju‐chen was unique for his attention to actual usage, to the modern sounds, and for his daring to change from the ancient pronunciation. He established a system of 33 initial sounds and 22 final sounds based on current usage.2

Although Li was unorthodox as a phonetician, it is in his novel Ching‐hua yuan that his originality in the sphere of social and political thought is apparent. According to Lu Hsün, “Not only did he dare to change from the ancient [methods] with regard to the study of phonetics, but he occupied a place in the ranks of scholars, was very learned, and yet he dared to write fiction.” (Italics added).3 His novel was the result of almost 10 years of labor (1810‐1820) and when first completed, copies were made to be circulated and read in manuscript. A printed edition appeared at least by 1828. In 1829 the book was reprinted in Kwantung, supplemented by 108 pages of illustrations. In 1888 the Tien‐shih chai (a publishing house famous for its lithographic work) of Shanghai printed it lithographically with new illustrations and a preface by Wang T'ao. The Ya‐tung shu‐chü (Shanghai) printed a punctuated edition in 1923 with a long introduction by Dr. Hu Shih.4 It is this last edition and a 1955 Peking edition that I have used for the purposes of this paper.

The hundred chapters of the novel can be divided into four basic sections. The first part (chapters one to six) provides the supernatural framework and the information that a hundred flower spirits are going to be incarnated as women in the “Celestial Empire” and the outlying foreign lands. They become the hundred “talented women” around whom much of the novel revolves.

Part two is concerned with the travels of the scholar T'ang Ao, who is seeking Taoist salvation by carrying out a task set for him by a Taoist monk: that of journeying abroad to bring back those of the hundred flowers which have drifted into foreign lands. Most of this section involves a description of the exotic peoples, places, plants, and animals encountered by T'ang Ao and his companions, who manage to meet and offer help to several of the incarnated flower spirits.

The third part contains an account of a similar journey made by T'ang Ao's daughter, T'ang Kuei‐ch'en (who is actually the incarnation of the Fairy of the Hundred Flowers), to find her father, who has remained abroad on the magic mountain of Little P'eng‐lai, a Taoist Utopia. This section completes the reunion of the flower spirits: the hundred “talented women” gather in China to take part in the imperial examinations for women established by Empress Wu.

Part four narrates the participation of the hundred talented women in the successful rebellion against Empress Wu, led by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and fiances. T'ang Kuei‐ch'en has by this time joined her father in Little P'eng‐lai.

Although literary criticisms have been made of the book on the basis of its potpourri of thousands of allusions and bits of scholarly knowledge, (a characteristic that makes translation of large parts of it virtually impossible) the consensus is that although it does not quite rank with Hung lou meng (Dream of the red chamber) and Ju‐lin wai‐shih (The scholars), it has much merit in its own right.5 There are weaknesses in Li's handling of character portrayal: although the three men who are the major protagonists during the second and most important part of the book have definite individuality, the great majority of the characters (such as the talented women) are not clearly drawn. However, this may be explained by the fact that the purpose of the author is not to develop individual personalities, but to use characters to carry out the plot, and to borrow their mouths to enunciate problems.6 The author creates satire by presenting the outlandish customs of the people encountered in the foreign travels of T'ang Ao, the merchant Lin Chih‐yang, and a ship's navigator, Tuo Chiu‐kung, but despite the weirdness of the people, birds, and vegetation they meet, the descriptions are very realistic—the details of daily life and appearance make the most exotic countries believable.

The voyage to the various “outlandish” countries which T'ang Ao makes with his brother‐in‐law Lin and the wise Old Tuo provides the most effective vehicle by which Li Ju‐chen can propagate his ideas about the ills of Chinese society: here lies the opportunity to criticize Chinese customs through contrast or hyperbole. Although many more minor criticisms are voiced in this way, the two major areas of dissent with prevailing customs are the position of women and the examination system, the first receiving greater emphasis. Lu Hsün quotes Hu Shih as saying that Ching‐hua yuan “is a story discussing the question of the feminine [role]. As to the solution of this problem, he [Li] advocates a system of equal treatment of men and women, equal education, and equal selection [for official posts].”7


Li Ju‐chen utilizes many different perspectives in dealing with a subject which had received little attention in Chinese literature. In the Country of Gentlemen, referred to by Hu Shih as Li Ju‐chen's “Utopia,” merchants try to sell their wares for as little as possible while their customers insist on paying more—in short, the fierce bargaining of Chinese finance is completely reversed. After marvelling at such bizarre transactions and at the extreme courtesy of the inhabitants, T'ang Ao and Old Tuo encounter the two prime ministers of that country, Wu Tzu‐ho and Wu Tzu‐hsiang. They are established as learned and refined men who entertain original and sensible opinions of social values and customs.8 These men ask in turn about Chinese customs with which they disagree, and conclude with observations on the custom of foot‐binding:

I hear that in your esteemed country, the women's feet are bound. When young girls' feet are being bound, the pain is something terrible. Their skin is inflamed and the flesh decomposes, smeared all over with blood. At this time they moan and cry, and can neither eat in daytime nor sleep at night for the pain, and develop all kinds of sickness. I thought that these must be bad girls being punished by their mothers for filial impiety, and therefore [they] submitted to this kind of torture which is only better than death. Who would suppose that this was done for their benefit to make them look beautiful, as if girls could not be beautiful without small feet! Now it seems to me when you cut off a superfluous part of a big nose or slice off a part of a high forhead, you would consider that man disfigured; and yet you regard girls who have disfigured feet and walk with a kind of tortured gait as beautiful! … When one comes to think of it carefully, I don't see what's the difference between footbinding and a regular form of torture for criminals. I am sure this would never be approved by the sages and the truly wise. Only by all the gentlemen of this world agreeing to stamp out this custom can an end be put to it.9

The arguments of the prime ministers are persuasive, but the most effective exposé of the position of women and the need for change is made through narrative description of the reversal of normal Chinese roles in the adventures of the travellers in the Country of Women. In this realm the women dressed like men and managed the affairs of business and of the state. The men stayed at home wearing powder, rouge, and all the various “feminine” adornments, and were constrained by all the rules that in China normally applied to women. The following piece of satire, translated by Hu Shih, provides us with a sense of the degree of feminine modesty and propriety that were traditionally expected—a constraint unparalleled even in Victorian England. As T'ang Ao and Old Tuo were sightseeing in the Country of Women, marvelling at the reversal of sexual norms, they were abruptly accosted by a middle‐aged “woman” sitting in a doorway: “There are beards on your faces, you must be two women. How dare you run about in gentlemen's dress! You pretend to be peeping at women, but in reality you are looking for men. Why don't you look into a mirror and remind yourselves of your sex? O you women of no sense of shame!”10

The Chinese male attitude of superiority is established by a remark by the merchant Lin: “Lucky I wasn't born in this country … Catch me mincing around on bound feet!”11 However, he is forced to become painfully aware of the undesirability of filling the female role—while selling cosmetics at the palace, he is seen by the “king” (a woman, by normal standards) who becomes attracted to him and has him held captive and adorned for her pleasure, intending to make him her consort. After Lin Chih‐yang had had his ears pierced by two bearded “maids,” a black‐bearded fellow entered with a bolt of white silk:

Kneeling down before him, the fellow said, “I am ordered to bind Your Highness's feet.” Two other maids seized Lin's feet as the black‐bearded one sat down on a low stool, and began to rip the silk into ribbons. Seizing Lin's right foot, he set it upon his knee, and sprinkled white alum powder between the toes and the grooves of the foot. He squeezed the toes tightly together, bent them down so that the whole foot was shaped like an arch, and took a length of white silk and bound it tightly around it twice. One of the others sewed the ribbon together in small stitches. Again the silk went around the foot, and again, it was sewn up.

Merchant Lin felt as though his feet were burning, and wave after wave of pain rose to his heart. When he could stand it no longer, he let out his voice and began to cry.12

After his eventual escape the merchant Lin spoke to his wife of the treatment he had received:

I was beaten and hung upside down in the tower and had my ears drilled through. All these tortures, however, were comparatively easy to stand. What I absolutely could not stand was to have my two big feet bound until the bones were cracked and the tendons torn, leaving nothing except a bony skeleton covered by a thin skin. And when I moved about in the day or at night, my toes smarted until I was ready to die with pain. Just think that I have escaped from such a humiliation, which I am afraid even among the ancient people very few persons could stand!13

The obvious answer to his heroics is that women have had to stand this pain and humiliation as a matter of course for years.

In a study of Ming and Ch'ing fiction published in Hong Kong in 1957, Wu Shuang‐i writes: “The story of the Country of Women clearly illustrates that Li Ju‐chen's imagination is strong and transcendent. None of the old rules of feudalism restrained him. He bravely described a society in which women fulfilled the most important roles, which was completely opposed to the society of his times, a society in which men filled the most important roles.”14 And Li Kuo comments that Li Ju‐chen, by using descriptions, causes the men of his times, who have become accustomed to hold the honoured position in society and who believe that women rightfully occupy their lowly place, to feel the pain of having their ears pierced and their feet bound.15

Li Ju‐chen was apparently also strongly opposed to the masculine practice of taking concubines, or at least was able to see it through a woman's eyes. In the Country of Two‐Faced People this attitude is clearly expressed through the words of an irate wife who was berating her hen‐pecked husband:

Suppose I take a few male concubines and gradually leave you in the cold, would you like it? You men are all like that. When poor, you remain good husbands and have some respect for your wives, but once you are high up and rich and powerful, then off you go like a different person. You begin to think a lot of yourself and look down upon your friends and relatives and even begin to forget about your wife. As you are, you are all thieves and scoundrels and if I have your body slashed into ten thousand bits, you certainly deserve it! What do you know about the doctrine of “reciprocity”? I'll have you flogged for thinking only of yourself and not of others, and I am going to flog this idea of “reciprocity” into your head before I quit … You either take or don't take concubines; but if you do, you must first get some male concubines for me before I'll give my consent.16

This is an unusually outspoken wife. The meeker, more traditionally “virtuous” woman in China continued to submit to the “double standard.”

Li Ju‐chen does not merely denounce sexual inequality; he takes pains to show that this oppression is unjust, that women do not deserve unequal treatment. While the description of the Country of Women and the episode in the Country of Two‐Faced People quoted earlier express his criticism of the oppression of women, a description of two black girls in the Country of Black‐Toothed People voices his praise for the abilities of women. In that country both men and women are sent to school and are allowed to take the civil‐service examinations. Women are sought as marriage partners not because of birth or wealth, and especially not for beauty, since the completely black people are described as exceptionally ugly (a piece of racism that passed unnoticed by Hu Shih, who agreed with the author's evaluation)17 but because of their learning. The two girls who talk to T'ang Ao and Tuo Chiu‐kung startle the latter with their extensive classical learning, leaving the men feeling inadequate.

Li Ju‐chen's sympathy for feminism is apparent in a much larger portion of the book than just these two or three chapters. A study published in Peking in 1960 states that this is the first time in Chinese fiction that women are made the leading figures, not only from the aspect of love, but also as participants in a political movement.18 The variety of their abilities rather than their beauty or virtue is emphasized throughout: among the hundred talented girls there are “knight‐errants” like Yen Tzuhsiao, mathematicians like Mi Lan‐fen, and courageous women like Hsing Yü‐tan.19

In The May Fourth Movement Chow Tse‐tsung quotes one writer: “The Chinese woman's achievement of a life of independent personality … was actually initiated by New Youth, and the May Fourth Movement provided the key to the achievement.”20 Chow Tse‐tsung's description of the position of women mentions many of the things specifically attacked by Li Ju‐chen:

They were isolated from many social relations and activities. The law never regarded them as independent citizens. In fact daughters enjoyed no inheritance of property. Within the family, women occupied an inferior, passive, and obedient position. The traditional ideal of a woman was a...

(The entire section is 7842 words.)

Frederick P. Brandauer (essay date August 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brandauer, Frederick P. “Women in the Ching‐hua yüan: Emancipation toward a Confucian Ideal.” Journal of Asian Studies 36, no. 4 (August 1977): 647‐60.

[In the following revised essay, originally presented in 1975, Brandauer warns against judging Li Ju‐chen's treatment of women in his novel according to the ideals of modern Western feminism.]

The Ching‐hua yüan,1 the work of vernacular fiction by Li Ju‐chen (ca. 1763‐1830) shows remarkable diversity in both narrative content and purpose. Critics have observed that it is encyclopedic in scope,2 and suggested that it reflects the wide range of interests and...

(The entire section is 8799 words.)

An‐chi Wang (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wang, An‐chi. “Ching‐hua yuan.” In Gulliver's Travels and Ching‐hua yuan Revisited: A Menippean Approach, pp. 77‐100. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Wang contends that Li Ju‐chen's novel, like Swift's Gulliver's Travels, should be considered a work of Menippean satire.]

In Chinese literature, Ching‐hua yuan is most celebrated for the story of T'ang Ao and his adventurous travels to the bizarre and exotic overseas countries in ancient legends (chapters 7‐40). This part makes Ching‐hua yuan a Chinese counterpart of Gulliver's Travels, and has become the focus of many affinity...

(The entire section is 10540 words.)

Stephen J. Roddy (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roddy, Stephen J. “The Philological Musings of Jinghua yuan.” In Literati Identity and Its Fictional Representations in Late Imperial China, pp. 171‐206. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Roddy examines gender role reversals in Li Ju‐chen's novel in the context of its overall image of the literati.]

Much better known as an example of scholarly fiction than Yesou puyan is Jinghua yuan by Li Ruzhen,1 written in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This work also bears the strong imprint of the scholarly interests of its author, who unlike the obscure Xia Jingqu seems to...

(The entire section is 18628 words.)