Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity
Harvard-Yenching Institute 2013
Beverly Bossler‘s new book will be required reading for anyone interested in women and gender in China’s history. Covering nearly five centuries of transformations, it also offers a fascinating rethinking of the histories of neo-Confucian thought, of commercialization, and of the family in China. Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity(Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2013) explores transformations in gender relations in China from the tenth through the fourteenth centuries by carefully considering courtesans, concubines, and faithful wives and widows, three categories of women that both intersected and mutually shaped one another. The book is divided into three main parts set in the Northern Song, Southern Song, and Yuan periods, respectively. Parts One through Three each consist of three chapters devoted to close studies of the three main categories of women discussed in the book.
Bossler’s work is exhaustively researched, her argument carefully considered, and her narrative clearly structured, with most chapters giving special attention to the nature of the sources that make up her evidentiary base. In addition to offering macrohistorical views of the political, philosophical, literary, economic, and material consequences of the growth of commerce and expansion of an elite class from the Northern Song through the Yuan periods, each chapter also offers literary and historical snapshots of some of the individual women who populate the narrative. Bossler ultimately argues that the Song and Yuan periods “set the foundation for the gender order of Late Imperial China,” making her work important for those of us who study or otherwise simply enjoy reading and learning about later periods of Chinese history as well. It is an important and thoughtful book, and it was as much a pleasure to read Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity as it was to talk with Beverly about it. Enjoy!