Ladies of Legend - A Photo Series
Updated: Sep 11, 2018
Preface: Origins Writing about women has always been a rather problematic endeavour in the ancient world. In both ancient China and Greece, patriarchal anxieties over the role of women in society have manifested in attempts to describe (and circumscribe) them through story-telling. Such male dominated narratives do more than simply immersing their audiences in speculative flights of fancy; rather, they contribute to a discourse that ultimately shapes reality by reinforcing social expectations of what a woman’s role should be. Hence, while a wide variety of empowered female characters are presented in Greek mythology – capricious goddesses; treacherous beauties; warrior princesses – these roles seemingly exist only to affirm the chaos that ensues when women are given agency. Interestingly, there are also more legendary female characters in Greek mythology than men, perhaps indicative of an interest in exploring different facets of the female psyche, but only when safely contained in the realm of fiction. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, the (rather infamously unhappy) poet depicts how Woman was created to be an “evil thing” and “plague to man”:
But afterwards Zeus who gathers the clouds said to him in anger: “Son of Iapetos, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire--a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.” So said the father of men and gods, and laughed aloud. And he bade famous Hephaistos (Hephaestus) make haste and mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face; and Athene (Athena) to teach her needlework and the weaving of the varied web; and golden Aphrodite to shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. And he charged Hermes the guide, the Slayer of Argos, to put in her a shameless mind and a deceitful nature. So he ordered. And they obeyed the lord Zeus the son of Kronos (Cronus). Forthwith [Hephaistos] the famous Lame God moulded clay in the likeness of a modest maid, as the son of Kronos purposed. And the goddess bright-eyed Athene girded and clothed her, and the divine Kharites (Charites, Graces) and queenly Peitho (Persuasion) put necklaces of gold upon her, and the rich-haired Horai (Horae, Seasons) crowned her head with spring flowers. And Pallas Athene bedecked her form with all manners of finery. Also [Hermes] the Guide, the Slayer of Argos, contrived within her lies and crafty words and a deceitful nature at the will of loud thundering Zeus, and the Herald of the gods put speech in her. And he called this woman Pandora (All-Gifts), because all they who dwelt on Olympos gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread. (trans. Evelyn-White)
Most of us would be familiar with the story of how Pandora’s box unleashed terrors on mankind. However, in this legend, the most lethal weapon was actually Pandora herself. Angered by Prometheus’s cunning theft of fire from the gods, Zeus takes revenge by creating Woman to deceive and manipulate Prometheus in return. For the Greeks, the institution of marriage therefore functions as a sign of the gods’ dominion over humanity. Woman, as well as her speech, works and appearance, contains the ultimate potential to deceive and subvert masculine authority even from within her assigned role in the marriage economy.
Interestingly, there is no corresponding myth about the creation of women in ancient Chinese mythology, or even about the creation of humanity. Marcel Granet argues that based on the texts discovered, “the history of the world [for the Chinese] does not start before the start of civilisation. It does not originate by a recitation of a creation or by cosmological speculations, but with the biographies of sage kings. The biographies […] contain numerous mythic elements; but no cosmogonic theme has entered the literature without having undergone a transformation. The predominance accorded to political preoccupation is accompanied for the Chinese by a profound repulsion for all theories of creation.” Even the story of Pangu, these scholars suggest, appears to be a late, and foreign, importation.
The earliest Chinese myth about a woman, the goddess Nu Wa (女娲) or Empress Wa, presents a very different understanding of femininity in contrast to the Greeks. Although her ancestry is uncertain, most stories portray her as the Mother Goddess personifying Mother Earth and the source of all human life. She is described has having the upper body of a woman with a snake tail, as well as a long head with two fleshy horns. Due to her snail (蜗)-like appearance, she was initially worshiped as the snail goddess and came to have her name. In the 风俗通義Feng Su Tong Yi (Comprehensive Interpretation of Customs), an Eastern Han dynasty text by Ying Shao, her role in creation is portrayed:
Legend has it that at the very beginning when heaven and earth first took shape, there were no human beings, Nu Wa patted and modelled yellow clay in order to create human beings. The task was very tedious and her strength could not tolerate the burden. So she pulled a rope through the mud, lifted it up and each drop of clay that fell off became a human being. Therefore, the rich and the noble were those made of yellow clay, whereas the poor and the ordinary were those made of pulling the rope through the mud. (trans. Christina Cheng)
Apart from being credited as the mother of all mankind, Nu Wa is described as having created social hierarchy by making human beings in groups according to their status; it is a woman who establishes the order of things in ancient Chinese society. Later versions of the story also reinforce this image of Nu Wa being a compassionate guardian of human life who protects order on the earth, in contrast to male rivalry which produces destructive violence. A Taoist text <<列子>> from the Warring States period portrays Nu Wa repairing the damage caused to the heavens and earth, right before war wilfully damages her work again:
In former times, Nu Wa melted five-coloured stones to repair the hole of the sky; and cut off the feet of the celestial tortoise to set upright the four extremities of the earth. Later Gong Gong and Zhuan Xu fought to become king. He (Gong Gong) wrathfully shook Buzhuo Mountain, broke the pillar in the sky, tore the strings that tied the earth; so the sky leaned towards northwest, where the sun, the moon and the stars positioned; the water could not flow to the south-eastern part of the earth, therefore all stagnant waters flooded. (trans. Christina Cheng)
In this account, male ambitiousness destroys cosmic order, while feminine altruism and diligence repairs it, providing justification for the pre-eminence of matriarchy.
However, the legend of Nu Wa was soon co-opted into political rhetoric with China’s gradual transition from matriarchal tribal culture to a patriarchal, feudal system. Stories about her in the later Han dynasty begin to describe her as not an autonomous goddess in her own right, but as the wife of Fu Xi (伏羲). In such versions, Fu Xi and Nu Wa were mere mortals who were in love with each other. However, they were also siblings. After pleading with the gods and gaining their approval, they were wed, and repopulated the earth with their offspring. Fu Xi became increasingly recognized as the one who created human civilization, while Nu Wa’s divinity was de-emphasized, and she was only worshipped by women as a goddess of fertility and marriage. The Han dynasty text Baihu Tong De Lun <<白虎通德论>>, a literary discussion on the relationships between politics, cosmology and philosophy, describes Fuxi's importance:
In the beginning there was as yet no moral or social order. Men knew their mothers only, not their fathers. When hungry, they searched for food; when satisfied, they threw away the remnants. They devoured their food hide and hair, drank the blood, and clad themselves in skins and rushes. Then came Fu Xi and looked upward and contemplated the images in the heavens, and looked downward and contemplated the occurrences on earth. He united man and wife, regulated the five stages of change, and laid down the laws of humanity. He devised the eight trigrams, in order to gain mastery over the world. (trans. Wilhelm, Richard)
Here, the matriarchy which was once glorified becomes associated with the primitive and animalistic, and man instead gets credited for establishing a new civilized society in accordance with cosmic principles. Fu Xi was the first in a genealogy of sage-kings, and his ideas in the I Ching set out a fundamental understanding of cosmology which accorded man the right to rule. At the same time, this union between man and wife becomes a representation of harmony and balance which contributes to a sense of order in the universe. What remains unaddressed, however, is the question of what there is left for the woman to do.
Ultimately, a gendered comparison of stories across these two immensely different and complex cultures would be impossible albeit in broad strokes, and with this caveat, we can perhaps come to some generalisations about the origins of women in ancient Greek and Chinese texts. Firstly, the idea of the feminine is more complimentary in Chinese portrayals than in the Greek, with women being associated with maternal benevolence and compassionate virtue, unlike the positively diabolical representation of Pandora with her charms and wiles. Less emphasis is placed on the portrayal of female beauty – in fact, most female goddesses in Chinese mythology appear rather fearsome and monstrous, until much later in history. For the Greeks however, there is a clear link between external appearances and inward virtue – the more beautiful the woman, the more dangerous.
In the legends of Nu Wa and Pandora, women also serve the purpose of establishing order in society, although in different ways. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s presence reminds man of Zeus’ ultimate dominance, re-establishing order by emphasizing man’s subservient position in relation to the gods. In the tales of Nu Wa, cosmic order is re-established by repairing the destructiveness of male ambition, and by establishing the pre-determined nature of one’s caste and social hierarchy.
Finally, the idea of marriage in the Greek myth is a curse, as Pandora’s good looks provoke passion in men which will drive them to destruction. Wives are morally suspect and prone to duplicity, to be sequested in the house to curb their potentially malicious tendencies. In actual fact, many ancient Greek women lived restricted lives because their circumscription of movement was believed to reduce the rate of adultery, making it easier to verify the paternity of male children. Women were also almost invisible subjects in the city as they were not given citizenship rights, and were only recognized by their connections to their fathers and husbands. The establishment of civil society depended on keeping women subservient and out of sight, reducing their supposed potential for destructiveness.
By contrast, the story of Nu Wa seems to suggest a more equal union, with the couple being celebrated as co-creators of human history, and their marriage representative of harmony between heaven and earth, a balance of yin and yang. In the earliest depictions of her and Fu Xi, she carries the compass (规), the instrument related to heavenly observations, while Fuxi carries the carpenter’s square (矩). These two words together denote 规矩, the rule of good behaviour and order, predicated on man and woman having separate, but complementary roles. Nu Wa created humans, and Fu Xi taught them the necessary skills for survival and establishing civil society. Yet Nu Wa’s moral authority in process of creation is relinquished to the male, and she eventually only retained the non-political purpose of procreation in this equation – a role perhaps not all that different from the marginal woman in Greek society.
With this general context in mind, our subsequent series of character studies will focus on the presentation of several types of female characters in Greek mythology, in comparison to some noblewomen of the Tang dynasty. While this period was famous for its legendary ladies like Wu Zetian and Yang Guifei, there were also a number of women whose achievements were written off, or forgotten in history, as well as those who attempted to tell their own stories by literally writing back. It is hoped that these comparisons will help us appreciate the wonderfully complex ways women with power negotiate, succumb to, or challenge the narratives that define them - both in real life, and in fiction.