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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Negotiating Ethnicity and Gender on Imperial Frontiers: A Multidisciplinary Lens on Intersectionalities in Tang China
1: A Herstory at the Frontier: Wang Zhaojun in the Dunhuang Prosimetric Text and the Han Chinese Isomorphism of Family and State
Thursday, March 25, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Brown University, United States
From the time Han historiographies recorded Wang Zhaojun's marriage to a Xiongnu chieftain at imperial command, she became a stock image reifying suppressed women in the Chinese isomorphism of the family and state. This isomorphism signifies a system in premodern China where male privilege in the family was integral to, and paralleled, male dominance in state affairs. Later literary representations of the Wang Zhaojun images often reinforced this dominating social and imperial structure. In contrast, the Dunhuang prosimetric text on Wang Zhaojun, dating to the late 9th century, showcases a border perspective that the Tang's periphery came to embody. There Zhaojun resolutely refused to dutifully serve as the chieftain's wife owing to her undying love for the Han emperor. The Xiongnu chieftain, who bent over backward to accommodate her, ended up backing out of his alliance with the Han. Besides exhibiting sympathy for the chieftain, the text portrays Wang Zhaojun in a manner consistent with depictions of women in other Dunhuang texts where they defended their romantic interests against sovereign command. By mutating the literary trope of the Zhaojun images, that prosimetric text questions the agenda of ethnic assimilation in the Han Chinese expansionist enterprise and rectifies the priority of patriarchal desires in the isomorphism of the family and state. I argue that the Wang Zhaojun prosimetric text inhabits a literary hybrid space, which at once conceives its own version of the Han cultural tradition and critically foregrounds non-Han subjectivity under the influence of medieval Chinese imperialism.