Decaying and Deifying: Female Body, Death, and Religious Representations in East Asia
1: The Unwitnessed Female Suicides in Late Imperial Chinese Literature
Saturday, March 26, 2022
10:30am – 12:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Vanderbilt University, United States
Late imperial Chinese literature includes many examples of women committing suicide, usually without anyone by their side. The absence of witnesses commonly leads to disputes over the nature of the death among the involved families and legal investigators. Some dramas and fictions, however, portray celestial or ghostly characters invisible to the suicidal women as audiences of the suicides. Works in this category include well-known novels such as Honglou meng and recently discovered dramas such as Chaste Lady Hai (1660s). In some cases, the ghostly figures guide the female characters to commit suicide; in others, the celestial audience observes the characters’ predestined death. Through examining the role of spectators and spectatorship in the stories of otherwise unwitnessed female suicide, this paper revisits the issue of women’s agency in literary suicide. It asks: Under what conditions is female suicide possible in late imperial Chinese literature? What does suicide mean to a woman before and after her death? And how does the existence of invisible witnesses influence the meaning of her death? The paper tentatively suggests that by inserting various types of spectators, literary works in late imperial China jeopardize women’s agency in their suicide stories.