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Cultural and Ritual Empowerment of Women in the Northern Courts: Yu Xin’s Epitaphic Writings

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

Yu Xin (513–581) was famous for writing muzhiming epitaphs. Of his nineteen extant pieces written for the Xianbei nobles in the Northern courts, thirteen were for women. In this regard, Yu Xin surpassed his contemporary men of letters of the entire Southern and Northern dynasties (420–589), both by quantity and by quality. As the leading man of letters from the South, Yu Xin was retained by the Northern courts for cultural strengthening. His epitaphic writing obviously resulted from the court’s order for this purpose. His emphasis on women was however rooted in his personal experience as well as the intellectual trends and social customs of his time. Influenced by the Wei-Jin (220–420) self-awakening, women in the Southern and Northern dynasties enjoyed relatively more spiritual freedom and less social confinement than their Han predecessors. While this Wei-Jin legacy continued in the South more from the intellectual respect, in the North it found unison from tribal regimes’ inherited esteem for women. Yu Xin’s epitaphs for women clearly combined all these cultural and social influences. Using ornate parallel prose (pianwen) style, Yu Xin wove cultural traditions into Northern women’s daily lives, bestowing these women with collective cultural status as well as intimate personal profiles. The genre of epitaph, as a ritual language, also highly ritualized these women’s social status. Both effectively empowered women in the Northern court. Meanwhile, these works also reflected Yu Xin’s own vision of an ideal womanhood.


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