China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Since women’s lives were typically restricted to their homes in late-imperial China, the opportunity for a woman to forge a significant disciple-master relationship offered a rare chance for women to establish an identity outside the parameters of the patriarchal family. By becoming a disciple, women explicitly acknowledged their intent (zhi 志) to actualize themselves as masters in their own right of intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic pursuits. In this sense, the sixth relationship granted women a legible site in which to pursue a self that was not constrained by the three-followings.
My paper analyzes the meanings and implications of women’s disciple-master relationships in the mid nineteenth-century tanci novel Mengying yuan 夢影緣 (Bonds of Dream and Image) written by the gentry woman Zheng Danruo 鄭澹若 (1811-1860). The twelve ethereally beautiful and talented female flower spirits reject scholar-beauty conventions and resist marriage in order to pursue Daoist enlightenment by becoming disciples of the mother of the reincarnated immortal. The disciple-master community creates a parallel matriarchal family structure that liberates the flower spirits from patriarchal norms. Because filial piety is a central theme of this novel, I am particularly interested in unpacking how the novel presents the parallels and differences between the child-parent and disciple-master relationships from the perspectives of the twelve young women.