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Performing Grief

Performing Grief: Bridal Laments in Rural China

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    Performing Grief
    Book Description:

    This is the first in-depth study of Chinese bridal laments, a ritual and performative art practiced by Chinese women in premodern times that gave them a rare opportunity to voice their grievances publicly. Drawing on methodologies from numerous disciplines, including performance arts and folk literatures, the author suggests that the ability to move an audience through her lament was one of the most important symbolic and ritual skills a Chinese woman could possess before the modern era. Performing Grief provides a detailed case study of the Nanhui region in the lower Yangzi delta. Bridal laments, the author argues, offer insights into how illiterate Chinese women understood the kinship and social hierarchies of their region, the marriage market that determined their destinies, and the value of their labor in the commodified economy of the delta region. The book not only assesses and draws upon a large body of sources, both Chinese and Western, but is grounded in actual field work, offering both historical and ethnographic context in a unique and sophisticated approach. Unlike previous studies, the author covers both Han and non-Han groups and thus contributes to studies of ethnicity and cultural accommodation in China. She presents an original view about the ritual implications of bridal laments and their role in popular notions of "wedding pollution." The volume includes an annotated translation from a lament cycle. This important work on the place of laments in Chinese culture enriches our understanding of the social and performative roles of Chinese women, the gendered nature of China’s ritual culture, and the continuous transmission of women’s grievance genres into the revolutionary period. As a pioneering study of the ritual and performance arts of Chinese women, it will be of interest to scholars and students in the fields of anthropology, social history, gender studies, oral literature, comparative folk religion, and performance arts.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6392-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    These popular sayings from Pudong-Nanhui, a region on the coastal border of modern-day Shanghai, reflect local understandings of the importance of bridal laments, a little-studied folk genre performed before the socialist revolution across vast areas of China. The first saying encapsulates the view that bridal weeping and wailing at the time of marriage had a ritual or magical potency. In an act of cosmic resonance, the bride’s wailing would evoke a parallel response from Heaven.³ The more she wept and wailed, the more riches and property would flow to the home of the groom. The second saying alludes to the...

  2. PART I The Bridal Laments of Nanhui

    • CHAPTER 1 Imagining Jiangnan
      (pp. 21-33)

      This local ditty encodes the popular view of coastal communities and the greatest fear of the lamenting bride—that she will indeed be married off to a man living by the seawall. In this impoverished region of saline soil, food “tastes like brackish water” and “each mouthful I sip will taste like ox piss” (Thanking the Father, 34–40). Coastal Shuyuan, the home region of Pan Cailian, is located on the eastern flank of the lower Yangzi delta region, on the margins of the area that was generally known as Jiangnan in the late imperial period. Jiangnan was for centuries...

    • CHAPTER 2 The People of the Sands
      (pp. 34-52)

      For a woman living in Shuyuan, the centre of her world was the saline land by the sea wall, where only cotton would grow. It was to this region that her forebears had migrated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to toil as tenant labourers on land painfully reclaimed from silt left deposited at the very mouth of the ocean. The populations who migrated to the coast came to be known as “people of the sands” and formed a distinctive sub-group marked by relative deprivation. The labour of coastal women in spinning and weaving cotton was of crucial importance to...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Hollow Cotton Spool: Women’s Labour in Nanhui
      (pp. 53-64)

      In her lament the Nanhui bride would constantly reiterate images of unworthiness based on her inner “hollowness” as opposed to the solidity of the senior women in the family. Her work in spinning and weaving was intimately bound up with her sense of self-worth and her perceived value in the marriage market.

      Historically, women were of critical importance in the development of a commercial cotton industry in the lower Yangzi delta in the late imperial period. In the thirteenth century a Taoist nun called Huang Daopo brought cotton technology with her from Hainan.¹ Huang Daopo is revered today in a...

    • CHAPTER 4 Seizing a Slice of Heaven: The Lament Cycle of Pan Cailian
      (pp. 65-80)

      We have noted that bridal laments were performed only during the ceremony for the ‘major mode’ of marriage. In concubinage the bride was regarded as being sold into the home of the groom; in uxorilocal marriage the bride remained in her parents’ home and had no reason for sorrow; and in child marriage she was partly raised in the home of the groom and married to one of their sons with minimal ceremony. For all the bride’s protestations of sorrow, marriage as primary wife was the best option available to the Nanhui village woman and indicated the relatively high status...

  3. PART II Lament Performance in China:: History and Ritual

    • CHAPTER 5 Weeping and Wailing in Chinese History
      (pp. 83-103)

      The lamenters of Nanhui were the heirs to an ancient Chinese tradition of weeping and wailing for ritual and social effect. It is argued here that, although both men and women engaged in wailed performances, they tended to so in different contexts and for different purposes. Weeping and wailing performance stands out as a rare example of a performance art where women not only held the stage but were able to exert a quasi-magical power denied them in mainstream ritual culture. In Part II, I will seek to place the laments of Nanhui within the history of wailed performances since...

    • CHAPTER 6 Shaking Heaven: Laments and Ritual Power
      (pp. 104-115)

      In this chapter we return to the intriguing saying with which we began this study: “At the home of the bride, they weep and wail till Heaven resounds, /At the home of the groom, their property swells and grows by bounds.” This Nanhui saying calls on the bride’s family to make a public, sustained performance of weeping and wailing in order to convince the heavens of the sincerity of their grief. In this way Heaven would take pity on them, the demons of misfortune would be kept at a distance, and, corresponding directly to the histrionic force of the lament...

  4. Afterword
    (pp. 116-118)

    Mencius assured King Xuan of Qi that if he could govern his state as well as the sage rulers of antiquity then there would be no dissatisfied women or unmarried men. The king who achieved this could rise to become universal ruler of the empire. In China of the twenty-first century, traditions of son preference combined with current state policies have failed to provide wives to all men who want them. Time-honoured conventions governing patrilocal marriage continue to stir up complaints amongst Chinese women, although traditional forms of female specific grievance have been transformed into the ‘speaking bitterness’ genres of...

  5. Appendix 1 Nanhui Lament Transcription
    (pp. 119-120)
  6. Appendix 2 Translation: The Bridal Laments of Pan Cailian of Shuyuan, Nanhui
    (pp. 121-154)