Early Modern Period: Petition, Ming China
This letter is an official petition to the Ming Emperor of China, Shi Zong (r. 1522-67). Written around 1566, it is attributed to Lady Chang, only wife of Shên Shu, a high bureaucrat in the Chinese court. However, it was likely coauthored by his favorite concubine, whose name is unknown. A Censor for the Ministry of Rites, Shên Shu was accused by a powerful rival of misleading the Emperor with wrongful advice, and imprisoned without trial for more than 14 years. Shên Shu was ultimately liberated in 1567, thanks in part to Lady Chang’s letter and in part to the rise of a new emperor, Mu Zong (r. 1567-72).
Not much is known about the Lady Chang herself, but her letter gives us a hint of the difficulties she faced during her husband’s prolonged absence. Lady Chang underscores her filial responsibility to her in-laws, as prescribed by Confucian philosophy. It also makes clear that she had access to official channels for justice and did not hesitate to use them when she felt her situation had become impossible. Most intriguingly, this petition shows Lady Chang’s use to her benefit of the very philosophy which prescribed her inferiority and submission.
This source is a part of the Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 teaching module.
The Lady Chang
In her husband’s stead
May it please your Majesty,
My husband was a Censor attached to the Board of Rites. For his folly in recklessly advising your Majesty, he deserved indeed a thousand deaths; yet, under the Imperial clemency, he was doomed only to await his sentence in prison.
Since then, fourteen years have passed away. His aged parents are still alive, and there are no children in his hall, and the wretched man has none on whom he can rely. I alone remain—a lodger at an inn, working day and night at my needle to provide the necessaries of life; encompassed on all sides by difficulties; to whom every day seems a year.
My father-in-law is eighty-seven years of age. He trembles on the brink of the grave. He is like a candle in the wind. I have naught wherewith to nourish him alive, or to honor him when dead. I am a lone woman. If I tend the one, I lose the other. If I return to my father-in-law, my husband will die of starvation. If I remain to feed him, my father-in-law may die at any hour. My husband is a criminal bound in gaol. He dares dive no though to his home. Yet can it be that when all living things are rejoicing in life under the wise and generous rule of to-day, we alone should taste the cup of poverty and distress, and find ourselves beyond the pale of universal peace?
Oft, as I think of these things, the desire to die comes upon me; but I swallow my grief and live on, trusting in providence for some happy termination, some moistening with the dew of Imperial grace. And now that my [page 222] father-in-law is face with death; now that my husband can hardly expect to live—I venture to offer this body as a hostage, to be bound in prison, while my husband returns to watch over the last hours of his father. Then, when all is over, he will resume his place and await your Majesty’s pleasure. Thus, my husband will greet his father once again, and the feelings of father and child will be in some measure relieved. Thus, I shall give to my father-in-law the comfort of his son, and the duty of a wife towards her husband will be fulfilled.
Giles, Herbert A., ed. Gems of Chinese Literature. Vol. I, Prose. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1923.