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This research paper will examine the historical significance of gender roles and relations as represented in Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life. I will investigate the representation of female gender as displayed in Yun’s character through a males’s point of view, and reach some understanding of the positive characteristics that a wife should have and the social effects of these societal preferences. I will also look at a husband’s perception of his wife through Shen Fu’s relationship with Yun, and compare evidence of Shen and Yun’s limited relationship to poetry from a woman named Xi Peilan that reflects her relationship with her husband during the same time period. Xi Peilan was an accomplished female poet and her poetry draws on her personal experience as a wife. Therefore, by looking at firsthand insight on the marital relationship from both a male and female perspective, we can that the personal relationship between a husband and his wife was directly and primarily affected by the limitations placed on wives in society.
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Shen introduces Yun by explaining that their marriage was arranged at a young age and highlights qualities in Yun that impressed him. From Shen’s initial description, Yun appears to be an appealing candidate for a wife right away. As a result a general idea of the qualities desired in a wife is formed. For instance, upon meeting Yun when Shen and his mother were confirming the engagement, Shen tells his mother that he would like to marry Yun, and points out that his mother specifically like Yun’s gentle nature. This passage shows how involved the family was in the marriage process, because although Shen happened to like Yun, it was his mother who chose her to be his wife, and he had little influence in the decision. And because Shen’s mother liked her “gentleness”, believing that a desirable young women should have a mild and kind disposition. Shen continues to describe Yun by explaining that her father died when she was young and she worked arduously at needlework in order earn money to provide for her family, as he states that “the labor of her ten fingers came to provide for all three of them.” Shen also focuses significantly on Yun’s intellect, as he states “Even while small, she was very clever,” and he notes that while Yun was busy providing for her family, she took time to continue her education by reading her brother’s school books. Yun is presented as a respectable woman because she embodies Confucian characteristics such as filial piety. Also, once married to Yun, Shen states that as a new wife she was quiet and never became angry, he continues by saying that “She was respectful to her eldersâ€¦Everything she did was orderly, and was done properly.” Shen emphasizes Yun’s thoughtful behavior and her ability to quickly adapt to her role as wife.
Exploring Yun’s characteristics further, Shen mentions one incident that occurred between both of them during their youth that reveals the extent from Yun devoted herself to becoming an excellent wife. Shen explains that one day he desired something to eat, and he states that “Yun secretly took me to her room, where she had hidden some warm rice porridge,” but soon Yun’s cousin saw what was going on and exclaimed to Yun, “you said there wasn’t any more [porridge]! But I see you were just hiding it in here and saving it for your husband”!’ As a result, Yun’s family laughed at her because she showed such devotion to her husband at a young age and she became embarrassed. Yun was so ashamed that she distanced herself from Yun up until their marriage ceremony. This simple incident seems to have impacted Shen opinion of Yun, for he brings it up again once they are married. Once married Yun always woke up early and ran off to get the day started, and he felt that she was still embarrassed, and he asked her “Why are you still afraid of someone laughing at you?” Yun replied by saying that she woke up early not because she is embarrassed, but because she does not want his parents to think that she is apathetic. The rice porridge scene shows Yun’s passionate devotion to family as she immediately adopts the role of wife. Even before Yun is married to Shen she is thinking about him and trying to serve him. Once married she is no longer feels that she must hide her devotion, and tries to be a good wife paying attention to not only his needs but to his parent’s as well.
However, it appears that the camaraderie that Shen and Yun share is not ordinary. Their marriage is one of genuine affection for one another and a desire to interact, but it appears that their desire to be with one another is actually hurt by the Yun’s role as his wife. For instance, once married Shen states that he and Yun would secretly meet up with one another to hold hands. Therefore Shen and Yun must try not to show affection for one another in public, even though they were married because it was not considered appropriate. This also shows that a husband and wife did not have private places to meet with one another during the day, and were surrounded by other family members in home. Shen continues by saying that “The strangest thing to me then was how old couples seemed to treat one another like enemies,” suggesting that their marriage as partnership was not the dominant model at the time. It can be concluded that Shen does not consider his relationship with Yun to be affected by the construction of marriage roles, and views his marriage as a friendship. Therefore Yun’s position in his life is one of a companion and not someone distant and secluded in her own sphere, as wives are presented as typically being..
However, Shen is aware that Yun is limited in how she can act and what she can do because she is his wife, which makes being with one another difficult. The main conflict revolves around Shen having to travel and Yun inability to follow him. For instance, Shen expresses that he thinks that their relationship would work better if Yun were a man, as he states that “It is a pity that you are a woman and have to remain hidden away at home. If only you could become a man we could visit famous mountains.” He continues to saying that in his next life “I hope you will be born a manâ€¦I will be a woman, and we can be together again.” This is significant because it does not reveal Shen’s unhappiness with Yun’s role as a woman. This instance seems to show that husbands did not necessarily limit their wives, and that men were also affected by womens’ societal role and were unable to change their wives’ circumstances. In this section Shen seems to be more distraught over Yun having to remain at home than Yun does. This is because in reply to Shen’s comment Yun suggests that she is content with her role as wife, as she states, “What is so difficult about that? After my hair begins to turn whiteâ€¦we could still visit places nearby,” which shows that she is willing comply with social norms and wait until she is elderly to travel.
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Yun is making the best of her social role and attempting to assert her agency inside of it by traveling when she is older, which was socially acceptable. In her article ***NAME THE ARTICLE***, Paola Paderni states that “Discussing cases of agency does not mean romanticizing reality but analyzing the possibilities that an individual has of mediating within a system of norms by manipulating the rules.” Therefore, according to Panderni Yun appears to have accepted her role as wife, and is not a attempting to cross societal bounds, and is providing Shen with a realistic option for them both to travel together. Shen however rejects Yun’s idea, stating that by that time she would be too old and could not physically make the journey. Shen’s quick rejection suggests and overall disappointment and unhappiness with Yun’s gender construction, and his unrealistic outlook as he desires Yun to be a man.
But at the same time, Yun displeased when she cannot go with Shen to a party. Yun states that “What a shame that I cannot go just because I am not a man.” Shen mentions that she should dress up like a man accompany him, however she almost backs out of it because she thinks his parents will disapprove, but Shen convinces her to go through with it. At the festival Yun identity is uncovered and her disguise is treated as a joke and everyone ends up having a good time. This expresses that as a married woman, Yun was not allowed be part of the outer domain, but it is clear from Shen’s perspective that, while Yun was committed to fulfilling her wifely duties, she desired to experience this part of a man’s role, and this appears to be the main disappointment in Yun’s life. The status of women appears to have been dictated by society rather than being primarily based in ingrained individual preferences.
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