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From Vice To Virtue: A Comparison Between Two Medieval Women From China and Europe: Meiniang and Cunizza da Romano

As Western Europe and China were almost entirely isolated from each other for thousands of years, the systems of ethics that shaped their respective societies developed in a very different way. In this post, I would like to compare two medieval women who were immortalized in literary works: Meiniang, the female protagonist of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) vernacular story The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers; and Cunizza da Romano, a famous 13th century noble woman to which the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321) dedicated a chant in his master piece, the Divine Comedy.

Meiniang: Victim, Courtesan, Filial Woman


The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers is one of the most famous vernacular stories of Chinese literature. It was written by Feng Menglong (1574-1646), a scholar and a pioneer of Chinese vernacular fiction. He was a prolific writer, author of commentaries, poetry, drama and prosa. His most famous works are three collections of tales, Illustrious Words to Instruct the World, Comprehensive Words to Caution the World, and Constant Words to Awaken the World. In these collections, Feng compiled and adapted a large number of popular stories which allow a fascinating insight into old Chinese society. The protagonists of the stories come from all walks of life: merchants, soldiers, politicians, monks, courtesans etc (see Stories to Caution the World 2005, Introduction).

In The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers, Feng narrates the vicissitudes of the young and beautiful Yaoqin and of the oil vendor Qin Zhong.

During an invasion by the Jurchen people of Manchuria (1127), Yaoqin and her parents are forced to abandon their village. While they are marching aimlessly with other refugees to escape the barbaric hordes, demoralised imperial troops attack and loot the defenceless civilians. During the turmoil, Yaoqin loses sight of her parents and roams about alone in despair. After a while, she is found by a greedy fellow townsman who, taking advantage of her young age and ingenuity, convinces her to follow him to the city of Lin’an and then sells her to a brothel owner, Miss Jiuma. Jiuma gives Yaoqin the name ‘Meiniang’, and raises her. When Yaoqin turns fifteen, Jiuma forces her by a trickery to sleep with a customer:

On the fifteenth day of the eighth month Lord Jin invited Meiniang to go and watch the full moon with him. They embarked on a boat with four other persons who knew about the scheme. They made Meiniang drunk and then carried her back to Jiuma’s house. By that time Meiniang had lost consciousness. They put her on the bed and took off her clothes, which was done easily, for the weather was hot and she was lightly dressed. Then Lord Jin satisfied himself, while Jiuma restrained Meiniang for fear that she might resist. Though the girl had sunk into deep slumber, she nevertheless felt pain and wished to struggle, but she was so intoxicated that she was utterly unable to move her limbs (Feng 2013).


The motive behind the deceptions and violent actions of those who exploit Meiniang’s beauty is simple: it is money, a recurrent theme in Feng’s stories. Jiuma, however, is not just a tyrannical procuress. Meiniang is her capital, and she needs to convince her to accept her profession not only as something ineitable, but also as an advantage. Jiuma teaches the young girl that she, too, should regard her looks as a capital to invest and make as much money as possible.

At first, Meiniang refuses to sleep with customers. Even after having being raped, she cannot forget that she comes from a “respectable family”. Her highest ideal is marriage. One day, Jiuma asks the help of another brothel-keeper, Miss Sima. Sima talks with Meiniang to persuade her to become a courtesan:

Sima drew her chair closer to her and, taking Meiniang’s hands in hers, said, “My child, a courtesan cannot be as tender skinned as a soft-shelled egg. How can you earn much money if you are so shy?” 

“What need do I have of money?” Meiniang said. 

“But, my child,” said Sima, “your mother expects you to bring in silver for her even if you don’t care about it yourself. Remember the saying: ‘The mountain dweller lives off the mountain, the shore dweller lives off the sea’. Does any of Jiuma’s girls dare touch you? In her garden you are the only melon that she can rely upon to supply her with seeds … If everyone behaved [like you do] how would your mother buy mulberry leaves to feed her hungry silkworms? Since she has been so kind to you, you should try to deserve her kindness … 

We brothel keepers live off our daughters [i.e., the courtesans; calling their courtesans ‘daughters’ reflects Confucian family ideology]. 

If we are lucky enough to find a pretty girl, it is just as if a family of landlords had purchased a plot of fertile land. We are eager to see her grow until she is ready for her ‘hair combing’ [i.e. being deflowered by the first customer], which is to us what the harvest is to the farmer. Afterwards we expect to start making profits from our investment, we expect her to receive new clients at the front door after she has sent away the old ones from the back door, and we look forward to Mr. Zhang bringing us rice and Mr. Li sending us firewood. Only when plenty of loyal customers come and go, day in day out, will a courtesan become famous” … 

“I come from a respectable family,” Meiniang said, “and I have become a prostitute through the treachery of a cheater. If you, Aunt, should make it possible for me to start a new life and get married you would be doing a good deed which the gods will certainly reward. But I would rather die than do what you say.” 

“It is a worthy ambition to abandon this life and get married, how could I deny it?” Sima said. “But there are many different ways of achieving this goal” …


Sima explains to Meiniang that it would be in her best interest to earn money and at the same time meet powerful customers in order to eventually marry one of them or become a concubine of one of them. 

“I would like to get married and start a new life,” said Meiniang. “But what is the best way to do it?” 

“I will teach you the best possible way,” answered Sima. 

“If you teach me I shall never forget your kindness.” 

“We usually say that a girl is not clean until she marries. Now, you have already been deflowered and there is no way you can pretend to be a virgin. Your fate was to come to this house, and you have no power to redress this mistake. If you wish to get out of here, you have to begin by receiving patrons. In the first place, your mother will never let you go until she has made a thousand taels or more through you. Then surely you will want to marry someone worthy of your beauty and accomplishments, not any common, vulgar fellow that comes along. But how can you meet a suitable man if you see no one? If you persist in your refusal, your mother will probably sell you as a concubine to anyone willing to pay the price. That’s also a way to start a new life, but what if the man is old or ugly or as ignorant as an ox? 

I think you should do what your mother wishes. With your beauty and talents you don’t have to entertain anyone except noble and rich patrons. Thus you will be able to enjoy yourself while you are still young, enable your mother to make a fortune and save some money for yourself. After five or six years your mother will be willing to let you go. When the right man does come along, then I shall myself be your matchmaker.” 

After hearing these words, Meiniang said nothing. But by the smile on her face Liu Sima knew that she had convinced her … (ibid.)


Meiniang chooses the path that, by the standards of Chinese society and as she herself has alluded, is not that of a virtuous, respectable woman. The ideal of returning to a righteous life remains her long-term goal, but in the short term, making profits and meeting men becomes her priority. What is the virtuous life to which she so much aspires? 

As mentioned before, it is the idea that a woman should get married. This means that in principle Meiniang accepts the social roles prescribed by Confucian thought. Indeed, in the course of the story she will realise exactly this moral ‘rehabilitation’ by complying with the social norms of society. 

As Patrick Hanan noted, Feng Menglong is 

very much in the Confucian mainstream. He does not search for any ideal of the self as apart from, or in opposition to, society, as the great eighteenth-century novelists Cao Zhan and Wu Jingzi were to do. For Feng the fulfillment of the self meant the fulfillment of one’s social role, or rather of the social role to which one aspired (Hanan 1981, p. 80).


It is not the purpose of this post to give a detailed account of The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers. Let us therefore skip what – from a literary point of view – is the most interesting and entertaining part of the tale and jump directly to the end of the story. 

The oil vendor Qin Zhong falls in love with Meiniang because of her exceptional beauty. Thanks to his kind-heartedness, Meiniang decides to marry him. Qin Zhong was a poor man, but after investing in his business he has become rather well-off. When he was a young boy, Qin Zhong had been given by his father to the care of Lin’an’s oil vendor. At the end of the story, both Qin Zhong and Meiniang are reunited with their parents. 

At this point, Qin Zhong becomes a filial son and a virtuous husband, while Meiniang becomes a filial daughter and a virtuous wife, according to Confucian precepts. Meiniang as an individual almost disappears from the story; she turns into a silent, obedient woman, a paragon of Confucian morality. In the final scenes, the only thing she does is to perform the rituals of deference and obedience to the elders which are expected of her:

Qin Gong [Qin Zhong’s father] had already left his native town a long time ago, and he was unwilling to follow his son. 

“Father and I have not seen each other for eight years,” said Qin Zhong, “and I had no chance to serve you. Besides, I have got married, and my wife should meet her husband’s father.” 

Qin Gong gave in to his son’s wish. Qin Zhong put his father on a sedan chair and went with him to his house. There he provided his father with a change of clothes, gave him a seat of honour and kowtowed before him together with his wife 


Qin Gong stayed at his son’s house, but he missed the quiet atmosphere of Tianzhu temple. Qin Zhong did not dare go against his father’s will, and so he brought him back there, provided for his daily expenses, and sent him food regularly. He went to visit him every ten days, and every three months he visited him accompanied by his wife 

Qin Zhong and his wife grew old together, and they had two sons who distinguished themselves as scholars. Until this very day the name and reputation of Qin Zhong are remembered in Lin’an, and when people want to praise an honest and helpful man, they simply call him: “Master Qin”, or “the oil vendor”.


Despite being a story about a courtesan and an oil vendor, the Confucian ideal of hierarchy and social roles is a constant topic. In the end, the girl who was forced to a life of debauchery by adverse circumstances, far away from her parents and selling her body to strangers, is redeemed through compliance with and obeisance to Confucian ethics, of which filial piety is the cornerstone. The union between Meiniang and Qin Zhong is depicted as a Confucian idyll.


Cunizza Da Romano: Rebel, Lover, Blessed Woman


Cunizza da Romano is a puzzling character. She was known in the 13th century for being a “magna meretrix”, a woman who loved many men. And yet, Dante placed her in Paradise. We find Cunizza in the 9th chant of Paradise. Her words briefly refer to her own biography, and express her concern for the political instability of her native land. The verses devoted by Dante to Cunizza are few, but contemporary readers knew from other sources the personal story of this remarkable woman.

Cunizza da Romano (ca. 1198-1279) was the daughter of Ezzelino II, count of Onora, and Adelaide di Mangona (Ruud 2008, p. 428). Her grandfather had taken part in the crusades, while her father was a notorious womaniser and a renowned warrior. The da Romanos were rivals of the mighty d’Este family (Urban 2006, p. 50). 

Cunizza had two brothers, Alberico and Ezzelino III. Ezzelino III was a famous political figure in 13th century Italy, for he was ambitious and ruthless. His legendary cruelty as well as his appearance (he had black hair and a hairy body) led to perfidious rumours; some claimed that his mother had been raped by Satan and that Ezzelino was the child of this demonic union; others, that he was half-human, half-dog (ibid.).

Ezzelino fought and intrigued in order to weaken the d’Este family and curry favour with the the then Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Sicily, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (born in 1194, the same year as Ezzelino).  

Ezzelino’s first military feat was the siege of a d’Este castle near Padua. When he became head of the family at the age of 26, he was already so powerful that he escorted Emperor Frederick through northern Italy to guarantee his safety. His army of mercenaries outnumbered the imperial troops. In this way, Ezzelino managed to gain more power at the expense of the d’Este family (ibid.).

The story of Ezzelino is important for Cunizza, because it was the political plans of her brother that led to her first marriage. In fact, Ezzelino married the daughter of the prominent local Guelph family di San Bonifazio. In 1222, Ezzelino gave his sister Cunizza to his wife’s brother, Riccardo di San Bonifazio (ibid.; Gaunt / Kay 1999, p. 131; Charles Singleton: Commentary. In: Alighieri 1991, p. 164). Obviously, this move was designed to strengthen the ties between the two families. Political marriage was a common practice in aristocratic families at the time.

However, Riccardo unexpectedly betrayed the da Romano family and changed sides. Thereupon, Ezzelino, according to some accounts, appears to have requested the famous poet Sordello to abduct Cunizza (Gaunt / Kay 1999, p. 131). Sordello and Cunizza eventually fell in love. The couple stirred up a scandal when they got married, sending Ezzelino into a rage. Ezzelino obtained the annullment of the marriage and threatened Sordello, who was forced to flee for his life (Urban 2006, p. 51). 

While Ezzelino continued his military exploits, Cunizza’s amorous life became increasingly turbulent. She was sent to her brother Alberico, in Treviso, who was supposed to watch over her. But she fell in love with a knight named Bonio. According to the chronicler Rolandino, she embarked on numerous journeys with Bonio, living a life of pleasure. However, Bonio was subsequently killed in a battle for the defence of Treviso, a battle fought by Alberico against his own brother Ezzelino, with whom he had fallen out (Ruud 2008, p. 428). 

After Bonio’s death, Ezzelino married Cunizza to Aimerio, count of Breganze, but he, too, was murdered by Ezzelino after a dispute between the two. Following this, she married a gentleman from Verona. Her fourth and last marriage was with Salione Buzzacarini of Padua, who was Ezzelino’s astrologer (Singleton/ Alighieri 1991, p. 164).

By around 1260, both Salione and Ezzelino were dead, and the fortunes of the da Romano family were in decline. Cunizza went to live in Florence, in the house of Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, the father of Guido Cavalcanti, an intimate friend of Dante Alighieri’s. It was here that, in 1265, Dante and Cunizza met (ibid.). Dante was deeply impressed by Cunizza, who in the later part of her life devoted herself to charitable work and seemed to have regretted her past sins. Moreover, Dante admired the poet Sordello, whom he, however, placed in the Purgatory.

There can be many explanations for Dante’s positive portrayal of Cunizza. Perhaps, Dante saw her as an authentic, truthful woman whose sins were not a sign of debauchery, but of love. She was a spontaneous, passionate character who loved her next, and even carnal love can be interpreted as part of her loving and caring nature. 

The idea that true repentance and a good heart can wash away carnal sins dates back to the New Testament. In Luke we read:

36 One of the Pharisees invited him [Jesus] to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, 


37 suddenly a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. 


38 She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment. 


39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is and what sort of person it is who is touching him and what a bad name she has.’ … 

44 Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘You see this woman? I came into your house, and you poured no water over my feet, but she has poured out her tears over my feet and wiped them away with her hair. 


45 You gave me no kiss, but she has been covering my feet with kisses ever since I came in. 


46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 


47 For this reason I tell you that her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven her, because she has shown such great love. It is someone who is forgiven little who shows little love’ (Luke 7:36-7:47).

The woman who was a sinner is commonly held to have been a prostitute (see Soelle / Schottroff 2002, p. 42).
  

Second, Cunizza belonged to a family of cruel men who fought bitterly against their rivals and against each other. Against her family background, Cunizza appears as a positive figure, who dedicated herself to charitable work and once even helped her family’s slaves to escape. From this perspective, 
Cunizza is also a defender of individual liberty, both against the tyrannical bonds of her family members, and against the sexual moralism of her age (see Glenn 2008, pp. 109-110). 


Conclusion


The moral and social horizon of Cunizza’s story is completely different from what we have seen in the story of the Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers. Meiniang is a young beautiful girl who is the victim of the turmoil of her time. She has to become a courtesan, but she always wishes to start a ‘normal’ family life. She desires a good marriage with a caring husband, she isn’t greedy, but she recognises the need for money as a necessity of life. In the end, she becomes a virtuous wife and a filial daughter.

The story of Cunizza, on the contrary, is one of family feuds, political schemes, love and passion. Cunizza is an independent woman, who loves and enjoys her life, and who often enrages her brothers. The da Romano family is all but hierarchical. Cunizza’s father retired to monastic life, making Ezzelino III head of the family. It is not predetermined social roles that define the position of the individual, but individual character and disposition. 

Of course, as a medieval woman Cunizza is far from being equal to her brothers. However, she appears emotionally independent, and only coercion can prevent her from acting freely. Her path to virtue and redemption is not compliance with social family norms, but a journey of self-improvement inspired by Christian ethics. 

Meiniang’s and Cunizza’s paths to virtue have one thing in common: they are both based on a system of ethics – the Christian and the Confucian – which were dominant in their respective societies and which serve as the standard according to which individual behaviour is judged. 

The difference lies in the fact that Meiniang’s redemption is objective, because it is achieved through compliance with family ideology. Her outward behaviour – bowing to her father-in-law-, serving her husband and her parents etc. – cannot be questioned, since it is something visible and irrefutable. This alone and nothing else suffices to make her a virtuous woman.

Cunizza’s redemption, in contrast, is subjective. Readers of the Divine Comedy were surprised to see Cunizza in Paradise. That is because Christian redemption is ultimately an internal process, something that no one outside of the individual, and perhaps not even the individual himself, since God alone possesses absolute knowledge, can grasp. Dante felt that Cunizza deserved Paradise, but other observers may think otherwise. Moreover, Dante feels sympathy with many people who were in Hell or Purgatory, which shows how ambiguous the concepts of sin and repentance are. 

Confucian morality can be attained by performing certain acts and rituals and by gaining society’s approval. Christian morality is ambiguous and ultimately rooted in the individual self. 

As I will explain in other posts, the different values and standards of Christian and Confucian ethics can help understand some cultural differences that still exist between East Asia and the West.
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