Performing Grief: Bridal Laments in Rural China
224pp. July 2008
Performing Grief: Bridal Laments in Rural China
Author: McLaren, Anne E.;
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.

“McLaren’s book is a rich and moving tour of Chinese rural society. . . . Her analysis of gender dynamics is sophisticated and avoids the pitfalls of older feminist studies and thus offers a model for future studies of gender. Last but not least, [this] book is an exemplary example of a new wave of truly interdisciplinary studies of China.” —China Review International (16:2, 2009)

“With this volume Anne McLaren has significantly added to the fine literature on bridal laments in rural China, and has argued for an intriguing new perspective in their analysis.” —Pacific Affairs (82:4, winter 2009)

“McLaren’s artful book gives us a glimpse of the extraordinary treasury of poetic resources to which many young rural women in China once had recourse as they sought to navigate the ambiguities of one of the central transitions of their lives.” —Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (69:2, 2009)

“Anne McLaren offers in the book not only a wealth of first-hand materials on bridal laments, most of which are available in English for the first time, but also a reading of this tradition in a wider historical and cultural context. The book thus exemplifies a successful combination of solid fieldwork, theoretical sophistication and critical insights in the field of China studies.” —New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies (12:2, 2011)

“An excellent example of how to use Chinese women’s oral folk genres to study illiterate women’s lives and marriage customs in rural China. [A] pioneering work.” —Women and Gender Network (spring 2009)

Performing Grief introduces us to the fascinating culture of the bridal lament. Drawing upon the rich materials from the small village of Shuyuan in Nanhui near Shanghai for her primary materials, the author reconstructs a once vibrant culture in which young women on the eve of their wedding voiced their anxieties in ritual songs. The study is based on extensive local research, makes full use of the existing scholarship on female traditions of lament inside and outside China, and illustrates its argument with the almost complete translation of one of the most fully preserved cycle of laments. This study is an absolute must for anyone who is interested in the position of women in traditional society until quite recently. It also is essential reading for anyone working in the field of Chinese women’s literature as it highlights the rich oral traditions of poor rural women.” –Wilt Idema, Harvard University

“In her study of bridal laments Anne E. McLaren is traversing virgin soil for the Western reader and allowing us a many-faceted view of a whole world in drops of tears. The author spreads out before our eyes its social relations, work conditions, material culture, customs and rites, myths and legends, all embedded in the tearful songs of the girl and her female ‘supporters’ performed during the several days of the marriage ceremony. The conventions of the genre hardly allowed expressions of joy and happiness in connection with the girl’s union with her future husband. On the contrary: The exodus from her natal home to that of the husband’s family was bewailed like a death. This book is highly recommended for the general reader as well as for scholars of oral traditions, literature, anthropology, sociology, history, gender studies, and studies of the humanities in general.” —Vibeke Børdahl, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen University

Performing Grief is not only a major contribution to the study of the bridal lament tradition but also to the field of women’s oral folk genres in China, Asia, and the rest of the world. It offers an excellent example of a specific type of oral performance tradition in China and thus contributes to the growing body of studies that deal with local Han and ethnic minority oral traditions.” —Mark Bender, Ohio State University

Author: McLaren, Anne E.;
Anne E. McLaren is associate professor of Chinese language and literature at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.
Read the introduction (PDF).


PART I. The Bridal Laments of Nanhui
1. Imagining Jiangnan
2. The People of the Sands
3. The Hollow Cotton Spool: Women’s Labour in Nanhui
4. Seizing a Slice of Heaven: The Lament Cycle of Pan Cailian

PART II. Lament Performance in China: History and Ritual
5. Weeping and Wailing in Chinese History
6. Shaking Heaven: Laments and Ritual Power


Appendix 1. Nanhui Lament Transcription

Appendix 2. Translation: The Bridal Laments of Pan Cailian of Shuyuan, Nanhui