Old Mrs Ni of Wuqing County: Qing Dynasty single mother
A story told by Ji Xiaolan, poet-in-residence with the Qianlong Emperor in the 1750s:
Old Mrs Ni of Wuqing county near Tianjin was widowed before the age of thirty. Her parents-in-law wanted to marry her off, but she swore she would rather kill herself. In their anger they drove her out, and let her fend for herself. Despite being in dire straits and without a home of her own, she managed to bring up two sons and one daughter, but none of them amounted to much. Forlorn and forsaken, she had only a grand-daughter who had become a nun to turn to, and she depended on the convent’s charity to keep body and soul together. This year she is seventy-eight years old. She is a classic example of a woman making a vow of constancy in her youth and maintaining that vow into ripe old age. I sympathized with her steadfastness, and often helped her out. My lady wife once asked me in passing, “You are President of the Board of Rites, in charge off honouring chaste women, yet you overlook this old lady who is in front of your nose. Why is that, I wonder?”
I replied: “The state institutions all have their rules and procedures. In the case of faithful wives and chaste women, colleges jointly put forward names to the local authorities, the local authorities draw up a list to submit to the province, the provincial administration presents a memorial to the throne for approval, and this is passed down to the Board of Rites, where each case is judged on its merits. The board may scrutinize, accept and reject, but may not seek out and introduce candidates on its own behalf, in order to prevent partiality and inflating of numbers. It is similar to the state examinations, where the supervisors have the authority to pass or fail candidates on the basis of their scripts, but cannot confer a degree on persons of taken who have no taken the examination.
“This old lady left her home district ages ago, so no one there would propose her. Neither would anyone know of this lone widow lost in the floating population of this teeming capital. That would be the explanation for this ‘pearl lying undiscovered in the bosom of the sea’. If I had been able to do so, how could I have failed to recommend her?”
From time immemorial it has been the tellers of tales who have brought to notice remarkable persons whom history’s annals have neglected. So I have sketched in an outline of her life, and included it in this miscellany.
Excerpt from the translation by David E. Pollard, “Real Life in China at the Height of Empire”, Chinese University Press Hong Kong 2014, ISBN 978-962-996-601-0