In the 5,000 years of Chinese history, there are many stories of virtuous women that have been passed down through the ages. From poets to empresses, scholars to artists, women in ancient and imperial China were first and foremost faithful wives and strong mothers.
The story of an exemplary woman named Xiao Yixin who lived during the Liao Dynasty (A.D. 916—1125), illustrates her position as one of the virtuous role models of Chinese tradition and depicts the values that resonate with people today.
Xiao Yixin was renowned for her embodiment of upholding traditional values as a woman. Chinese traditional literature affirms that Xiao Yixin was herself of royal descent, tracing her lineage to the Emperor himself through her mother, Princess Hutu. She was also the wife of official Yelu Nu. Through her deeds, Xiao Yixin inspired others of the virtues of a Chinese woman.
How to Keep a Marriage Strong
Since Xiao Yixin got married to her husband at the age of 20, she was completely devoted and loyal to him.
One day, Xiao Yixin encountered a group of women talking about how to capture the affection of their husbands. The women suggested that by dispelling the wicked spirits they would be able to win the love of their husbands.
However, Xiao Yixin intervened in the conversation and argued that morality would always triumph over magic, and said: “Such practices are no match for propriety and etiquette,” surprising the other women.
Xiao Yixin then patiently explained to the women how their husbands were more likely to be won over by virtuous conduct rather than spells. She continued by saying “if we strengthen our character and improve our conduct to meet the proper standard, if we care for our elders well and show them respect and filial piety,” then they would be fulfilling their role.
She also added that “if we are gentle and good-natured in our relationships with our husbands,” then they would be assured of their esteem. Lastly, she concluded by saying that “if we are generous and broad-minded with our younger generation, we will be living according to the principles of propriety and etiquette.”
Xiao Yixin’s keen understanding of a woman’s traditional role impressed her fellow court wives, who felt embarrassed at the underhand tactics they had been considering. The dignified and upright woman reminded other women: “If we are able to do this, we will naturally win love and respect from our husbands. If, on the other hand, we resort to an evil practice to win favor, how can we not feel guilt?”
Staying Loyal in Tough Times
Xiao Yixin was not only well known for her profound statements on virtue but how she remained loyal to her husband during tough times.
One time, her husband, Yelu Nu, despite his faithful service to the Emperor, was framed and falsely accused. His sentence was severe—banishment from the court and a difficult life of exile.
Xiao Yixin could have remained at the court, as she was of imperial descent and the Emperor encouraged her to divorce her husband. However, when she was faced with a situation such as this, Xiao Yixin first expressed her gratitude to the Emperor for the consideration, noting that he wished to “save me from a life of exile and suffering with my husband. It is an act of great kindness indeed.”
Completely aware of the hardships of a life away from the court, Xiao Yixin politely told the Emperor that she considered the most virtuous action to be to remain with her husband. “Being husband and wife means following each other, for life and death,” she asserted.
Xiao Yixin also told the Emperor, “I married Yelu Nu when I was young, and if I leave my husband when he is facing distress and difficulty in his life, that would be contrary to basic moral principles. How would that be different from the behavior of an animal?”
She further added: “I hope that your Majesty shows mercy by allowing me to accompany my Yelu Nu in exile.” Showing that she understood the consequences of her decision, she also said, “I shall have no regret even if I die there.”
The Emperor was moved by her virtue and let her go with her husband. While their life in exile was a poor one and filled with hardships as they had to work hard to survive, Xiao Yixin never left her husband’s side, proving as loyal in death as she had been in life.
The above stories indicate how a noblewoman like Xiao Yixin exercised moral behavior and fidelity to her husband even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Through the ages, things have changed. However, Xiao Yixin’s principles can still serve to remind us of the traditional virtues of a Chinese woman.