The Kingdom of Women (女儿国) is a chapter in the classic Chinese fantasy novel Flowers in the Mirror (镜花缘) by Li Ruzhen (李汝珍). The novel was published in the early 19th century.
A World in the Mirror
The story is set in the prosperous era of Tang Dynasty during woman emperor Wu Zetian’s reign. A disgruntled scholar Tang Ao in his 30s was just unhappy about everything and decided to travel with his brother-in-law Lin Zhiyang, a successful merchant engaged in the international trading business. They were joined by Old Duojiu, a highly experienced seaman in his formidable 80s who headed the crew of Lin’s cargo ship.
In the following years, the ship landed in different countries, and the trio met various people and experienced divergent cultures.
On one occasion, for instance, they came to a state when people had two faces: One in the front looks handsome and dignified, glowing with the light of justice, peace and compassion, while on the back a hidden face covered in a scarf appears shockingly ugly and wretched, reminding you of nothing but lying, cheating and stealing.
On another occasion, they arrived in a country where the society is based on a hierarchical system with one percent of elites controlling 99 percent of the wealth, while the rest survive on the elites’ leftovers.
A Women’s Kingdom
One day, the trio on the ship spotted land in a distance. Lin told his brother-in-law they were approaching a women’s kingdom where cosmetic products were in high demand.
Once entered the capital, Lin the merchant went straight to promote his products, while Tang the scholar and Old Duojiu leisurely strolled through the city. Along the way, the scholar noticed a strange phenomenon: all men looked, talked and walked like eunuchs.
“It’s bizarre,” commented Tang.
Old Duojiu beamed, “Wait until you see the women here.”
Soon, the pair passed a residence where a woman was doing her needlework on the street-front verandah. Her hair was piled high on the top, decorated with various jewellery; her ears wore hoop earrings inlaid with precious stones, her face was heavily made up, whiter than cotton, while her lips were emphatically red, her eyes were strongly highlighted with dark blue shadows, but around her mouth, thick beard grew, like a wild bush in a neat garden. When Tang the scholar noticed her little feet in embroidered silk shoes under her long skirt, he couldn’t help but chortle.
Hearing the laughter, the bearded woman dropped her needle and dashed out to scold at the pair. “What are you laughing about, hie?! You two are obviously women, don’t try to pass off as men. Lucky you’ve encountered me today, or you two could be beaten half to death!”
The woman appeared rather martial and robust, the travellers speedily slipped away. Yet from a distance, they could still register that indignant condemnation: “You shameless whores, you forget who you actually are!”
The scholar was both fearful and baffled. Old Duojiu explained to him, “In this kingdom, women live like men working outside and managing state affairs, and men live like women staying at home to look after kids and take care of the housework.”
One Person’s Freedom Could Become Another Person’s Prison
Lin the merchant did very well with his sales because the “men” in this kingdom were passionate about making their “women” pretty. Regardless of being rich or poor, they would spend big on makeup stuff and jewellery for their “ladies”.
The feedback on his products was very positive and, eventually, even the king wanted to see his goods.
The king received Lin in his palace with great joy and, apparently, became more interested in the merchant than his product catalogue.
The monarch arranged a splendid dinner for the guest. The hungry merchant couldn’t be happier.
But his happiness didn’t last long. As soon as he finished his dinner, he was stripped bare and thrown into a bathtub to be washed thoroughly by a group of masculine maidens.
After the bath, he was forced to wear female clothing, get a lady’s hairdo and wear heavy makeup on his face. As he kept rejecting and protesting, a deep-voiced maiden informed him that he had the honour to become the king’s concubine. He nearly fainted when hearing that ridiculous news.
Yet he was quickly wakened up by the unbearable sharp pain as the brutal maidens were tightly wrapping his feet with white clothes into a shape that fits in high-heeled wedding shoes.
Lin could bear the torture no more and asked the maidens to kill him.
However, what he received were 20 cane strikes. When the maidens counted to 5, he was totally broken both physically and spiritually, stopped struggling.
The wedding day soon arrived but the procession was unexpectedly interrupted by a noisy crowd in front of the palace house.
One Person’s Freedom Could Result In A Group of People In Prison
It all started with Tang the scholar tearing down a royal job ad stuck on a wall, and claiming he knew how to prevent the rivers from frequent floods.
The crowd hailed him a hero and told him the king would reward him generously if he could fix the river problems.
“I don’t need any reward,” replied Tang. “I only have one condition.”
“Anything you want, say it,” the crowd shouted earnestly.
So Tang narrated how his brother-in-law was forced to marry the king, leaving his sister and niece weeping day and night on the ship.
“It’s unfair,” all cried out. “Let’s go to see the king!”
The crowd swelled rapidly and gathered before the palace, petitioning the king to release the merchant.
The king was furious. “How dare! I’m the king, I don’t have the right and freedom to marry whoever I wish to marry?”
He ordered the royal police to crack down on the crowd.
The police force opened fire, demanding the people to disperse immediately.
But the crowd refused to relieve the siege of the royal house. “We are gonna perish in the flood later anyway, what’s the difference from being killed by the king right now?”
And the protestors clashed with the police.
Under the mounting pressures from the people and the officials, combined with Lin’s firm objection to sleeping with the king, the king eventually backed off.
Suppressed Could Easily Become Oppressors
Tang the scholar didn’t disappoint the locals. The flood prevention measures were successfully installed.
On the eve of Lin’s release, the kingdom’s crown prince quietly sneaked into his terrace again.
“Take me with you, Your Ladyship,” he pleaded, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Upon investigation, Lin learned the crown prince’s birth mother (actually birth father) died years ago and the current major wife of the king wanted to make her own son (actually his own daughter) as the heir. “She could send someone to kill me at any moment,” the crown prince wept.
With the help of Tang the scholar and Old Duojiu, Lin the merchant not only returned to his family and ship in one piece but saved the crown prince.
The prince put on a girl’s clothing and was adopted by Lin and his wife as their second daughter.
“Let’s leave the women’s kingdom immediately,” proposed Tang the scholar. “It’s no better than the men’s dominated kingdom.”
Lin the merchant couldn’t agree more. “Tell me about it. Men or women, all are capable of being tyrannic when they try to dominate others.” Ordered he to Old Duojiu, “Let’s go! No delay! Go!”
“Hi guys, raise three sails!” ordered Old Duojiu to his crew. “Let’s get out of here as fast as we can!”
Artists of the picture book: 陈惠冠，宋静风 plus