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Yiqun Zhou: “Helen and the Chinese Femmes Fatales”

Yiqun Zhou: “Helen and the Chinese Femmes Fatales”

May 19

Humanities 1, Room 210

Helen, the Spartan queen whose abduction by Paris the prince of Troy ignited the ten-year-long Trojan War, may

be regarded as the femme fatale par excellence. The prominence of Helen’s images in the Greek tradition is as

notable as their complexity and ambiguity. Alongside commonplace condemnations of Helen as the cause of a

devastating war, there are also enduring efforts to exonerate, to redeem, and even to exalt her act. Ancient China

had its own lore of femmes fatales. The fall of each of the three earliest Chinese dynasties is blamed on a woman,

the evil consort of the last monarch. The judgment passed on the three women in the sources is invariably negative,

and their stories are routinely invoked as cautionary lessons for later rulers and noble houses about the potential

dangers of female beauty. Whereas the indeterminacy of Helen’s images perpetuated over time and became ever

more elusive with the proliferation of representations, the portrayals of the three classical Chinese femmes fatales

conformed to one broad pattern that was only clarified and reinforced with the multiplication of texts. In this talk, I

shall illustrate the contrast just laid out and attempt to explain how it came into being, thereby illuminating some

important differences between the conceptions of beauty and the contexts and functions of literary and historical

writings in the two ancient societies.

Yiqun Zhou is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (and, by courtesy, of

Classics) at Stanford University. Her research interests include comparative studies of China and Greece as well as

Chinese and comparative women’s history, early Chinese literature and history, and Chinese and English fiction

(1600-1900). Her recent publications include is Festivals, Feasts, and Gender Relations in Ancient China and

Greece. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and “Spatial Metaphors and Women’s Religious Activities in

Ancient China and Greece,” in Shubha Pathak, ed., Figuring Religions: Comparing Ideas, Images, and Activties.

(Albany: SUNY Press, 2013).

Refreshments at 4:30 and reception to follow the lecture

Free parking for lecture in the lower Cowell-Stevenson parking lot

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Ancient Studies

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