The Changing Role of Textile Making: Text Analysis of Digitized “Lienü zhuan” with Voyant Tools (Part II)

Voyant Tools is a website that allows text analysis in multiple languages with handy, easy-to-learn digital tools. In my earlier piece published in the Digital Orientalist earlier this year, I tested the application of Voyant Tools on a traditional Chinese source – the digitized text of “Lienü zhuan 列女傳 (Biographies of Exemplary Women, obtained from the Chinese Text Project) that were included in thirteen official Chinese dynastic histories (The Book of the Later Han 後漢書, Book of Wei 魏書, Book of Jin 晉書, Book of Sui 隋書, History of the Northern Dynasties 北史, Old Book of Tang 舊唐書, New Book of Tang 新唐書, History of Liao 遼史, History of Jin 金史, History of Song 宋史, History of Yuan 元史, History of Ming 明史, and Draft History of Qing 清史稿). Specifically, I used the Trends tool to examine how female textile making activities changed overtime in the narrative of these official histories. In this post, I will explore two more Voyant tools – Collocates and Terms Berry in order to gain a deeper understanding of female textile making activities in the thirteen histories.


In the linguistic context, collocates are words that are habitually combined, yet in Voyant, the definition of collocates is slightly different. Voyant does not focus on the habitual use of words in natural language, but instead, examines the combination of words in a specific context – that is keywords and terms that occur in close proximity within specific corpora. The Collocates function allows us to view the terms which appear in proximity to a keyword and thus to find out the terms that have a close relationship to the keyword. In my project, I will examine which terms have a close relationship to the four keywords that describe textile making activities – 織 (weaving), 紉 (sewing), 紡 (spinning), and 針黹 (needlework). I will organize them into four groups according to the dates in which those histories were written. The Liao, Jin, Song, and Yuan dynasties are excluded for the reason that they contain little meaningful data. 

In Voyant’s Collocate table, the first column lists the selected keywords – in this project they are 織, 紉, 紡, and 針黹 – and the second column gives the collocates for each keyword. Collocates are prioritized according to their frequencies, which are indicated in the third column. In the Book of the Later Han and Book of Wei, except for one term that appears twice, all the terms appear only once. Further, a close look at these collocates suggests that they are nouns or verbs and that they cannot be pieced together into an obvious theme. Thus, it may be concluded that a story mode has not been established in the narrative of Chinese official histories in this early period.

Fig. 1 collocate table – Book of the Later Han and Book of Wei (partial)

The Book of Jin, Book of Sui, and History of the Northern Dynasties were all written in the Tang dynasty. Here the Collocate table is very different from the previous one as several repetitive terms appear and a story mode has been established. Three terms – 躬 (by oneself), 葬 (funeral/bury), and 夜 (night) – are repeated most frequently, and they are all in the proximity of the keyword 紡. A possible implication is that in the eyes of the history writers of the Tang dynasty, fabric producing constituted a source of income for women, who were exemplary because their diligent input was driven by the need to bury deceased family members.

Fig.2 collocate table – Book of Jin, Book of Sui, and History of the Northern Dynasties

In the Old Book of Tang and New Book of Tang, the theme of 葬 is continued – women’s textile making was associated with deceases family members. The appearnce of the term 田 (farmland) as a collocate suggests that women’s labor possibly extended to farm work as well. The highlight of the Collocate table is the appearance of a new term 舅姑 (father-in-law and mother-in-law), which points to the connection between women’s textile work and their patrilineal families. 

Fig. 3 collocate table – Old Book of Tang and New Book of Tang

The last group includes two histories from the late imperial period. In the History of Ming and Draft History of Qing, high frequency terms such as 家(home), 日(day), 夜, 姑舅, and 父母 (parents) portray a woman as a person who worked day and night to support her patrilineal family and her natal family. Moreover, terms such as 養 (raise) and 食 (food) signify that her income was used to support the family and to acquire food. Compared with the previous periods, the Ming and Qing histories continue the story mode of linking women’s economic contribution to the family with textile making. However, 葬 is replaced by 卒and 死 – the death of a family member, which may suggests that women’s textile practices resulted from the death of male family members (usually the husband), and therefore that textile producing was a long-term practice for late imperial widows rather than a temporary activity and way to earn income for funerals as it had been for women in the previous dynasties.

Fig. 4 collocate table – History of Ming and Draft History of Qing

Terms Berry

Voyant’s Terms Berry tool generates graphs that display high frequency terms and the relationships between each high frequency terms – that is, which terms appear most frequently in the corpora, and how many times they appear in proximity to each other. These high frequency terms can help to reveal the central narrative. In this project, 妻 (wife) appears 1554 times with the highest frequency along with 氏 (née), another high frequency term in 妻’s proximity that occurs for 220 times. These two high frequency terms indicate that married women are the protagonists in all thirteen histories. Terms Berry graphs may be customized to add new terms and to examine the relationship between these new terms and high frequency terms. As such, in this case it is a useful tool for exploring the relationship between female textile making activities and the central narrative.

Fig. 5 Terms Berry showing high frequency terms

I added the four terms describing textile making activities to Terms Berry. The resultant graphs show that textile producing activities 紡 and 織 appear in proximity to certain high frequency terms but with a low occurrence. For textile decorating activities 紉 and 針黹, their association with high frequency terms is looser and their occurrences are lower than 紡 and 織. The Terms Berry graphs for these four terms point to the same implication – they have limited association with high frequency terms, and it is likely that textile making activities only serve as anecdotes that complete some biographies without being a crucial component to the central narrative. Furthermore, 紉 and 針黹 play a less important role in constructing the central narrative than 紡 and 織.

Fig. 6 紡 and 織 added to Terms Berry
Fig. 7 紉 and 針黹 added to Terms Berry


This project has analyzed terms that describe textile making activities in the “Lienü zhuan” of the thirteen official Chinese histories. Female textile making activities in “Lienü zhuan” were limited to fabric making at beginning but extended to a variety of activities including spinning, weaving, sewing, and embroidering in late imperial China. In two early histories the Book of the Later Han and Book of Wei, a story mode is yet to be established. However, in the Book of Jin, Book of Sui, and History of the Northern Dynasties, female textile making practice was driven by the need to bury deceased family members. The Old Book of Tang and New Book of Tang continue the theme of burying and start to associate female work with the support of their patrilineal families. Lastly, in Ming and Qing times, women carried miscellaneous textile making activities to bring in long term income. Women’s stories of textile making constitute anecdotes that complete the central narrative but only take a minor role. 

(This post is a revision of The Changing Role of Textile Making: Text Analysis of Digitized “Lienü Zhuan” which I presented at the 2021 AAS Conference on March 21-26, 2021.)

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