Seventeenth-century French descriptions of Asian peoples testify to a constant fascination with 'oriental' gender roles. The concubine enclosed in the harem of a despotic monarch, and the tragic sati, are among the most familiar figures of the women of the East. This article examines a manifestation which has received less attention: that of the female royalty about whom travellers claimed to have garnered privileged eye-witness testimony. The reports of traders, ecclesiastics, ambassadors, or mercenaries reflect the heterogeneous nature of French contacts with Asia and with different strata of diverse societies. Vivid manifestations of female royalty are depicted at various levels of power: virtuous warrior princesses from Persia, immoral Chinese queens, or the creators or supporters of factions within the intrigues attributed to eastern courts. Yet these women remain distanced, to varying extents, from the traveller. Isolated from sight, or far removed in space or in time, they are often represented in histoires or anecdotes of considerable moral or dramatic interest. In an East made recognisable through fictional strategies, they characterise the governance of Asia, while edifying or entertaining readers
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