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Writing Women in Late Imperial China

Written by eastern writer on Sunday, June 28, 2009

Writing Women in Late Imperial China. Edited by Ellen Widmer and Kan-I Sun Chang. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. 535 p. $24.95

As Kan-I Sun Chang points out, "many Chinese scholars' stubborn adherence to a rigid scheme of historical evolution" hinders them from paying attention to Ming and Qing poetry in general--an important genre of the two last dynasties in Chinese history. Coincidentally, this period also witnessed emergence of publications of a considerable numbers of women's writings--often in the form of poetry. As writers marginalized by their gender in a relatively marginalized field, their works have been unduly neglected by scholars in Chinese studies in the past. Writing Women in Late Imperial China is a timely work, which does justice to this exciting scholarly field, richly endowed with "archives of little or never-studied materials" (Widmer, introduction).

Writing Women in Late Imperial China is the fruit of the international conference "Women and Literature in Ming-Qing China" at Yale University in 1993. The anthology consists of thirteen essays contributed by participants from various fields in Chinese studies. These articles are divided into four parts: 1) Writing the Courtesan, 2) Norms and Selves, 3) Poems in the Context, 4) Hong lou meng (The Dream of the Red Chamber).

The first part includes five articles, dealing with courtesan culture, flourishing in the urban culture particularly during the late Ming period. In his "Ambiguous Images of Courtesan Culture in Late Imperial China," Paul Ropp approaches this culture from a social-historical point of view, by problematizing often male dominant perspectives inherent in its writing records. In "The Late Ming Courtesan: Invention of a Cultural Ideal," Wai-yee Li associates the fate of courtesan culture with scholarly nostalgia for their past glory. At the same time, few courtesans achieved a limited equality with the opposite sex by assuming an ambiguously androgenic role through their literary accomplishment. In the same vein, Dorothy Ko's "The Written Word and the Bound Foot: A History of the Courtesan's Aura" shows how closely the fate of courtesan culture was related to that of scholarly culture. Furthermore, Ko explains that the prosperity and the decline of the courtesan culture were inversely associated with " the overtness of textual expressions of the foot-binding culture." Through a study of a play depicting the life of famous courtesan poets, Katherine Carlitz's "Desire and Writing in the Late Ming Play 'Parrot Island'" explores the dynamic relationship between two most important categories [End Page 267] of writing women during this period: courtesans as images created by male playwrights and gentry women as readers. In his "Women in Feng Menglong's 'Mountain Songs," Yasushi Oki explores female voices in a genre of popular culture, mountain songs collected by Feng Menglong, well-known late Ming writer and compiler of vernacular fiction. This essay shows how bold and active female voices in popular culture were transformed into much more passive and "decent" ones through the literary input of scholars. However, in his own ratings, Feng expressed a preference for daring and coarse popular songs.

The second part consists of two essays, focusing on collections of women's poetry. In her "Ming and Qing Anthologies of Women's Poetry and Their Selection Strategies" Kang-I Sun Chang provides an overview of anthologies of women's writings in late imperial China. This overview convincingly argues for the necessity of the current anthology. From a feminist perspective, Maureen Robertson examines changing voices of gentry women in their writing works in "Changing the Subject: Gender and Self-inscription in Authors' Prefaces and 'Shi' Poetry." These women writings constantly negotiated their voices amidst conventional perceptions of their gender, influences of their well-known (male) predecessors, and their own agenda in order to create a space for female subjectivity in their writings.

Part three studies poems in literary texts. Ann Walter's "Writing Her Way Out of Trouble: Li Yuying in History and Fiction" shows how a woman's writing could be used as double-edged sword--as both evidence of incrimination and means of salvation--in a vernacular story based on an history event. In her "Embodying the Disembodied: Representations of Ghosts and the Feminine," Judith Zeitlin associates femininity (ying) with literary images of ghost in three tales of Liaozhai's Records of the Strange, a collection of fantastic tales written by a Qing scholar. Grace Fong's "De/Constructing a Feminine Ideal in the Eighteenth Century: 'Random Records of West-Green' and the Story of Shuangqing" deals with male reappropriation of a woman in writing and her writing materials and shows how they fit to his fantasy world.

Part four is devoted to the masterpiece of Chinese fiction, The Dream of the Red Chamber. Haun Saussy's "Women's Writing and the Hong lou meng" studies poems supposedly written by female characters in this well-known 18th century novel, by primarily focusing on two poetic forms: poetry on objects and poetry on history. From a different angle, Wu Hong's "Beyond Stereotypes: The Twelve Beauties in Qing Court Art and the Dream of the Red Chamber" analyzes the development of images of the twelve beauties in relations to the reinvention of female architectural [End Page 268] spaces. Wu's essay shows to what extent this spatial relationship is related to the structural organization of the imperial palace in the light of Yongzheng emperor's poems written for the paintings of "twelve beauties." Ellen Widmer's "Ming Loyalism and the Woman's Voice in Fiction After Hong lou meng" links this novel with the occurrence of a self-aware effort to address a female readership in fiction writing, whose prosperity could partly be attributed to the need of Ming loyalists' search for a different literary expression.

This coherently structured volume rich with little known materials opens a new field for any one interested in Chinese studies, feminism, and cultural studies. As Nancy Armstrong, a feminist scholar in Victorian fiction, writes in her postface for the collection: "A peculiarly self-conscious exuberance colored the way in which the presenters at the Yale conference went about turning over new cultural-historical ground. Each paper took steps to generate a classification system capable of containing the new material, to challenge what had suddenly revealed themselves as masculine criteria for literary value, to map a more adequate social historical context for women's cultural production, and to define more self-consciously gendered positions from which to speak as literary scholars."

Tonglin Lu
University of Iowa

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