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Herself an Author

Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China

Grace S. Fong
Copyright Date: 2008
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    Herself an Author
    Book Description:

    Herself an Author addresses the critical question of how to approach the study of women’s writing. It explores various methods of engaging in a meaningful way with a rich corpus of poetry and prose written by women of the late Ming and Qing periods, much of it rediscovered by the author in rare book collections in China and the United States. The volume treats different genres of writing and includes translations of texts that are made available for the first time in English. Among the works considered are the life-long poetic record of Gan Lirou, the lyrical travel journal kept by Wang Fengxian, and the erotic poetry of the concubine Shen Cai. Taking the view that gentry women’s varied textual production was a form of cultural practice, Grace Fong examines women’s autobiographical poetry collections, travel writings, and critical discourse on the subject of women’s poetry, offering fresh insights on women’s intervention into the dominant male literary tradition. The wealth of texts translated and discussed here include fascinating documents written by concubines—women who occupied a subordinate position in the family and social system. Fong adopts the notion of agency as a theoretical focus to investigate forms of subjectivity and enactments of subject positions in the intersection between textual practice and social inscription. Her reading of the life and work of women writers reveals surprising instances and modes of self-empowerment within the gender constraints of Confucian orthodoxy. Fong argues that literate women in late imperial China used writing and reading to create literary and social communities, transcend temporal-spatial and social limitations, and represent themselves as the authors of their own life histories.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6282-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In imperial China, women’s writing had an anomalous status; it received no official sanction, and women were categorically barred from all access to a public career. In contrast, men were authorized to participate in the functioning and governing of the imperium through the institutions of a formal educational program and the civil service examination system. Men’s writing was constitutive of the power of culture. Women lived in what one feminist critic refers to as “a fundamental structure of exclusion.”¹ Nevertheless, in the localized contexts of family, region, and under varying circumstances and particular historical moments, women’s informal education and writing...

  5. CHAPTER 1 A Life in Poetry: The Auto/biography of Gan Lirou (1743–1819)
    (pp. 9-53)

    In no other comparable literary tradition was the autobiographical potential so strongly embedded in the orthodox conception of poetry as it was in China. The function of poetry to articulate what was in one’s heart and on one’s mind (shi yan zhi)—private emotion as well as moral ambition—facilitated the development of the poetic medium into a versatile vehicle of self-writing and self-recording for educated men, and increasingly in the later periods, also for women. The lyric expressiveness of poetry was reinforced by the strong subjectivity in the oral tradition, particularly of songs in the first-person voice, which provided...

  6. CHAPTER 2 From the Margin to the Center: The Literary Vocation of Concubines
    (pp. 54-84)

    A deeply entrenched social institution in the history of China, the practice of concubinage reaches back to at least the Zhou period (eleventh-third century B.C.E.), for which a system of ranked consorts to kings and princes was recorded in theZhou li(Rites of Zhou).¹ Women were procured as concubines for a variety of purposes, such as entertainment, and sexual, reproductive, and other services in the patriarchal family system. From our modern perspective, concubinage was unquestionably a deep-rooted form of female subordination in imperial China. Its long history and customary acceptance are demonstrated by its practice well into the twentieth...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Authoring Journeys: Women on the Road
    (pp. 85-120)

    In imperial China, the ideological, symbolic, and physical gendering of space located men’s proper place and function in thewai(outer sphere), while that of women was situated in thenei(inner sphere). An important consequence of this gendered division of space was that travel became an almost inseparable aspect of the life of the literati-scholar-official, whether on assignment or for pleasure, and of the merchant who often sojourned for years away from home. Out of this necessity for travel in Chinese social and political life grew one of the finest traditions of travel writing. From the well-known landscape poetry...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Gender and Reading: Form, Rhetoric, and Community in Women’s Poetic Criticism
    (pp. 121-158)

    The publication and circulation of texts reached a new height with the flourishing of print culture in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Women’s literacy and pursuit of writing became more visible: the greater number of women’s published poetry collections is part of this cultural phenomenon.¹ In this period we also see clear signs of women’s critical reflections on the writings of others. Gentry women had relatively more opportunities than previously to learn about, read, and acquire the textual productions of other women, both through the help of close male kin and through direct contacts and networks between women...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 159-160)

    The late imperial timeframe encompassed by the texts and collections examined in this study ranges from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. That there was continuity in literary practice and self-representation by women in this period before the widespread social and cultural changes beginning after the first Opium War (1840–1842) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1863) did not mean that women’s perception of their gender identity in society remained static and uniform. I argue that, prior to the new forms of subjectivity constructed in Chinese modernity and the nationalist turn in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, there...

  10. Appendix 1 Gan Lirou’s “Narrating My Thoughts on My Sixtieth Birthday”
    (pp. 161-166)
  11. Appendix 2 Xing Cijing’s Summary of the Journey from Qian
    (pp. 167-168)
  12. Appendix 3 Wang Fengxian’s The Homeward Journey East
    (pp. 169-178)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 179-210)
  14. Glossary
    (pp. 211-218)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-230)
  16. Index
    (pp. 231-238)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 239-244)