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Vol. 10, No. 2 Late Imperial ChinaDecember 1989 THE EPISTOLARY WORLD OF FEMALE TALENT IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY CHINA Ellen Widmer1 When we attempt to reconstruct the social context within which women wrote poetry or painted in late imperial China, it is convenient to reach for the eighteenth-century novel, Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber, or Story of the Stone), which describes a family poetry society, the so-called Crab-Flower Club (Haitang shishe). Because most of the members of this club were women, their activities provide a useful model of the circumstances under which one important category of women's poetry emerged. Dream of the Red Chamber presents a group of well educated , upper class women, most of whom belonged to a single extended family. Club meetings were festive domestic events, which took place primarily during the heyday of the Jia family in its garden, the Daguan yuan. A contrasting model of literary and artistic composition by women can be derived from the life and work of Yuan Mei (1716-98). Like their fictional counterparts in Dream of the Red Chamber, the women of Yuan's circle came mostly from gentry families and had good educations. They were less likely to be related, they did not live together, and certain of their activities took place at the home of their patron and teacher, Yuan Mei. In both cases, women produced poetry for a circle of personal acquaintances and did not reach out to a wider reading public.2 The poetry circle of the novel conformed to proper Confucian standards for gentle female conduct, since it operated within domestic confines. By contrast, Yuan's circle seemed more scandalous, inasmuch as its female members met outside the home and mingled socially with male talents. Another view of the circumstances under which women might read, write or paint is made available by the writings of a group of creative 1 I am indebted to the following individuals for suggestions on this essay: Patrick Hanan, Irving Lo, Susan Naquin, Marsha Weidner, and Judith Zeitlin. Kou Dezhang and Ou Jiefang Lee helped with translation. The original version of this essay was presented at the symposium , "Views from the Jade Terrace: Chinese Women Artists 1300-1912" held at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, October 1988. 2 On Yuan Mei, see Waley 1957, also Hummel 1967:955-957. Late Imperial China 10, No. 2 (December 1989): 1-43 T by the Society for Qing Studies Ellen Widmer Portrait of Shang Jinglan, by Ren Xiong (1820-57), from Wang Ling, ed., Yu Yue xianxian xiang zhuan zan (Commemorative Portraits and Biographies of Former Worthies of the Yue [Zhejiang] Region), 1856. Reproduced courtesy of the Harvard-Yenching Library. For more on Ren, see Howard Rogers and Sherman E. Lee, Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting from the Forbidden City. Lansdale, Pennsylvania: International Arts Council, 1988, pp. 203-4. The Epistolary World ofFemale Talent in Seventeenth-Century China3 gentry women who lived in Jiangnan a century before Yuan Mei's time, during the Ming-Qing transition. These women formed a loose literary network, exchanged correspondence and encouraged one another's endeavors. They had male friends and patrons who regarded them with a mixture of admiration, paternalism and unease. Their relationships show the importance of solidarity among women themselves, rather than associations centered on men, in developing female talent. As teachers and disciples , as audience and critics for each other's work, these women reached out to each other across geographical and social barriers, linking domestic circles with literati salons, and the world of secluded wives with those of courtesans, merchants and professional artists. Modern Letters To understand the landscape of female talent among this network of seventeenth-century women, we must first pay attention to the three anthologies of literati letters known as Modern Letters. These letters are the major source through which the voices of the women studied here are heard. As a series of volumes selected and published by men who knew many of them, Modern Letters is a text which reveals both female artistic culture and male responses to it. This series was published in three installments (1663, 1667, and 1668) under the general editorship...


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