- Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: The Qing Period, 1644-1911
A biographical dictionary of our own? Has the tide of research on Chinese women's history in recent years now reached sufficient proportions to support an endeavor of this magnitude? Based on this book, covering the Qing period, the first of a projected multivolume reference work, the answer is decidedly mixed.
Deploring the paucity of entries on women in the standard biographical dictionaries available in English, the editors of this work conceived the laudable aim of producing a separate series devoted to the lives and accomplishments of notable Chinese women. Of the 808 entries in the indispensable Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, edited by Arthur Hummel (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943), for example, they note that only nine are of women; the figures are surprisingly similar for The Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, edited by Howard L. Boorman and Richard C. Howard (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967): a mere twenty-three out of more than six hundred entries (p. vii).
The self-avowed aim of this series is to "complement" the already existing English biographical dictionaries in the field (p. vii). Thus the editors adopt the division of volumes by dynasty without any discussion of whether this traditional political periodization is in fact the most meaningful or useful way to conceptualize women's experience in Chinese history. Based both on the nature of the available sources and the trajectory of Chinese history, for instance, a compelling case could have been made for one volume that would extend from the late Ming [End Page 252] (mid-sixteenth century), when writings by women began to be published in number, until the rise of a mass periodical press in the later decades of the nineteenth century, and a second volume beginning in the late Qing and covering the Republican period, at least up to the Japanese invasion. But regrettably historiography is not an issue frontally addressed in this book.
Still, it does make sense for a series of this sort to kick off with the Qing, since it is undoubtedly the richest and most complex dynasty for the study of women's history in China. Infinitely more sources survive for this period, both because of the Qing's greater proximity to us in time and because of the era's voluminous publishing industry; more women received some education and were thus in a position to leave behind some written or painted record of their presence; and toward the end of the dynasty the onset of modernity, with the combined pressures of Western imperialism and internal reform movements, led to new opportunities for women and a much greater visibility in public life.
As the editor of this volume of the series, Clara Wing-chung Ho, a historian at Hong Kong Baptist University, has admirably striven for a broad coverage of occupation, class background, and geography. The more than two hundred entries, contributed by an international roster of scholars from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, and the Netherlands, cover an impressive range: acrobats, pirate leaders, ballad singers, and military commanders, as well as the more expected poets, painters, prostitutes, empresses, educators, and revolutionaries. The biographies run the gamut from utterly obscure figures to celebrities such as Liu Rushi , Chen Duansheng , Sai Jinhua , and Qiu Jin . There is an interesting array of "firsts": the first woman to work on optics and photography (Huang Lü , ca. 1769-1829); "the first top graduate of the only set of imperial exams for women held by the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom" in 1853 (Fu Shanxiang ); the first woman to receive an American university degree in medicine (Jin Yamei , in 1885); the sixteen-year-old founder of the first-but-one Chinese magazine for women (Chen Xiefen , in 1899); "the first woman to serve as a saleswoman in a modern department store" (Fok Hing Tong , ca. 1900); and the...