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Herself an Author

Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China

Grace S. Fong

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

Armed with my copy of the indispensable Catalogue of Women’s Writings through the Ages (Lidai funü zhuzuo kao) by Hu Wenkai (1956, reprint 1985), I left for Beijing in the summer of 1992 in search of the poetry and prose collections of individual women published in Ming and Qing China...

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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...

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1. A Life in Poetry: The Auto/biography of Gan Lirou (1743–1819)

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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...

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2. From the Margin to the Center: The Literary Vocation of Concubines

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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 the...

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3. Authoring Journeys: Women on the Road

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pp. 85-120

In imperial China, the ideological, symbolic, and physical gendering of space located men’s proper place and function in the wai (outer sphere), while that of women was situated in the nei (inner sphere). An important consequence of this gendered division of space was that...

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4. Gender and Reading: Form, Rhetoric, and Community in Women’s Poetic Criticism

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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...

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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...

Appendix 1 Gan Lirou’s “Narrating My Thoughts on My Sixtieth Birthday”

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pp. 161-165

Appendix 2 Xing Cijing’s Summary of the Journey from Qian

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pp. 167-168

Appendix 3 Wang Fengxian’s The Homeward Journey East

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pp. 169-178


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pp. 179-210


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pp. 211-218


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pp. 219-229


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pp. 231-238

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862824
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824831868

Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 436169115
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Herself an Author

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Subject Headings

  • Chinese literature -- Qing dynasty, 1644-1912 -- History and criticism.
  • Chinese literature -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
  • Chinese literature -- Ming dynasty, 1368-1644 -- History and criticism.
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