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Reviewed by:
  • Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History, and: Women in Daoism
  • Zhou Yiqun
Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History. Edited by Susan Mann and Yu-yin Cheng. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. xiii + 310.
Women in Daoism. By Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn. Cambridge, MA: Three Pines Press, 2003. Pp. viii + 296.

Anyone who looks for a quick taste of what is exciting and important about the research of the past two decades on Chinese women's history should pick up the reader edited by Susan Mann and Yu-yin Cheng. In eighteen chapters, each with a translator's preface and an introduction to the selected text, Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History covers the period from the Tang to the Qing (when the Confucian orthodoxy steadily became entrenched), includes twelve genres, foregrounds women's own voices, and repeatedly introduces the non-Han peoples to the spotlight. The guiding standard for the choice of the diverse, rich, and in many cases new historical materials in the book is that they form a "dialogue" with and provide a "counterpoint, critique, or confirmation" of Confucian values and norms about gender roles (p. 5). The clearheaded and balanced attention to not only "counterpoint" and "critique" but also "confirmation" produces a dynamic and nuanced picture of Chinese gender relations that is radically different from the old stereotypes and yet remains firmly grounded in the reality of a society where Confucianism provided the most important system of values and institutions against which almost all other ideas and practices in traditional China have to be understood.

The most crucial confirmed point is perhaps the high value set on family and household in Confucianism, which serves here to explain the considerable power and influence that Chinese women were able to wield despite their confinement in the inner quarters. The funerary biographies by Chen Liang (chapter 4), Luo Rufang (chapter 6), and Zhang Xuecheng (chapter 14), all eminent Confucian scholars, commemorate [End Page 684] women who upheld their families with principle, courage, and practical wisdom and attribute to them their kinsmen's success and sometimes sheer survival. As evidence from the other end is a letter that Gu Ruopu, a seventeenth-century matriarch and poet, wrote to her sons, in which she asserts "every fiber and every grain that this family owns are the fruits of my industry and hardship over several decades" and offers household instructions with indisputable authority (chapter 9). Always keeping in mind the assertiveness and authority of a matriarch like Gu and the deep admiration and emotion shown in the three biographies by the male elite will help us understand the recognition of women's functions and contributions in Confucian ethics and put in the right perspective the alternative means of self-fulfillment for Chinese women that is abundantly featured in the same volume.

In its broad representation of alternative value systems, multiple voices in a single author or text, and formerly ignored populations and practices, the book offers an excellent sampling of the recent research agendas in Chinese women's history. Religion provides a prime example of the areas where the discovery and celebration of diversity and multiplicity are the order of the day. The two Daoist and Buddhist hagiographies (chapters 1, 2) and a rare extant autobiography of a Buddhist laywoman (chapter 8) set religious salvation above and against the obligations of family life.

These voices of discontent form a contrast with the biographies by Luo Rufang and Zhang Xuecheng (chapters 6, 14), which either suggest a possible resolution of the conflict within the domestic context or insinuate highly ambiguous meanings of religion for contented Chinese mothers and wives. Besides religious and spiritual cultivation, communities such as poetry societies are shown as providing women with strong intellectual and emotional support beyond the kinship network (chapters 11, 12), and literary authorship creates an illusory world in which a frustrated woman of talent seeks communion with former worthies (chapter 16). Romantic love is likewise shown to be in a position to contend with family relationships, as suggested by the contrasting treatments of love letters and family letters in the seventeenth-century epistolary...


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