- The Beauty and the Book: Women and Fiction in Nineteenth-Century China
Ellen Widmer’s newly published book, The Beauty and the Book: Women and Fiction in Nineteenth-Century China, challenges two conventional views in the field of Chinese fiction: that the nineteenth century saw a decline of vernacular novels and that women did not start to write fiction until the turn of the twentieth century. A combination of detailed historical documentation and perceptive literary analysis, Widmer’s book offers the first extensive study of women’s relationships with fiction in a period when fiction reading and writing were off-limits to Chinese women. Her findings in this study are fascinating and groundbreaking as they enlighten us about some important developments in Chinese fiction that have been previously unnoticed or neglected.
Several recent studies focusing on nineteenth-century vernacular fiction include David Der-wei Wang’s 1997 book, Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849–1911, and Patrick Hanan’s 2004 book, Chinese Fiction of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. In echoing both Wang and Hanan, Widmer sees the nineteenth century as a period of innovation, pregnant with many new possibilities. More significantly, however, she further reinforces this conviction by bringing to light women’s participation in fiction writing. If nothing else, the single fact of two surges of women writers and critics in the genre of vernacular fiction would be sufficient to mark the nineteenth century as a unique and critical period in the history of Chinese literature.
In a format of two parts (with five chapters in the first part and three chapters in the second), Widmer’s book focuses on two important historical periods of the nineteenth century (1791–1830; 1877 and after) when two genres, tanci (prosimetric narrative) and zhanghui xiaoshuo (full-length vernacular novel), either became a women’s narrative form or inspired some elite women writers to try their hands at it.
The first part of the book maps out the initial involvement of women in the genre of fiction circa 1830 and introduces some prominent figures who were instrumental to such a development. According to Widmer, the 1791 publication of the Cheng Gao edition of Honglou meng (Dream of the red chamber) was a milestone for women’s reception and production of fiction. A significant change was apparent not only in the clear evidence of women’s participation in fiction writing and critiquing, but also through the conscious efforts of male writers to elicit a female audience and to reflect women’s views in their own novels.
As Widmer indicates, Li Ruzhen’s (1763–1830) Jinghua Yuan (Flowers in the mirror) qualifies as an early example of male support of female talent, and it demonstrates [End Page 267] Li’s attempt to reach out to a female readership by employing ambiguous rhetoric intended for both men and women while enlisting women’s endorsements of the novel. In parallel with Jinghua yuan, Widmer informs us, women writers turned to fiction directly for the purposes of promoting personal beliefs, expressing inner emotions, or even economic gain. If, writing in the form of tanci, Hou Zhi (1764–1829) and Liang Desheng (1771–1847) lectured their readers (mainly women, but not exclusive of men) on the moral codes of guixiu (gentlewomen), Wang Duan (1793–1939) became the writer of zhanghui xiaoshuo, expressing her political views about dynastic change, and Yun Zhu (1771–1833) became the critic, providing her emotional and poetic response to Honglou meng. Female writers, editors, and critics of tanci and zhanghui xiaoshuo, although still a small number, seemed to have carved out a niche in the field of fiction for themselves that simply did not exist before. Widmer concludes the first part of her book by examining how women responded to Honglou meng and by comparing the early nineteenth century to the early Qing (mid seventeenth century). Here we are informed that existing sources indicate there are forty or fifty poems...