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  • The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China
  • Ming-Bao Yue (bio)
Joan Judge, The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008. 400 pp. ISBN 978-08047-5589-4, $65.00.

What role did biographies play in mapping, shaping, and occasionally usurping the dominant discourse of Chinese modernity around the turn of the twentieth century? How central are both the "Woman Question" and the question of history to an understanding of the politics of this momentous period? These pointers concisely sum up the fundamental task Joan Judge has laid out for her erudite and eloquent study, and the result is as evocative as her title suggests. Taking her lead from a Chinese author who referred to a Chinese collection narrating the lives of Western women as "a precious raft," Judge employs this image as a guiding metaphor and analyzes "the ways turn-of-the-twentieth-century individuals—from male officials to female activists—used the precious raft of history and historical biography to mediate their own experiences of epochal change and national crisis" (12).

If one of Precious Raft's broader concerns is "the authority of history and the weight of politics in signifying Chinese women's lives," the study's actual textual focus is more narrowly on women's biography and how this specific narrative form migrated into a wide range of diverse texts unequivocally concerned with advocating feminine pedagogy, albeit from different ideological perspectives. Unlike Western biography, however, its Chinese counterpart is more of a hybrid genre perhaps best understood as "life-story narratives" or "moral sketches [that] present details relevant to specific incidents in an individual's life" (249), so rather than simply reasserting the complexity of these writings, the author aims to elucidate them by "tracing patterns and seeking meanings in the intricate weave of Chinese modernity" (2). The rhetoric and realpolitik of this momentous turn-of-the-twentieth-century period, according to Judge, are nowhere better exemplified than in the biographical narrative form that documented the multifaceted ways in which ideas of women, nation, and history became intertwined.

Although she initially resolves not to mention the much used and abused term "modernity," Judge admits that no better notion underscores the primacy of the three mutually determining processes that shaped the turn-of-the-twentieth-century moment in Chinese history: secularization, globalization, and temporalization. In the context of Precious Raft, secularization names "the encounter of Confucian ritual teachings with 'advanced' foreign inspired ideas … manifested in the 'regime of feminine virtues'" (3), and globalization and temporalization aptly capture what Lydia Liu has called the "translingual practice" of Chinese modernity, or what Naoki Sakai has more accurately termed "the schema of cofiguration" in the regime of translation. [End Page 566] Significantly, modernity thus conceived does not view tradition as something to be elided, eliminated, or even eradicated; nor is the practice of translation positioned as a mechanical process. Rather, translation is properly historicized as a "social relation" (Sakai 3) that renders modernity possible and conceptualizes existing epistemologies as "fluid points of departures that are transformed and often revitalized in interactions with the alternatives" (Judge 3).

Practitioners of Chinese Studies will immediately recognize in Judge's statement two important critical interventions. On the one hand, Precious Raft participates in a larger intellectual trend towards forging a "new hermeneutics of historical change," which offers an alternative to the standard paradigms of "East versus West" or "tradition versus modernity" (i.e., "continuity versus discontinuity") still operating to some extent in the field of Chinese Studies. As feminist scholars have repeatedly stressed, these approaches fall well short in their attempts to account for "the gender paradoxes, strategic historical appropriations, and competing national meaning that marked the turn of the twentieth century, a key moment in the unfolding of Chinese modernity" (2). On the other hand, however, this carefully researched study seeks to liberate and rehabilitate the biographical narrative form—which enjoys a long scholarly tradition in Chinese culture—from the paradigm of "exclusively emulation" into a "technology for self-creation," thereby marking in the reader-biographer encounter a crucial shift away from...


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