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Late Imperial China 23.2 (2002) 33-52

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Honglou Meng Ying and its Publisher, Juzhen Tang of Beijing

Ellen Widmer


Published in 1877, the novel Honglou meng ying by the celebrated poet and painter Gu Chun (zi Taiqing,1799-1877), may be the first extant novel ever authored by a Chinese woman. Gu Taiqing's fascinating biography is not the subject of this paper. Suffice it to say that she was a Manchu of the trimmed blue banner and the Xilin (or Xilinjueluo) clan and that she spent her adult years in Beijing. 1

Gu's involvement with Honglou meng ying is conveyed initially by a pen name, Yuncha waishi, or Cloud Raft Immortal. The story of how this connection was lost from view and then recovered is of some interest. Not until the late nineteen eighties was it securely established that the book was by Gu Taiqing. 2 This identification was based on a missing section of her writings that was preserved only in Japan. Gu Taiqing's two other published works, Tianyou ge ji and Donghai yu ge, are both collections of poetry. Both circulated in manuscript for decades, and some partial manuscript versions even bear her own annotations. These were first published decades after her death, in the early twentieth century. 3 Several juan of the manuscript version of Tianyou ge ji, long held in Japan, were lost in China. These provided the clue [End Page 33] through which Gu's authorship of Honglou meng ying was established. 4 Gu identifies herself as Yuncha waishi on the long missing seventh juan, which also contains a poem discussing her authorship of the novel. 5 The use of the name Yuncha waishi on this seventh juan can presumably be taken to mean that novel was not put out fully anonymously; rather, modern scholarship simply lost sight of a connection that was known to readers of Gu's day.

Like the connection between text and author, the date of the novel's completion has posed problems. Written in 1862, the poem in which Gu discusses the novel is addressed to her friend, Shen Shanbao (1808-1862), who wrote the novel's preface in 1861 under the penname Xihu sanren, or Idler at West Lake. 6 The poem observes that the novel was not quite finished at the time. Yet the sixteen years between 1861 and 1877 still seems an inordinately long time to complete the project. Conceivably, Gu dawdled over her conclusion, but it is at least as likely that she held back from printing her novel while she was alive. Considering how ambivalent Qing women could be about publishing their written work, and considering, too, that Gu's life was controversial and that her novel was somewhat autobiographical, she might have opted against putting it out at all. Another factor may have been the controversial reputation of novels generally, the most likely reason that so few women wrote in this form.

Posthumous publication would have made sense under these circumstances, but we cannot be certain that the novel was published posthumously. The publication date is listed as 1877 (Guangxu dingchou) with no month specified. Gu's date of death, the third day of the eleventh month, establishes that she was alive for most of that year. 7 Conceivably, then, Gu may have ended up endorsing Honglou meng ying's publication, despite the long interval that had elapsed since Shen wrote her preface. Could a yearning for renown have been enough to overcome her scruples against publishing at the last minute? We know that Gu was blind in the last two years of her life. During that time, she could barely get around or write poems, much less transmit a manuscript to a publisher. 8 If the initiative for bringing text to publisher came from Gu, some surrogate means of transmission has to be assumed.

Whether one thinks in terms of dawdling or of inhibition, an author-based explanation works well enough as a means of accounting for 1877 as the year [End Page 34] of publication...


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