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Reviewed by:
  • The Inner Quarters and Beyond: Women Writers from Ming through Qing
  • Paul S. Ropp (bio)
Grace S. Fong and Ellen Widmer, editors. The Inner Quarters and Beyond: Women Writers from Ming through Qing. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2010. xiv, 431 pp. Hardcover, $185.00, ISBN 978-9-004-18521-0.

This conference volume centers on Ming and (mostly) Qing women’s writings (fifty-three titles) in the Hart Collection of the Harvard-Yenching Library and (over forty titles) in the general collection of the Harvard-Yenching. Funded by the American Council of Learned Societies, the conference participants drew on these rich collections, which have been digitized through a joint project of Harvard and McGill University under the leadership of Grace Fong. (See the website: Building on the previous work of Dorothy Ko, Susan Mann, Kang-i Sun Chang, Charlotte Furth, Beata Grant, Wilt Idema, and many others including other contributors to this volume, these essays further enrich our understanding of writing women in the Ming and Qing periods.

Grace Fong begins the volume with an introductory essay tracing briefly the earlier work on Ming and Qing women writers and describing the work of the ACLS conference participants. Acknowledging the indispensable support of men — usually fathers, uncles, brothers, and husbands — in publishing writings by women, Fong suggests that despite the spatial limitations placed on women, confining them to the “inner quarters,” we now understand through their voluminous writings that they indisputably participated in “the social, cultural, and political landscape of the Ming through Qing” (p. 9).

Part 1, “In the Domestic Realm,” begins with Fong’s own essay, “Writing and Illness: A Feminine Condition in Women’s Poetry of the Ming and Qing.”1 With the digitized database she has assembled, Fong was able to use the computer’s search function to locate over 450 women’s poems on the theme of illness. Fong argues convincingly that women wrote on illness more frequently than did men, though not nearly as explicitly in poetry as male authors did in fiction and prose. She suggests that women often saw illness as “a means of signifying other possibilities and dimensions of experience: bodily sensations, mental perceptions, emotional conditions, and spiritual reflection in women’s private lives” (p. 25). Men also wrote of their illnesses in poetry, but whereas men saw illness as a frustrating obstacle to work and travel, women tended to see illness as offering a period of freedom from household work and an alternate space for study and the writing of poetry. In the process, female illness was aestheticized in art and literature, and women took “the frailty associated with illness as a fitting signifier of femininity” (p. 30). Fong includes beautiful translations, along with the Chinese texts, of some fifteen women’s poems.

Anne McLaren explores women’s poetic laments in her essay, “Lamenting the Dead: Women’s Performance of Grief in Late Imperial China.” As with poems on illness, men and women both wrote laments for the dead, but McLaren notes that laments (funeral as well as bridal) were particularly associated with women’s [End Page 53] emotional work. In this rich oral and ritual tradition, women were judged on the quality of their oral performance of grief. While elite Ming women did not perform oral laments, they drew on the oral traditions in their poetic compositions. The funeral lament offered a woman a chance to demonstrate in writing her strong sense of filiation, wifely love, motherly devotion, and so forth. After a brief overview of the long evolution of the poetic funeral lament, McLaren notes that the intense public expression of emotion (which peasant women engaged in at funerals) was not an option for elite women, but elite women drew on this rich oral tradition in their published poems.

While McLaren surveyed the Ming Qing Women’s Writings database — finding 259 titles with ku (wailed lament) in the title, 167 with dao (mourning), 110 with wan (elegy), 93 with wang (deceased), and 50 with yi (remembering) — she devotes over half of her essay to translations of the funeral laments of two prominent Ming women poets, Shen Yixiu (1590–1635) and Bo...