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  • The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China by Joan Judge
  • Sherry J. Mou (bio)
Joan Judge. The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. xiii, 400 pp. Hardcover $65.00, isbn 978-0-8047-5589-4.

To a feminist historian, reading The Precious Raft of History is a labor of delight. If one has the patience to finish it, the reward is well worth the effort. The book presents an interesting case of how difficult it is to come upon a sound theory to analyze a historical period that is both sociopolitically and intellectually tumultuous.

The book has a clear structure. In the introduction, Joan Judge sets up four parameters by which she evaluates views on the Chinese woman question during the turn of the twentieth-century China: the eternalist, the meliorist, the archeomodernist, and the presentist. The bulk of the book consists of three parts in six chapters, and, in each part, Judge employs the four parameters to examine one of the following women’s issues: (1) feminine virtue, (2) female talent, and (3) female heroism. The conclusion draws an insightful sociopolitical comparison between the turn of the twentieth century and the turn of the twenty-first century, and it examines three contemporary cases in terms the author used early in the book to analyze the former era.

Judge calls the four parameters “chronotypes,” “models or patterns through which [historical] time [assumed] practical or conceptual significance” (p. 250 n. 37). Or, to put it differently, they represent “various approaches to historical time” (p. 12). The eternalist view took the classical Chinese feminine virtues as timeless, inviolable norms that were all that the nation needed to build a new China. Like Confucianists, the chronotype of the meliorists generally held the past as key to the present, but they also decried the excessive emphasis on women’s chastity and embraced new social changes for women, such as public schooling. The archeomodernists saw recent history as irrelevant and recent Ming-Qing women of talent as a metonym for cultural degradation; in seeking to remedy past deficiencies, they appealed both to ancient Chinese glories and to modern Western achievements. In contrast, the primary concern of the presentists’ chronotype was to promote a new, heroic national ethos and new “feminine-heroic” possibilities.

Judge explores discourses on women’s lives through a plethora of texts, including “official documents, didactic materials, new-style textbooks, polemical essays, women’s journals, and various collections of Chinese and/or Western women’s life stories” (p. 16). To show how the four chronotypes relate to the three women’s issues through various texts, Judge examines one single narrative form — women’s biography. In general, Judge makes good cases for how each chronotype approaches the woman question and the patterns that resulted from their often opposing views. For example, she explicates the attitudes toward feminine virtue in part 1 (chaps. 1–2). The eternalists considered female chastity the highest form of virtue, but the meliorists were very critical of the cult of female chastity, although [End Page 505] acknowledging the value of chastity itself. On the other hand, the archeomodernists and presentists are less reflective on this topic. The former glossed over issues related to chaste widows but omitted any mention of faithful maidens. The presentists went even further: they either dismissed or ridiculed the “virtuous exemplars” (pp. 53–54). Similarly, in part 2, Judge focuses on how the archeomodernists and meliorists differed in their “understandings of the parameters of female talent and the purpose of female education” (p. 86). In part 3, the main tension lies between the archeomodernists and presentists in their views on female heroism: the presentists saw it as a distinct female characteristic, independent of other Confucian moral constraints, while the archeomodernists thought that women’s national roles should be mediated by their domestic roles (p. 140).

In the conclusion, Judge brings her own theory to test with regard to the woman question in contemporary China. She discusses three cases and relates each to one of the four chronotypes. First, in the case of...