- Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers by Xiaorong Li
Women’s writings in late imperial China have gained an increasingly prominent place in literary and historical scholarship over the last three decades. The research has been facilitated by large-scale bibliographic projects, such as Hu Wenkai’s 胡文楷 Lidai funü zhuzuo kao 歷代婦女 著作考 (A study of women’s writings through the ages),1 and databases such as the McGill University–Harvard–Yenching Library digitization project, Ming-Qing Women’s Writings, edited by Grace Fong Whereas historians like Dorothy Ko, Susan Mann, and Joan Judge mined these writings to examine the role of gender in cultural, social, and political changes, scholars of literature (Grace Fong, Maureen Robertson, Kangi Sun Chang, Ellen Widmer, Hu Siao-chen, Beata Grant, and Nanxiu Qian) have focused on textual analysis. Perhaps more than other sub-fields in Chinese studies, however, literary and historical approaches are closely intertwined in the study of women in Ming-Qing China. Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China by Xiaorong Li is no exception in grounding the study of poetic images and syntax in the contexts of women’s experience as readers, writers, and historical agents.
Li focuses on the “inner chambers” or “boudoir” (gui 閨) as actual and metaphorical space. This is a strategic choice that reflects recurrent concerns in women’s writings and at the same time addresses questions of genealogies and transformations. The sights, sounds, and textures of objects from the inner chamber are central to the aesthetics of the so-called “palace-style poetry” (gongti shi 宮體詩), whose celebration of feminine beauty and longing has come to define the lexicon of desire in the Chinese literary tradition. Palace-style poetry rose to prominence in the sixth century, and its language of love and sensuality found renewal and periodic popularity in shi poetry (for example, during the ninth and tenth centuries) and even more pervasively in song lyrics. The diction of longing, especially when it conjures up images of [End Page 162] hopeless quest or abandonment, is sometimes interpreted or intended allegorically as the articulation of political lament or frustrated loyalty. These widely accepted views are succinctly summarized and illustrated with examples from important anthologies, such as Yutai xinyong (New songs from a jade terrace) and Huajian ji (Among the flowers), in Chapter 2 of Li’s book.
Since this “boudoir poetics” presents a repertoire of key images of women, it is tempting to look for differences in women’s writings on the same themes. While cautioning against the tendency to essentialize the relationship between gender and writing, Li maintains: “Women writers, rather than men, were the collective force that brought the innovative poetics of the boudoir into relief.... This does not imply that only women can ‘truly’ represent themselves. Rather, the difference emerged from the different subject positions and experiences of men and women in relation to the world” (p. 181). The broad survey encompassed by Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China justifies this conclusion.
Even before the late imperial period, we see new dimensions in women’s representation of the boudoir. In Li Qingzhao’s 李清照 (1084–1155) song lyric to the tune “Yong yu le” 永遇樂(Joy of eternal union), for example, an old woman’s perspective charges memory of youthful pleasures in the inner chambers with special pathos, as personal displacement is entwined with the collapse of the Northern Song. As Li points out, this is an unprecedented choice in song lyrics, where “young and attractive personae were predominant” (pp. 43–44). One may argue that Li Qingzhao’s genius accounts for her originality and unconventional choices, but the spread of authors in Yun Zhu’s 惲 珠 (1771–1833) Guochao guixiu zhengshi ji 國朝閨秀正始集(Anthology of correct beginnings by inner-chamber talents of the present dynasty; eighteenth century), the subject of Chapter 2, demonstrates how the enactment of images other than the abandoned woman or the objectified beautiful woman may indeed reflect more general trends. Li presents many interesting examples of women...