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  • Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature by Wai-yee Li
  • Kang-i Sun Chang
Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature by Wai-yee Li. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014. Pp. xii + 638. $69.95

This monumental book by Wai-yee Li tells us that memories of the Ming–Qing dynastic transition are still very much alive. In a world of continual invention and revision, stories of the figures emerging from that traumatic world in late imperial China, especially the women, are “constantly refashioned to answer the needs and constraints of different times” (p. 203). In writing this book, Li wants to understand “why and how gender tropes become instrumental in dealing with challenging or sometimes even calamitous experience,” as well as how they motivate writers “to remember and forget, to imagine resistance and reconciliation, to strive for self-identity and form social connections” (p. 580).

The perspective of gender certainly enhances the critical sense of the book, but the true uniqueness of Li’s book comes from a difference source—namely, the tradition of Chinese poetic exegesis. For every poem she cites, Li provides extremely detailed explanations for the historical allusions as well as possible topical references. Thus, she reminds us of the encyclopedic approach of Chen Yinke’s 陳寅恪 colossal biography of Liu Rushi (柳如是).1 Although Li claims that [End Page 222] her approach is different from Chen Yinke’s—for hers is “ultimately more fluid and open-ended” in dealing with the relationship between history and literature—her way of providing ample contextual materials for the works discussed in her book, both familiar and unfamiliar, still anchors her in Chen Yinke’s exegetical tradition. Moreover, Li’s book includes an enormous range of genres for discussion, such as shi 詩 (poetry), ci 詞 (song lyrics), drama (both zaju 雜劇 and chuanqi 傳奇), classical tales, vernacular short stories, novels, prosimetric and verse narratives, memoirs, miscellanies, local gazetteers, biographies, and so forth—an approach similar to Chen Yinke’s methodology of all-inclusiveness.

Thus, Li’s book is not only a study of gender but also a work of erudition. She has chosen a highly ambitious and thoughtful approach to a complex and intriguing subject. In recent years, Ming–Qing women have emerged as an important subject in China studies. However, few of the earlier monographs on the subject have taken this approach. Li combines an unprecedented number of sources with cultural and aesthetic analysis; she provides the English translation for hundreds of poems along with meticulous, close readings.

Instead of following conventional academic writing by making an analytical argument throughout the book, Li presents different sets of narratives in individual chapters that offer readers the chance to reflect on the complexities of questions regarding women during the Ming–Qing transition. In general, the strength of this book comes not from a linear argument but rather from the principle of associations between the chapters. Often, the author calls our attention to what is hidden, such as a poet’s “unarticulated intention, veiled references, unspoken political pressure” (p. 580). Readers will learn a great deal about Chinese culture from this book, for it illustrates how literature can provide a window for exploring aspects of traditional (and modern) China and how people are inclined to mingle history and literature in recreating their remembered past. Often, readers can see “unstable boundaries” presented in these chapters—for example, the line between hero and victim is often fluid and shifting. The most impressive chapters in Li’s book are those that deal with such “unstable boundaries,” especially Chapters 5 and 6.

Chapter 5 (“Victimhood and Agency”) discusses the many stories and poems about women abducted and “taken north” during the [End Page 223] Ming–Qing transition. Countless poems put up on walls are thought to have been written by these victimized women lamenting their sad fate. One example is Song Huixiang 宋蕙湘 (perhaps a palace lady from the court of the Hongguang emperor), whose poems generated numerous matching poems from sympathetic readers, including those from the famous woman writer Wang Duanshu 王端淑 (1621–ca. 1685). Interestingly, poems by Song Huixiang and other “victimized women” were given so much political meaning...


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pp. 222-228
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