- Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers by Xiaorong Li
For the past two decades, China scholars have increasingly taken gender as an effective analytical approach, especially in the field of social and literary history. “Informed by feminist and other critical agendas,” as the author points out, “social and literary historians have striven to rediscover women’s texts and to show their significance in providing new perspectives on the lives of women authors and the recent Chinese literary past. It turns out that the previously invisible and silenced female half of society was actually an active cultural community whose achievement is far from ‘poor’” (p. 3). (It should be noted that the verdict of women’s poetry as being poor and worthless was rendered by none other than Hu Shi, who [End Page 109] represented male May Fourth activists who delivered sweeping disparagement against the literate tradition of Chinese women.) Pioneer scholars such as social historians Dorothy Ko and Susan Mann; literary scholars such as Kang-i Sun Chang, Ellen Widmer, Beata Grant; and the author’s mentor Grace S. Fong, to name just a few, have built up preliminary archives of women’s works and laid out tentative historical and analytical frames. Following their steps, the author has embarked on further exploration of women’s distinctive contribution to literature. Fulfilling this task proves extremely challenging. Classical Chinese literature is itself a difficult subject, even more so for the study of women’s poetry, for not much previous scholarship is out there for the reference. The author needs to set up evaluation standards by reconstructing a poetics in women’s own terms. For this purpose, she has to rely upon her firsthand reading of the texts, research on the biographical information of the poets, and contextualization of the poet’s writing activities. The Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China is a result of these efforts.
This book provides a major contribution to the study of Chinese women poets by taking women’s inner chamber or boudoir (guige or gui) as the major object for analysis. This approach pointedly inquires into the reason of Hu Shi’s criticism of women’s poetry, that these works are mostly “on the theme of women’s activities in the inner chambers” (p. 3). As the most defining element in traditional Chinese women’s life, the gui frequently appears in classical Chinese poetry. Its function in women’s life, however, yet awaits nuanced examinations as how it had contextualized and conceptualized women’s social status and, more specific to the book topic, their literary creation. This book regards the gui represented in poetry as a poetic space in which women are both objects and producers of meaning and a discursive space in which “both men and women articulated their ideas about gender, sexuality, femininity, and women’s subjectivities.” With this focus, the author explores how gui “became a significant determinant in women’s approaches to representing their gendered positions and experiences in the late imperial period and beyond” (pp. 4–5).
To fulfill this task, the author has done us an unprecedented service by painstakingly historicizing the “boudoir poetics and aesthetics” from the Six Dynasties to the early republican period, that is, from 220 to the 1920s. She does so through examining poetry depicting the gui written by both men and women and composed under ever changing sociopolitical circumstances. The gender tension brewed within certain historical context thereupon exposes women’s selves in more sophisticated structures that test women’s discursive positions to their historical standings, and, therefore, generate their more authentic subjectivities to the reader. Reading poetry about the gui by both genders manifests women’s distinctive contribution to literature. As the author concludes: “While their writings are connected to the literati tradition of feminine poetics associated with the boudoir, they simultaneously reconceived the spatial topos as a [End Page...