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  • Fiction's Family: Zhan Xi, Zhan Kai, and the Business of Women in Late-Qing China by Ellen Widmer
  • Guo Chen (bio)
Ellen Widmer. Fiction's Family: Zhan Xi, Zhan Kai, and the Business of Women in Late-Qing China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. xvii, 352 pp. Hardcover $49.95, isbn 978-0-674-08837-5.

It is a common approach to consider "fiction" in the form of a single object, scrutinizing one novel at a time, or "family" in a similar way, penetrating into every member, every generation of a certain biological clan. However, cognizant that historical narrative played a significant and predominant role in Chinese literary tradition, it makes sense to put "fiction" and "family" together, using "fiction" to contextualize "family," and "family" to contextualize "fiction." What facts, [End Page 79] questions, and implications will then emerge in the contextualization and recontextualization of "fiction's family"? This innovative approach is what Ellen Widmer takes in her Fiction's Family: Zhan Xi, Zhan Kai, and the Business of Women in Late-Qing China.

Centering on "women" and "literature," Widmer focuses on the late Qing dynasty Zhan (詹) family and depicts the parental and fraternal influence on the children's attitude toward talented women and women's role in society. Widmer targets specifically two famous novelists of the second generation, Zhan Xi (詹熙) and Zhan Kai (詹垲), and their published and unpublished writings, using each other's works to enrich their personal information and social contact which is lost or ambiguous at present. Thus, it gives a bird's-eye view of the landscape of a literary family in the late Qing and the emerging and flourishing awareness of women's power in social transition, as well as a microcosmic perspective of the characteristics of each writer and the similarities and differences in their conceptions of women in fiction and reality.

With fiction and reality closely and complementarily intertwined, this work consists of, in addition to the opening and closing chapters, three main parts. To begin, Widmer depicts a portrait of the first generation of the Zhan family, the couple consisting of Zhan family mother Wang Qingdi (王庆棣), herself an unconventional guixiu (gentlewoman, 闺秀) writer, and the uxorilocal father Zhan Sizeng (詹嗣曾). They both write and publish poems locally and unprofitably. In this part, the mother's role in the family is quite noteworthy in the wife-husband relationship and the mother-son relationship: she is talented and ambitious while her husband respects her capability and endeavors to publish her poetry; she is discontented from her marriage and expresses it boldly and directly through poems, whereas her husband sends her letters filled with love and compassion; she educates her sons through writing while her sons help her publish poetry in the new media of newspapers. A positive attitude toward women's talent and its role in a family is revealed in their life stories and writings. This might seem ordinary in contemporary times, but it was tremendously radical in the Qing dynasty when patriarchy, bound feet, and the notion that "women without talent are virtuous" prevailed.

After the first generation's portrait, Widmer continues with the oldest son in the second generation of the family, Zhan Xi, who is inspired by a writing contest held by a foreigner aiming at three targets—opium, examination essays, and bound feet (which soon become the focus of his writing: two novels, one published, one not)—singled out as the main barriers to social progress. Thus his novels are more about reform than women. His famous novel Love among the Courtesans (Hualiu Shenqing Zhuan, 花柳深情传) argues against bound feet, but since it is for a male audience, this progress was to be prosecuted by men. Moreover, this published novel is significant in the reconstruction of the Zhan [End Page 80] family; it has a biographical basis which makes it a precious resource for family history. In addition, Widmer gives it a closer look in the context of his unpublished historical narrative titled Quzhou's Strange Disaster (Quzhou Qihuo Ji, 衢州 奇祸记), which provides complementary evidence about the family itself, where the parental influence appears more obvious.

Compared with his elder brother, the younger Zhan Kai is more influenced...


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