- Herself an Autobiographer: Writing Women’s Self-Representation in the Qing
Since the 1990s, much work has been done to debunk the monolithic image of the victimized premodern Chinese woman propagated by the May Fourth generation. The works of Susan Mann, Dorothy Ko, and Kang-i Sun Chang, among others, have effectively recuperated historical female subjectivity and agency by uncovering how Chinese women negotiated, contested, and transcended gender norms and prevailing ideologies. Grace Fong’s seminal monograph Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China (2008) explores how women constituted multiple “subject positions” in the process of writing through their extra-familial identities as authors, compilers, chroniclers, and critics.1 Both a resonance and extension of this recuperative trend in the scholarship, Binbin Yang’s newly published monograph Heroines of the Qing: Exemplary Women Tell Their Stories might well have been titled Herself an Autobiographer in recognition of its debt to and development of Fong’s book. Focusing on women’s autobiographical impulse in diverse artistic and literary genres—including poetry, painting, colophons, inscriptions, genealogies, family letters, and medical treatises—Yang argues that many exemplary women in the Qing paradoxically demonstrated their virtue (and virtuosity) by transgressing “the boundaries that defined knowledge, economic roles, political engagement, and ritual and cultural authority” (p. 15). These women’s self-representation cannily concealed their deliberate self-empowering strategy.
Chapter 1, “Breaking the Silence: Cases of Outspoken Exemplary Women,” presents the lives of three women poets who channel an autobiographical voice in their poetry. Liu Yin (1806–1832) playfully impersonates a second wife to reaffirm her own virtue and to reproach an ungrateful husband, Xie Xiangtang (d. 1870) criticizes her libertine husband via a set of moral instructions to her son, and Dong Baohong (1820–1884?) records her remarkable dedication to wifely duties in the face of extreme adversity. Each of these women mobilizes her suffering (either triggered by an unhappy marriage or a chaotic sociopolitical situation) to accentuate their own moral fortitude. Yang emphasizes how the women’s poetry [End Page 93] demonstrates “stunning outspokenness” and emotional sensitivity (p. 17), and their articulation of “negative” sentiments both contributes to and complicates the female authors’ self-construction of their exemplarity. A valorization of their morality notwithstanding, these women’s unusual self-revelation and self-promotion insidiously subvert patriarchal authority and dignity.
Chapter 2, “Visualizing Exemplarity: Women’s Portraits and Paintings for Self-Representation,” extends the discussion of women’s self-representation to visual media, such as painting, portraits, colophons, inscriptions, and accompanying written records. Yang notes that the sixteenth century witnessed a new trend in the art world: scholars would commission and circulate their portraits so as to bolster their reputation among the elite. It is not unexpected that elite women in the Qing jumped on the bandwagon and took to commissioning these portraits themselves. Yang shows us that, through producing and disseminating their own image alongside written statements, well-educated women established a congenial female network and carved out a space for themselves in the world of letters, a world outside of the family (e.g., Qu Bingyun and Xi Peilan, pp. 47–50). Moreover, as women’s visualized images fused with the constantly expanding written comments accompanying the portraits, an image-text unity or, as Yang puts it, “semiotic continuum” emerges (p. 51). This picto-textual space thus symbolically congregates an audience of both genders, and from various regions, socioeconomic strata, and historical periods by inviting them to join the same cultural relay of eulogizing and moral indoctrination. Elite women not only initiated this transcending semiotic-cultural network by commissioning their portraits, but also effectively manipulated it by carefully fashioning their own (pictorial and textual) representations. In this way, they maintained a firm grip on their audiences’ imagination, reception, and judgment of these images.
It is noteworthy that in the first two chapters of Yang’s text, there are many echoes of Fong’s Herself an Author. For example, Zuo Xijia’s arduous journey escorting her...