Women's Poetry and Poetics in Late Imperial China: A Dialogic Engagement by Haihong Yang
In recent years, an increasing number of scholars have paid critical attention to women's literature from late imperial China, and Haihong Yang's Women's Poetry and Poetics in Late Imperial China: A Dialogic Engagement makes a fruitful endeavor to enrich the existing scholarship. As Yang explains in the introduction, this book examines "the interactions between women's poetic creations and the existing discourses in the literati tradition and stud[ies] how these interactions generate innovative self-reinscription and renovations in poetic forms and aesthetics" (p. xii). Yang describes such interactions as a "dialogic approach," aiming to show women poets' "negotiations with the tradition of and their efforts to transcend its confines" (pp. xii, xiv). In other words, Yang contextualizes women's poetry in the Ming and Qing dynasties, paying special attention to how individual poets reacted to the male canons and how women poets positioned their works in the poetic discourse.
Women's Poetry and Poetics in Late Imperial China is generally arranged chronologically and divided into five chapters based on themes. Each chapter starts with an overall introduction and then moves to specific case studies. Chapter one discusses women-authored criticism of poetry, particularly the works by Wang Duanshu (1621-ca. 1685) and Wang Ying (1781-1842), who both emphasize the moral function of poetry and reinterpret women's poetry based on the tradition of Shijing (the classic of poetry). Chapter two moves to the trope of yin or "withdrawing from public service," a term conventionally associated with male writers, by examining the cases of two women poets, Yi Lin (1616-1685) and Huang Yuanjie (fl. mid-seventeenth century), in the Ming-Qing transition; both women reinvented the use of yin (p. xvi). Chapter three focuses on xi ti shi (poems written in jest), a subgenre of poetry associated with women's participation "in the construction and modification of gender norms for gentry-class women," whereas chapter four investigates women's voices expressed through poetic allusions, paying special attention to the poems written at a festive gathering that might have helped women participants form a group identity (p. 60). Chapter five shifts the focus to the late nineteenth century to examine women's poems published in new media, such as newspapers and journals. Women developed a poetic language intertwined with a series of new ideas, including the promotion of women's [End Page 195] education and the concept of qun (collectivism). To conclude, Yang shows the fascinating world of women's poetry in late imperial China—full of literary experiments and reinterpretations—while casting light on the changes of elite women's self-identification in the Ming-Qing era.
Yang's book is engaging and introduces important issues of women's poetry in terms of subject matter and technique, but some of her choices and distinctions could have been more fully explained. The author inevitably analyzes the use of allusions in various chapters, such as in chapter two, the allusion embedded in the word Wuhu or "five lakes"; therefore, one may wonder how the author approaches the key topic of chapter four—"allusion and renovated subjectivity in women's poetry"—differently than her other chapters (pp. 35, 36, 93). Moreover, as Wang Duan's (1793-1883) allusions to women writers in her poems about Liu Shi (1618-1664) serve as an integral part of chapter four, it would be helpful if the author provided her criteria for selecting the poems. It is unclear why Wang Duan's application of allusions, but not others', is discussed here.
In general, Yang provides faithful translations of the poems although in a few cases her translation might be somewhat loose. For example, the first line of a poem by Wang Ying, selected from her "Six Quatrains on Poetry for Xu Yuqing," is rendered as "chanting of the wind and the moon is improper" (p. 18). This translation does not perfectly match its Chinese original version: "Yinfeng nongyue ya fei yi" (p. 18). At the very least, the translation of the character ya (elegance/refinement) is missing. In addition, the word "improper" contains stronger overtones than that of the Chinese term "fei yi," which means "inappropriate." Despite such minor problems in translation and the fact that the glossary is not comprehensive, Yang's Women's Poetry and Poetics in Late Imperial China positions women's poetry within the sociopolitical transformations witnessed by the Ming and Qing dynasties while contributing to our understanding of elite women's culture and their engagement in the development of late imperial Chinese literature. This book is thought-provoking and represents a valuable addition to the existing scholarship on women's poetry in pre-modern China. [End Page 196]