- A Brief Response to Ma Xu
China Review International volume 22, number 2 (2015) features Ma Xu’s suggestion of a new title for my book, Heroines of the Qing: Exemplary Women Tell Their Stories (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2016). While I appreciate Ma Xu’s suggestion, I am not prepared to find new titles—such as “Another Poet-Autobiographer,” following Professor Stephen Owen’s work on Tao Qian as the first Chinese poet-autobiographer; or “Yet Another Expression of Self,” following Professor Robert E. Hegel’s work on expressions of self in Chinese literature—for any works that discuss the shaping of the self in Chinese literature.1 Likewise I have no plans of adopting this new title “Herself an Autobiographer” as an imitation of Professor Grace Fong’s work on women’s autobiographical writings.
The question I set out to address in this book is on what terms writing women engaged with the discourse of female exemplarity. That being said, I am more than happy to acknowledge my indebtedness to Professors Kang-i Sun Chang, Grace Fong, Beata Grant, Clara Ho, Wilt Idema, Dorothy Ko, Susan Mann, Maureen Robertson, Ellen Widmer, Harriet Zurndorfer—among others—who have opened up a new field of research. Professor Fong in particular has developed useful strategies for reading women’s autobiographical writings and has made a database of these writings available to those who hope to explore them to address various questions—such as the one I have in mind.
As for the question of women’s “half-full-half-empty agency,” Ma Xu’s use of the example of Cao Zhenxiu’s portrait makes me wonder how “full” she expects the glass to be since, in the cases of commissioned portraits, we would expect the subject of the portrait to complete his or her self-image by the painter’s hand—through dictating to and negotiating with the painter how he or she would like to be portrayed.2 It is moreover ahistorical to use modern standards of a “full glass”—I would appreciate a clear definition here—to measure the degrees of agency women exercised during the Qing. Please reread pages 13–14, and 156–157. In broader terms, women’s writings from this time draw my attention because they throw various stereotypes into question, including those of the “exemplary women” in Chinese history. I am not concerned whether they fit neatly into modern expectations of women’s agency. [End Page 131]
Binbin Yang is an associate professor of Chinese literature at the University of Hong Kong, specializing in women’s writings in late imperial China.
1. Stephen Owen, “The Self’s Perfect Mirror: Poetry as Autobiography,” in The Vitality of the Lyric Voice: Shi Poetry from the Late Han to the T’ang, ed. Shuen-fu Lin and Stephen Owen (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 71–102. Robert E. Hegel and Richard C. Hessney, eds., Expressions of Self in Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
2. Richard Vinograd, Boundaries of the Self: Chinese Portraits, 1600–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 11–13. And see my summary on pages 40–41 of Heroines of Qing. [End Page 132]