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  • Transgressive Typologies: Constructions of Gender and Power in Early Tang China by Rebecca Doran
  • Hsiao-wen Cheng (bio)
Rebecca Doran. Transgressive Typologies: Constructions of Gender and Power in Early Tang China. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, 103. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. viii, 260 pp. Hardcover $39.95, isbn 978-06-74-97058-8.

How did gender play a role in history writing and the shaping of collective memory following the reign of Wu Zhao (624–705; reigned 690–705 as the Emperor of Zhou) and her female successors? How did elite men of Tang and Song China process the fact that All-Under-Heaven had been ruled by a female emperor not long before? Transgressive Typologies analyzes historical narratives about these female political leaders and provides new perspectives for contemplating these questions. Doran focuses on the formation of narrative typologies—how, as stated on the book’s back cover, these women’s power is “rhetorically framed, gendered, and ultimately deemed transgressive”—in anecdotal and historical writings from the Tang to the Southern Song. Major motifs include these women’s transgressions against nature—specifically violation of their “natural” rules as women (chapters 3 and 5), conspicuous consumption (chapter 4), and promiscuity (chapter 5). These retrospective [End Page 158] portrayals are contextualized by comparisons with pre-Tang narratives of prominent female political figures (chapter 1) and contemporary works composed or commissioned by the Tang female leaders and their circles (chapter 2).

In pre-Tang texts, Doran points out, “[a] major factor in determining posthumous evaluation is whether or not the woman in question attempted to directly take power herself and/or to rule through her family members” (p. 20). As I understand it, Doran’s argument is not about the ideological impossibility for a female ruler to rule on her own but rather that the condemnatory rhetoric and values subsequently applied to Wu Zhao and others had already existed and were readily available for the construction of transgressive typologies. But it seems to me that the rhetoric she describes is not specific to female rulers: virtuous male rulers are not generally depicted as having taken power for themselves either. He rules through either legitimate inheritance from his male family members or, if he is the first emperor of a dynasty, through replacing the previous ruling house as the new recipient of Heaven’s Mandate. One of the distinctions between a usurper and a true Son of Heaven, rhetorically and ideologically, is precisely whether he seizes the throne out of self-interest or in response to Heavenly signs and/or popular demand. No one, man or woman, should take power for him- or herself without Heaven’s Mandate. So could Heaven have ever bestowed its Mandate upon a female? Pre-Tang historical discourse seems never to have anticipated such a question. Perhaps this was part of the reason why, as Doran demonstrates in chapters 2 and 3, Wu Zhao and her courtiers so heavily emphasized auspicious signs, and why later writers were so keen to reinterpret or debunk them.

Transgressive Typologies offers many insights. To list just a few: the poetry composed and commissioned by Taiping Princess and Shangguan Wan’er, Doran convincingly argues, serves to eulogize the women rulers’ capacity to create, define, and further transcend “nature.” In discussing the conflicting interpretations of signs, Doran points out “a fundamental anxiety regarding signs’ potential for manipulation” (p. 148). The very signs and qualities that the women leaders adopted to demonstrate their transcendence and political legitimacy were, in the next generation, turned around and read as condemnations. Historical writings about these women’s leadership rely heavily on rumor, and Doran’s analysis illuminates the ways in which official histories adapted anecdotal accounts. Adapting the account in Chaoye qianzai, for instance, the Jiu Tang shu emphasizes Cui Shi’s misinterpretation of his own ominous dreams as auspicious ones, and hence his unworthiness as an official (p. 141). This is a well-researched and fluently written book presenting a wealth of material for classroom discussion, particularly pertaining to the topics of gender and Chinese political culture, Chinese poetry, historiography, and anecdotal writing. [End Page 159]

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