- Two Centuries of Manchu Women Poets: An Anthology tran. by Wilt L. Idema
Despite burgeoning scholarly interest in Manchu studies in recent years, the women of the Eight Banners remain a subject that has seen only limited advancement in research. Although they have been subject to several studies on family life and social customs within Eight Banner communities, these works tend to reflect the points of view of the Qing state and the men that presided over it, while the women’s own voices remain relatively muted. By translating the literary output of Manchu women throughout the Qing dynasty and presenting in-depth investigations of their lives, Wilt L. Idema’s Two Centuries of Manchu Women Poets hence grants us a unique insight into their inner thoughts and sentiments.
Even though he professes to not be a specialist in Qing history or Manchu studies, Idema is able to show expert command of his sources as he drew from various anthologies and individual literary collections to construct detailed biographies of his subjects of study. This book includes the writings of nineteen female Eight Banners writers from the start of the beginning of the Qing’s golden era during the Kangxi era to the end of the nineteenth century when the dynasty was irrevocably in decline. Their writings are organized into fourteen themed chapters, some focusing only one individual, some placing two or three women into a group. These women shared many common aspects in their backgrounds. They were all primarily based in the capital Beijing, although a few have traveled south to the Jiangnan region. Most of them were born into and then married into aristocratic families. Many also unfortunately experienced widowhood later in their lives. As portrayed, however, in the verses that have been meticulously selected by Idema for this book, these [End Page 161] women responded to their social circumstances in vastly different manners, defying facile attempts to generalize their experiences.
Exhibiting the deft touch of an experienced translator, Idema has rendered these women’s compositions into exquisite yet accessible language. Readers with little background in Manchu society and cursory knowledge of Chinese literature should still have no trouble comprehending the ideas and sentiments that the original poets intended to convey through their words. Without sacrificing too much of the forms and styles that structured the original verses, Idema has chosen to focus on using the words and phrases that would best contribute to magnifying the women’s own voices in his translations. Whether it is the stoic Xiguang recounting her acts of self-maiming and plans for suicide in a chillingly haunting and matter-of-fact manner (pp. 73–75) or the vivacious Mengyue enthusiastically describing her tomboy ways during her childhood (pp. 133–134), the individual characters of every female poet can be clearly felt by the audience.
For specialists in the aforementioned fields of study, these compositions are significant resources that will help us gain a more nuanced understanding of these bannerwomen’s inner worlds and the social dynamics of the communities they inhabited. Their historical value is further enhanced by the detailed descriptions of all of the female writers Idema presented at the beginning of each chapter. These introductions contain in themselves lengthy translations of various primary sources related to these figures’ backgrounds, such as paratextual materials written for their personal collections by their friends and families, and biographies composed by the compilers of larger anthologies that included these women’s works. Details such as the fact that Yingchuan did not learn how to read or write until she married her husband Tie-bao provide important contexts for the translated poems, giving scholars more tools to reconstruct these poets’ personalities and life experiences.
In the past three decades, we have witnessed a tremendous growth in scholarship on women’s literature in general, particularly from the Ming-Qing period. Thanks to the works of pathbreaking scholars that includes Idema himself, traditional assumptions of premodern Chinese women as voiceless, permanently...