- Two Centuries of Manchu Women Poets: An Anthology trans. by Wilt L. Idema
As an erudite scholar and prolific translator with a broad range of interest in literature from China's imperial past, Wilt L. Idema has produced a variety of translations encompassing poetry, drama, and fiction selected from both elite and popular repertories. In recent decades, Idema has been among the vanguard in translating the long-neglected texts of Chinese women from the late imperial period (sixteenth through nineteenth centuries) and making them accessible to an English readership.1 With Two Centuries of Manchu Women Poets: An Anthology, Idema presents fine translations of the poetry of nineteen Manchu women in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in fourteen chapters, contextualizing each poet and her work by providing vital biographical background. In doing so, Idema offers English readers a fascinating body of materials that invites comparative thinking and discussion on issues of writing, identity, and life experience in relation to gender and ethnicity.
Originally a semi-nomadic people from the northeast, the Manchus conquered the Han Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and established the Qing empire (1644-1912) with themselves as the governing class. Idema has selected Manchu women poets (and one who was half Mongolian) who mainly lived in the capital Beijing during the height of the Qing empire in the eighteenth century and its decline in the nineteenth. The poets are presented in roughly chronological order, although it would have been useful if their dates had been indicated systematically. Each of these Manchu women had a collection of writings either published or at least partially preserved in an anthology or manuscript form. In comparison to the more than three thousand Chinese women of the Qing dynasty who wrote manuscripts or published collections of poetry and other writings, the fifty-some Manchu women poets estimated by Idema to have produced similar works seem miniscule in comparison. However, this anthology demonstrates their relevance in scholarship on women's literature and potential appeal to a general readership. Idema's judicious selection of poets and poems usually highlights some exceptional features in either the woman's life and/or her writing, often indicated in the chapter titles, for example, "Chastity and Suicide: Xiguang," "A Tomboy in a Silly Dress: Mengyue," "Releasing Butterflies: Wanyan Jinchi," and "A Proud Descendant of Chinggis Khan: Naxun Lanbao."
In the introduction, Idema explains why literate Manchu women learned only Chinese rather than Manchu and why their literary writings mainly consisted of poetry.2 He also provides a brief overview of [End Page 447] the Chinese poetic forms in which Manchu women wrote (pp. 13-14). The subject matter and themes of Manchu women's poetry fall within the parameters of Chinese poetic practice, which raises the question of what, if anything, distinguishes these women's writings as being authored by Manchus. Poem 4 from Mengyue's autobiographical retrospective, "Emotions on Remembering the Past," provides one example of such a distinction:
A saddle of brocade—at twelve I learned to ride a pony;The arrow-tips like freezing stars, a little bow of horn.When I went hunting in the fields, all people loved to watch;In their opinion I looked like the Bright and Shining Prince.(p. 133)
Mengyue describes her tomboyish character in childhood and adolescence when she loved horseback riding, archery, and hunting, all Manchu martial practices in which Manchu women, who did not have bound feet like Han Chinese women, could participate.
Idema's introduction to each poet explores the woman's family background and relations (including her husband's family) and the implications of the Manchu dimensions of her life and identity for her social relations and literary production. The number of widows in this anthology is strikingly high—eleven out of nineteen poets—perhaps because by the mid-eighteenth century, the Han Confucian emphasis on widow chastity had been adopted as a norm for Manchu women.3 A Manchu woman's life became inextricably bound to her husband and his family, so...