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  • Three Facets of Woman Power in China, 1644 to 2019
  • Walter C. Clemens Jr. (bio)
Wang, Daisy Yiyou, and Jan Stuart, eds. 2018. Empresses of China's Forbidden City, 1644–1912. Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum; Washington DC: Freer/Sackler, Smithsonian Institution; distributed from New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hinton, William H. 1966. Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. New York: Monthly Review Press; 1997. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fincher, Leta Hong. Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. 2018. London: Verso.

Was Women's Liberation Ever Sought by China's Leaders? Was it ever Feasible in China? Is it possible today? These three volumes offer a mixed answer to these questions. Regardless of the answer—yes in some respects, no in most others—these very different books penetrate China's past and current realities to show both continuity and change. The Wang and Stuart book illuminates lives at the very top of society in China's last dynasty, while Hinton's Fanshen depicts the plight of peasant women on the eve of the Communist takeover in the twentieth century. "A baby girl is a 'small happiness,'" a male village elder told Hinton's daughter, while "a boy is a 'large happiness.'" This idea has long been a leitmotif of Chinese culture and ethics. Fincher's Betraying Big Brother shows the difficulties as well as the opportunities facing young educated women today.

Life at the Top

Our review begins with life in the Forbidden City. The more than two dozen empresses and numerous other women at the Qing imperial court [End Page 417] were technically "inalienable possessions" of the monarchy and passed their lives sequestered from public view. The editors of this book argue, however, that these palace women made meaningful lives for themselves within and sometimes beyond the strictures of the court. The strong personalities of Qing empresses helped to shape the rise and fall of the dynasty over the centuries.

Apart from its profound historical analyses, Empresses is one of the most exquisite books most readers will ever encounter. Its 264 pages contain more than two hundred plates, most of them in full color, showing paintings and photos of the Qing court and images for their contemplation—birds, fruit, blossoms, and deities. Thoughtful essays are provided by Wang and Stuart and by other experts on different time periods and issues. Most of the objects pictured are on loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing, supplemented by works at the Peabody Essex Museum and the Smithsonian's Freer/Sackler Galleries. These objects were shown at Peabody Essex from August 2018 to February 2019 and exhibited in Washington, DC, at the Freer|Sackler from March to June 2019. The art objects displayed in this book and in accompanying exhibitions show the importance attached to the empresses. The book's authors testify that the objects and furnishings in the quarters of empresses and consorts were of the same superlative quality as those in the emperor's chambers. The best court art was for both sexes. The art for women, however, contained more fertility symbols.

Most empresses came from prominent Manchu or Mongolian families. Some Han people were assimilated into the Banner system and their daughters could participate in the draft for palace women. Some low-ranking women were able to move up. Manchu women enjoyed more freedom than their Han counterparts. Manchus proscribed the binding of feet and encouraged women to ride and hunt.

The Qing imperial court was strictly patriarchal and hierarchical. The empress's primary duty was to bear a son to continue the imperial line, but she was more than the dynasty's borrowed womb. She also headed the imperial harem and could influence the emperor. She was regarded as the "mother of the state" and a role model for all women.

Moving boldly against the tradition that "women shall not rule," some empresses took more direct control of state affairs in challenging times. Presiding over the state ritual of promoting silk production and the textile industry, empresses honored women's vital contribution to the state's economic health. A number of empresses played...


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pp. 417-427
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