- Transgressive Typologies: Constructions of Gender and Power in Early Tang China by Rebecca Doran
Wu Zhao 武曌 (624–705) was the first and only female emperor in Chinese history. Her ascendance to the throne, schemes and strategies of legitimization, reorganization of government, and advocacy of the ideal of scholar officials have, since the eighth century, attracted historians' attention. While most scholarship on Wu Zhao focuses on the reconstruction of her life experience, Rebecca Doran's Transgressive Typologies stands out for its unique approach of exploring the retrospective construction and conceptualization of women's power in later historiography. Besides Wu Zhao, Doran investigates and compares the Tang and Song literary and historical accounts about several other [End Page 313] powerful women who played important roles in the political realm during the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Her provocative interdisciplinary research provides a new perspective for understanding women's history in medieval China.
Character typology is widely available in historical narratives. What Transgressive Typologies articulates is the formation of negative gender typologies about women in powerful positions. The book is structured thematically while at the same time following chronological order. Chapter 1 traces the emergence of the archetypes of powerful women rulers to the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) and the following period of disunity (220–589). Based on the portrayals in official histories, Doran divides the pre-Tang women leaders into three categories: moral exemplars, transgressive leaders, and "middle cases" of "an ambivalent mixture of positive and negative typologies" (p. 30). Gender issues, such as motherhood and sexuality, play a crucial role in the historical representation and evaluation of these women. One distinct characteristic of the book is its exploration of the long-term changes and continuities in the records of women leaders. Doran claims in the introduction that she aims to "assess the ways in which portrayals of the Tang figures draw upon or depart from existing precedents" (p. 20). Readers may expect to see the evolution of certain tropes of powerful women in historical records ranging over a few centuries. However, in the ensuing chapters on the Tang's powerful women, Doran's references to the pre-Tang archetypes are occasional and fragmentary.
Chapter 2 moves into the period when the power of Tang imperial women prevailed at the court. Wu Zhao's enthusiasm for literature led to "the dual political-literary function of high-ranking courtiers" (p. 69). The surviving poems and proses that are attributed to and written for Wu Zhao, according to Doran, reflect her "preferred self-conception" (p. 70) and suggest "imperial prerogative over nature and unity with the overarching cosmic design" (p. 82). The subsequent ruler Zhongzong 中宗 (656–710) inherited his mother's literary passion and commissioned plentiful courtly compositions at the banquets that he participated in. Doran points out that the "very existence and frequency" of these poems and proses "testify to the material, political, and cultural power" (p. 83) of the imperial women who were involved.
Unlike the other chapters, chapter 2 draws exclusively on Doran's close reading of literary compositions. Doran should be applauded [End Page 314] for her beautiful translation of these poems and rhapsodies. But the way she presents, organizes, and interprets these writings may confuse readers. For example, at the beginning of the section "Natural Response and Courtly Power," Doran analyzes one rhapsody from Wu Zhao's time and states that, from Wu Zhao's time to Zhongzong's Jinglong 景龍 reign (707–710), there was a transfer of "the rhetoric of cosmic power from the imperial cosmos to the estate as micro-cosmos" (p. 83). Doran suggests that this transfer "represents an important development in the way in which power came to be conceptualized and extolled" (p. 83). She then resorts to a number of Jinglong poems to support her thesis. These poems' historical value should be understood in their specific historical contexts when Doran considers their authorship and readership. Unfortunately, this information is largely absent from Doran's analysis. The majority of these poems...