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  • Writing Gender in Early Modern Chinese Women's Tanci Fiction by Li Guo
  • Jing Zhang (bio)
Li Guo. Writing Gender in Early Modern Chinese Women's Tanci Fiction. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2021. 290 pp. Hardcover $99.99, isbn 13: 9781612496412.

Writing Gender in Early Modern Chinese Women's Tanci Fiction presents thorough research on and eloquent analyses of selected works of women's tanci 彈詞 (plucking rhymes), voluminous fictional texts written and sometimes performed by women at elite houses in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century China. This is Li Guo's second monograph on this fascinating genre, following her Women's Tanci Fiction in Late Imperial and Early Twentieth-Century China published by the same press in 2015. Overlapping in their coverages of historical period, the two books adopt a similar structure: each core chapter focuses on one tanci novel and hence gives well-deserved attention to these lengthy works, the longest one composed of 360 chapters. Guo has shifted her critical lenses since 2015. While in her first book she explores the rich interiority of women as writing subjects fantasizing about adventures beyond their inner chambers, she now brings out the "realist tenor" (3) in the tanci narratives, that is, in the representation of the domestic space as reconfigured by female characters to challenge and subvert gendered authority through maneuvering Confucian conceptions of female exemplarity, to formulate nonnormative gendered relations within the space traditionally defined as feminine, and to eventually transcend gendered social and cultural boundaries for their pursuit of self-hood through nation-state building.

The book includes an introduction, a conclusion, and five core chapters each of which analyzes one tanci work. In "Introduction: Toward a Spatialized Understanding of Women's Literary Tanci," Guo historicizes the writing of [End Page 197] selected tanci texts and positions her study in the global discourse on the writing women tradition. All five texts were written in the social unrest either anticipating or resulting from the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), a radical religious revolt and a civil war that nearly ended the Qing government and forced at least two of the five featured tanci authors into a life of exile. Unlike the wartime poems written by their contemporary women poets to express their suffering and nostalgia, women's tanci narrative, as Guo points out, requires the author to practice "authorial self-distancing in inscribing social realities onto the narrative tableau of tanci, … through stylized verses, historically framed narratives, character focalization, or transformed supernatural beings to voice 'truth'" (p. 3). This "fictional realism" sheds light on historical meanings in the "imaginaries of heroism, martyrdom, loyalty, and subjectivity" underneath the fantastic narratives and utopian visions in these tanci works. The other goal of her study, Guo emphasizes, is to discuss "the heritage of women's tanci and its value in studies of gender, authorship, and global women's writing traditions" (p. 9).

The concept of "spatialization as a strategy for reading the narrative" (p. 11), which Guo draws from Susan Stanford Friedman's synthesized understanding of Julia Kristeva's notion of spatialization and of Mikhail Bakhtin's narrative chronotopes, promises a fertile approach to women's tanci texts. As Guo elaborates in several pages, spatialization as a method of reading points the reader to the "dynamism and interrelations between the authorial narrator and her implied readership, between textual vivacity and intertextual visions" (p. 12). Such imagined author–reader interactions can be seen in the recurrent authorial insertions in written tanci texts, at the beginning or the ending of individual chapters, for instance. As Guo evocatively put, these authorial insertions embody a "repetitive compulsion of narration that ultimately and inevitably gestures towards a broader realm of gendered consciousness that at once fuels the authorial desire of narration and awaits more effectual articulation" (p. 14). "Womanly becoming" is another intriguing notion Guo borrows and applies to her current study most imaginatively and productively, connecting the female "characters' travel, travail, and social growth in the fictional realm" to "the diachronic development of gender consciousness as articulated in an ongoing and distinctive narrative tradition" (p. 17). This long and dense introduction was written with impressive theoretical rigor and exhaustive references to scholarship on women's...