Constructing Tradition Together: Identity and Agency of Women and Men in the Literary Culture of Late Imperial China

Title: 1120 | Constructing Tradition Together: Identity and Agency of Women and Men in the Literary Culture of Late Imperial China
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Literature
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Wanming Wang, McGill University, Canada (organizer, presenter, chair)
Mizuyo Sudo, Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan (discussant)
Ji Wang, University of Wisconsin–Madison, United States (presenter)
Kelvin Yu-hin Ho, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong (presenter)
Zhihui Lin, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong (presenter)


The literary women who flourished in late imperial China have been investigated for their crossing gender boundaries to write and to associate with male literati. However, their interventions in the literary and cultural traditions established and monopolized by men await further exploration. By creating a dialogue between the studies on both women’s writing and writing about women, this panel analyzes the (re)interpretation of women’s position in relation to men’s power in these traditions.

Wanming Wang demonstrates that both male and female High-Qing writers legitimized women’s importance in the family, local, and empire traditions of poetry in various genres. Ji Wang examines the reiterated interpretation of the seventeenth-century courtesan Zhang Yiniang and women’s negotiation of feminine space and interaction with male literati through handscrolls during the High Qing era. Kelvin Ho argues that Ming-Qing women’s educational texts for their sons constructed their masculinity and women’s authority within a male-dominated bureaucracy. Zhihui Lin explores Qing women’s emphases on the importance of their food management as an embodiment of womanly virtues and a component of nation building.

During late imperial China, women were commemorated and evaluated as subjects of the literary culture and wrote on men’s and women’s gender roles in these traditions. The (re)interpretations of women’s position further exerted an influence on men’s construction of them. Together, men and women reshaped and shared these traditions. Their representations of masculinity and femininity were mutually constructed, and the traditions were appropriated by both genders.

Panel Abstracts:
Writing with Authority: The Legitimization of Women in Poetic Traditions during the High Qing Era (1683-1839)
The flourishing of women’s poetry in late imperial China led to the flourishing of women’s poetics, in reference to theorization, criticism and evaluation of women’s poetry by both men and women. Recent scholarship has explored the literati’s arguments for the uniqueness of women’s poetry and the lineage of women’s poetry in itself. Women’s poetry and poetics have been treated as “minor literature.” This paper calls attention to the relationship between women’s and men’s poetry and the position of women’s poetry in the literary mainstream.My study focuses on close reading and analysis of four types of texts by male and female High Qing writers from the Jiangnan region: thirteen prefaces dedicated to twelve women poets’ collections; two poems presented to the female poet Luo Qilan (1755-1813) on her poetry; and two passages by two eighteenth-century leading poets, one from the “Editorial Principles” in the anthology of Qing poetry compiled by Shen Deqian (1673-1769) and the other from Yuan Mei’s (1716-1798) remarks on poetry.I argue that these texts claim the importance of women poets in the family, local, and imperial traditions of poetry and the Tang or Song poetic qualities found in women’s poetry. Women poets were the peers of men poets, carrying on the orthodox poetic tradition and modeling their poetry on previous male masters, instead of being discussed and evaluated on the basis of criteria different from those applied to men’s poetry. Women’s poetry in Qing poetics was thus an important component of mainstream literature.

Negotiating Feminine Space with the Male: Handscroll Female Portraits in High Qing China
The High Qing period witnessed the revival of women’s portraits. Prior research tends to suggest that the women represented in these portraits had limited control over the production of their own images, and that the feminine space was largely framed through the “male gaze” of both the creators and the male audience. Rethinking the underrated agency of women artists and poets in negotiating feminine space through artistic practice, this paper explores how genteel women collaborated with male literati to claim their subjectivity and reshape feminine space through verbal or visual expressions on handscroll portraits. This project focuses on the collective execution of a series of handscroll portraits of Zhang Yiniang, a famed seventeenth-century Suzhou courtesan. The portrait created by Yang Jin (1644-1728), before it was lost, incited a succession of colophons, in which more than fifty literati engaged. Owing to the popularity of Zhang’s story and the limited accessibility of Yang’s painting, the female poet-painter Fang Wanyi (1732-1779) was commissioned to reproduce a new portrait with reference to fourteen poems mourning Zhang Yiniang. These representations emancipate the female subject, reestablishing a distinctive feminine space, and finally forming nuanced interpretations and remembrances about Zhang. My analysis shows that Zhang’s image was continuously endowed with cultural and historical significance through reiterated mourning by the male and female viewers. In the collaborative production and circulation of the handscroll portraits, female artists developed diverse strategies to socialize with male literati, to redefine their feminine identities, and to craft their images and associated cultural memories.

Mothers and Sons: The Construction of Masculinity in Ming-Qing Women's Writings
As contemporary gender research has called into question the view that women were historically always victims, new concerns with the relationship and interactions between the genders and the related power distribution between the sexes have emerged. My study explores how women’s writings shaped the discourse on masculinity in Ming-Qing China instead of placing the spotlight on men’s visions of masculinity. With reference to Kam Louie’s pioneering research on women writers’ construction of masculinity in the twentieth century and the special attention to the subjectivity and agency of women writers, this research analyzes Ming-Qing mothers’ negotiations of male gender roles. I focus on the texts of twenty female writers from Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei, and Hunan included in their individual collections and large anthologies of women’s writing. Integrating historical analysis and gender studies, I investigate their definitions of masculinity and expectations of the qualities of nan’er (real men), dazhangfu (great gentlemen), and other gendered terms. My investigation shows these women writers educating their sons to be honest and loyal, disciplining children, urging teenagers to attend the Civil Service Exams, and advising grown men on how officials behave. Their teachings to their sons were detailed and reacted to different stages of life. They thus constructed their sons’ masculinity, hence demonstrating their power within a male-dominated bureaucracy. While women seemed to exist “nowhere” in officialdom, they were de facto “everywhere” as an indispensable female force.

Managing Food, Managing Identities: Qing Genteel Women's Writings about Cooking and Eating
From the perspective of feminism, cooking was, more often than not, devalued as oppression of women and considered a monotonous activity devoid of intelligence. However, the Chinese tradition has highly evaluated food preparation not only as a womanly virtue but also a source of power in the household. Reading texts by twenty-two Qing elite women from their individual collections and large anthologies of women’s writing, I examine how women constructed or reinforced their identities through cooking and eating. My paper explores women’s arguments for the moral significance of food provision and narratives on the shortage of food under impoverished circumstances. The primary sources I analyze also include genteel woman Gao Jingfang’s (fl. the Kangxi reign) records of food preparation in her wealthy family and female reformist Zeng Yi’s (1853-1927) instructions on food preparation.I argue that through this “humble” practice in everyday life, women presented themselves as household managers, literati, privileged descendants, and female reformers. While the anxiety about food shortage epitomized a dignified response to the identity crisis experienced by the elite class after the fall of the Ming dynasty, wealth freed women from culinary work but put higher requirements on women to skillfully manage social relationships through food. Food management was not only an embodiment of womanly virtues but also an important aspect of the nation-building scheme. With the identity-food relationship as a focus, this paper concludes that food management was enriched by women’s subjective experiences and Chinese literary and cultural traditions and further empowered women

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