Mel's Reviews > Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China

Herself an Author by Grace S. Fong
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I have to say the thing that really struck me about this book was the sheer ammount of books written and published by women writers, especially when you consider the equivalent in English history. There were huge volumes of collections of women's poetry that had been printed since the 14th century and women decided to edit and publish their own collections of poetry from the 16th. There were thousands of published women poets before the 20th century which I found most remarkable. Also not all of these women were elite women but some were self taught and had started their lives on the equivalent of the working class end of the social scale.

The structure of the book is very nice. She looks in depth at the writings of one woman whose work was published after her death Gan Lirou (1743-1819). This woman's poems were autobiographical that she'd written throughout her life celebrating and commisorating the different things she'd experienced, a lot of which were quite tragic. Fong translated only key moments rather than the whole collection (as there were far too many poems) but with the background she supplied even these gave a good insight into the woman's life and feelings. Fong also included the original Chinese as well as the translations which was very helpful. The poems show her playing an active role in "official matters" as well as religious matters. Praying for rain in 1807, which was mentioned two years later in the local gazette (46). She also regretted not being able to participate in the examinations and reap the same success as her brothers (48)This is something she writes about both in her 20s and in her 70s. Despite her orthodox approach to her gender roles she still seems them as limiting.

The next chapter looked at the poetry written by concubines (as opposed to nice respectable wives). I thought it was a bit of an interesting descision to seperate out the writing of the women dependent on their relationship with men. But in doing so there were some interesting things revealed. Like the concubines were often helped write poetry by the "wives". It seemed that these women, freed from the responsibility of running the household would have more time for their studies. Several of the concubines themselves expressed preference in the 18th century saying that they "would rather be concubines to men of literary talent, rather than as a principal wife to a man of wealth" (67). One of the poems "Songs of selling a daughter" ends with a great deal of anger or anguish,
... For a hundred years it will be difficult to wash away the disgrace of being a maid
Rtaher than sell the daughters body,
Why not eat her flesh?
Eating the daughter's flesh will fill the parents' stomachs.
Selling the daughter - the daughter's heart will never feel fulfilled, even in death (68)

However, another poem written by an old woman to a neighbour girl expresses satisfaction with her gender ending with the lines "I just wish that it will always be like this, even in my next life I still want to be an old woman". I've recently become fascinated with the transgender idea of rebirth, and how you could be reborn as a man, and all the different implications that this brings about. But I like that this woman was so satisfied that she didn't want to change.

The third chapters, authoring journeys, looked at women's travel writing (both wives and concubines). The problem with this chapter was most of the examples used were poetry, and the prose describing the journals was put in an appendix at the back. I would like to have seen this brought into the main text. Though it seemed like an interesting enough topic to have at least a whole book on the subject. The women writing were not sheltered either from the horrors they encountered, some were injured in battle, one was injured in a battle many times trying to save her husband and wrote about wanting to be a woman warrior like Mulan.

The last chapter examines women's anthologies and women as editors, and as I have already mentioned earlier was very enlightening.

I borrowed a copy of this book from SOAS as it's only availble in hardcover for almost £50. It's a shame a paperback version hasn't been released for half that as it would be a fantastic book to reach a wider audience and deserves to be read by more people.
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