Politics, Poetics, and Gender in Late Qing China: Xue Shaohui and the Era of Reform.
In the field of the study of late Qing reform, the role of women has long been overlooked. Women were usually treated as objects of emancipation in a reform agenda that was guided by the prominent male reformers and pointed to the Chinese national strengthening. It is against this academic background that the author makes a timely contribution to the field by highlighting the role of a late Qing female poet Xue Shaohui [1866-1911] in revitalizing the tradition of worthy and talented women, xianyuan, in a time of radical change.
The book is divided into two parts. In part 1, Nanxiu Qian provides a detailed discussion of the cultural milieu of late Qing Fujian province, a southern coastal region where Xue grew up. For the author, there were two cultural traditions that could be found in Fujian in the late nineteenth century. One was a "writing-women culture," which emphasized elite women's self-cultivation through moralistic maternal teaching and the acquisition of literary skills (23). She delineates the complex networks of several local elite clans and demonstrates how women from these prominent lineages participated in literary activities. This xianyuan tradition, as the author shows, was combined with an increasing political awareness, and the female poets began to criticize the government and condemn foreign invaders (53).
The first tradition of talented women was then combined with the second new tradition that drew women to the affairs of the state, which was generated by the "Fuzhou Navy Yard Culture" (59). Qian shows that the Navy Yard was not only an enterprise of late Qing military industry but also a site for disseminating modern Western knowledge. Xue's brother-in-law became a strong advocate of democracy, republicanism, and women's political engagement after studying in France, and her husband was an expert on naval technology possessing a broad spectrum of Western knowledge. Qian argues that the "marriage" between the local culture of women's poetic expression and modernization ideology facilitated Xue's intellectual confidence and independence in articulating her opinions on nationalism, modernity, and gender equality (119).
In part 2, Qian focuses on how Xue interpreted women's role in reform and engaged in intellectual debates with male reformers with national prestige such as Liang Qichao. According to the author, Xue maintained the traditional way of women and the role of wife while resisting the temptation of making women a mere instrument of nationalism, and Xue promoted science and technology education to women so they could acquire the knowledge for its own sake. More importantly, Xue refused to blame Chinese women for "causing" China's backwardness while advocating equal rights, and she also rejected male reformers' beautification of female martyrdom (177).
The author succeeds in presenting the story of Xue in the intellectual context of the time and challenging the traditional nationalist discourse on women's emancipation. Xue provided a moderate yet alternative reform agenda that aimed at empowering and developing Chinese women only because of the intrinsic value of the endeavor. The book will contribute to the fields of late Qing history and Chinese women's studies by helping readers rethink the tension between Chinese nationalism and feminism.