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Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century.

by Susan Mann. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1997. xii, 326 pp. $49.50 U.S. (cloth), $17.95 (paper).

In the past several years, gender as a category of analysis has increasingly characterized the scholarship on women and the social history of premodern China. Susan Mann's attractive monograph on the learning, culture, and work of elite women in eighteenth-century south China (specifically Jiangnan, or the Lower Yangzi region) is a substantive continuation of Dorothy Ko's Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China (Stanford, 1994). a study also drawn from the Lower Yangzi region. Primarily using the anthologies of Qing women poets and biographies of exemplary Qing women, Precious Records applies women's own voices to place their public and literary space centrally in family, community, and society -- a view that effectively debunks the traditional generalization of Chinese women as victims of a repressive Confucian patriarchy.

Both experts and generalists will be sure to find this volume an exciting And significant interdisciplinary contribution to both women's studies and eighteenth century China. They will particularly appreciate the concise and clear presentation of the historical context of the eighteenth-century Lower Yangzi region as the backdrop for women's learning and culture. The social, economic, and political changes that characterized High Qing China (1683-1790s) were the classical revival in scholarship, the growth of urbanization and handicraft industries that witnessed the increasing visibility of women's work, high migration of males and a population explosion, and government policies that reinforced an intrusive morality into the life of women.

The women in Mann's study include the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers of elite men who were touched by their life experience and whose life course differed much from theirs. While the men sought a career in the Confucian civil service and could keep concubines, the women endured loneliness and suffering in arranged marriage, childbearing, child-rearing, widowhood, household responsibilities, and a moral authority that echoed the tone and rhetoric of the Qing state. The tradition of exemplary women, as portrayed in the biographies or hagiographies of women since the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), defined the role for these Qing elite women, but their own poetry demonstrated their accomplished learning and communicated their poignant sentiments to family and women circles. The poetry of three thousand such women was compiled by Wanyan Yun Zhu (1771-1833), the widow of a Manchu official, who raised three sons, all of whom held public office and one of whom helped her to publish the compilation. Mann's admiration for Yun Zhu is so overwhelming that she dedicated the book to her -- a woman writing the history of women in her time, and ahead of her time by including women from the minority and frontier cultures. Yun Zhu, however, excluded the poems of courtesans from her compilation, due to the influence of Qing morality which shunned courtesans, reversing a seventeenth-century trend where highly-ranked and talented courtesans were accorded social respectability. As Mann noted, it was the type of work, not degree of literary talent, that marginalized the courtesans and separated them from the class of elite women.

Indeed, the society of High Qing expected women of all classes to engage in work. As the countryside commercialized and economic organization decentralized, both the state and family valued the crucial role of women in the production system. Furthermore, women's work had a moral significance in the High Qing, which adopted the ideal combination of motherhood and work as exemplified by Mencius' mother working with die loom and admonishing her son at the same time. Although Confucian gentlemen did not work with their hands, the elite women did; their engagement in labour, primarily silk embroidery, was perceived to reflect moral discipline. Mann notes that the labour of women from lower classes was essential to the economic survival of their families, and it was observed with the same moral standard. The friendship between the elite women and their servants, and their sympathy with the plight of the lower classes allow the construction of a broader perspective of women and work in family and community.

Despite an impressive array of primary and secondary material in this study, Mann herself recognizes a problem in sources. There is some inadequacy in The geographical representation of elite women's learning in the High Qing, with 70 per cent of the women writers from the Lower Yangzi region and the exclusion of courtesan writings. Mann admirably tackles this problem by integrating other classes of women in her study, through the inclusion of a chapter on courtesans and another one on women's religious rituals which cut across class lines. Mann speculates, and she admits without supporting evidence, that with the upsurge in male mobility in the eighteenth century, resulting in women becoming central to household production, female infanticide and footbinding might have diminished, especially with state laws frowning upon the traffic in women. Research on eighteenth-century China is currently very active and one expects that it will soon provide this documentation on the one hand, and on the other, continue the integration of regional and interdisciplinary studies to achieve a broad and comparative perspective of late imperial China.
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Author:Jay, Jennifer W.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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