Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century.
With the publication of four major works in English, culminating in Susan Mann's Precious Records, we now have a powerfully articulated narrative of Chinese women's lives from the tenth to the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Patricia Ebrey's The inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period (University of California Press, 1993), Dorothy Ko's Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in China, 1573-1722 (Stanford University Press, 1994), and Francesca Bray's Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 1997) work together with Precious Records to provide textured and nuanced accounts that challenge any unexamined view of women held in thrall by "traditional Chinese thought." Precious Records is a particularly rich and rewarding work, whose insights into women's life-course, writing, work, piety, and role in eighteenth-century entertainment culture, demand not only changes in our thinking about Chinese women's lives, but also an acknowledgment that Eurocentric paradigms are not universally applicable in writing women's history.
The big picture emerging from these four books and other contemporary scholarship is one of increasing rationalization in the spheres of government, philosophy, and family structure, and of associated changes in women's agency at different social levels. By the eighteenth century, a new sober emphasis on historical research and classical models further rationalized the model of the patrilineal family, with its requirement that elite women demonstrate family prestige by remaining secluded. What Mann shows brilliantly, however, is that the Qing constellation afforded highly literate elite women remarkable new freedoms to write and reinterpret their own history. These elite women did not challenge the familial and social structures in which they lived, nor did they forge any idea of "women's identity" that crossed class lines. What they did was discover and exploit the possibilities for autonomy that existed within their society.
Mann begins by showing how different were the life-courses of elite men and women: at every stage, women were seen to mature earlier, so that by midlife, when a man was in the flower of his career, his wife's reproductive years were over, her children grown, and her parents-in-law gone to their reward. Mann's description of Chinese "grand family" structure, in which virtually all women were expected to become wives or concubines, playing out the role of filial daughter-in-law, created very different options from the European structures that included nuclear families and acceptable life-patterns for unmarried women. Chinese male fantasies of the women's quarters as a still point in the noisy world are shown to be very wide of the mark, however, as women s enormous responsibilities for household and business management, education of children, and care for elders are detailed. It was in the years when these responsibilities wound down that women could turn to intellectual pursuits, from the writing of the occas ional poem to the demanding anthologies of women poets and historical figures compiled by Mann's chief example, Wanyan Yun Zhu. In describing the life of the courtesans' quarters, which she reconstructs from primary sources in brilliant detail, Mann shows how central to eighteenth-century life the "grand family" structure was: the courtesans' female lineages are constructed so as to mirror the filial relationships on the outside.
Women's piety, descriptions of which range from folk ritual to serious tutoring in abstruse Buddhist doctrine, could also flower at this time. But at all ages, "womanly work" with thread and fabric--from spinning coarse cotton in a peasant household to fine embroidery for the elite--was demanded of women and carried complex cultural messages. In scholarship noted by Mann, Bray has shown how new technologies in textile work were increasingly the province of men, but Mann has collected evidence suggesting the growing role of women s textile work in the economy of the empire. (Quantitative studies have yet to be done.) Women's textile work could be carried on at home, in accordance with the ideal of seclusion, and Mann shows how this spurred officials to offer weaving and spinning classes to non-elite women--which in turn increased not only their participation in the economy of the empire, but also, she speculates, the rate at which infant girls survived, contributing to a more equal sex-ratio and ultimately to the strength of the patrilineal family, so dependent on the ideal of universal marriage.
Women's writing has pride of place in this book because of its centrality in eighteenth-century elite culture generally, and because it provides the most striking examples of new agency on the part of eighteenth-century elite women. The long tradition of writing about female martyrs to husband and empire had, for centuries, been a product of the male gaze, but what women now found in it was a tradition of acknowledging that women had always been worthy subjects for the historian, and a few women began to use the exemplary biography form to celebrate women's talent and ideas about statecraft. Mann's protagonist Yun Zhu used her monumental poetry anthology to show the success of the Qing court's project to civilize the border regions. This kind of enterprise was supported by a striking number of male intellectuals, who were finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile women's seclusion with the models of learned instructresses they found in the records of the past.
None of this can be taken as some culmination of a movement toward increased rights for women; during the period from the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries, women in fact lost rights to property and children that they had enjoyed earlier. But it shows us that we cannot demonize "Confucianism" or even "the traditional family" as absolute barriers to Chinese women's ownership of their subjectivity. And Mann notes as well the Eurocentric limits of the current discourse on civil society and the public sphere. If Qing dynasty intellectuals could welcome statements from the inner quarters on such matters as the civilizing projects of the court, then they were certainly operating with different ideals of public and private than were their European counterparts.
In her treatments of courtesan life and textile work, Mann does range beyond the elite families who dominate her discussion of women's writing, but investigations of the lives of non-elite women have yet to exploit the full range of sources available. Mann does not discuss the very active elite women's painting tradition, and we must turn to Bray's work for a detailed (and often startling) examination of Qing dynasty conception, contraception, and childbirth practices and beliefs. Nevertheless, Mann's book is absolutely exemplary in the breadth and depth of topics covered. A fellow-scholar described it to me as a "wise book," and I agree.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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