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Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China.

Imperial China, for many Western and even Chinese readers, still hovers in mind as a land of unchanging Confucian tradition, a timeless realm where women were illiterate and therefore invisible to historians - except for their bound feet. Dorothy Ko notes that when she began her research in 1984, her topic was greeted with astonishment: "You don't mean that women in traditional China could read and write?!" (p.vii) In this powerful book, we find women not only reading and writing, but building "intellectual and emotional communities through reading and writing," (p.vii) altering received gender notions in the process.

Ko's subjects are elite women in the most culturally advanced region of seventeenth-century China, Jiangnan or "South of the [Yangzi] River," a region which included the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou, and the famous West Lake with its villas and pleasure-boats. These were the women most steeped in and answerable to the normative Confucian tradition, and their activities demonstrate the points at which that tradition was open to change. The "teachers" to whom the title refers were not only the itinerant women tutors who emerged as a new professional group in the seventeenth century, but also the mothers who taught poetry and the classics to their daughters as well as their sons, making of women's supposedly secluded sphere a point of access to mainstream culture.

Seventeenth-century Chinese women, as Ko makes clear, operated within a well-defined set of social constraints. Discourses of gender and class, and the doctrine of "Thrice Following" (following, respectively, father, husband, and son), bound them to specific sites within the kinship system or the entertainment quarters, and to the service of elite men. But when Ko examines these women's lives and their mosaic of self-representations, she finds that what predominates is not an articulation of grievances, but rather a range of intellectual and sensuous satisfactions. The resilience of Chinese hierarchies of gender and class, Ko points out, depended on these opportunities for a satisfying life within the system, and on the ways the system itself could be quietly revalorized to accommodate new social realities (the woman traveller, the professional woman writer or artist of the gentry class).

In Part I, "Social and Private Histories," Ko shows how forces apparently as diverse as the late Ming cult of "qing" (the emotions), the growth of the publishing industry, and the normative notion of separate spheres for men and women, combined to foster women's literary life. The cult of emotion could privilege the voice of the woman writer precisely because the doctrine of "separate spheres" understood women to be closer than men to the life of the emotions. And the cult of emotion made women's poetry an attractive commodity for commercial publishers, facilitating women's literary communities both by stimulating family publishing and by making women's work more widely known.

Part II, "Womanhood," shows in detail how new social content could be given to venerable ideas of a woman's sphere and of "woman" herself. The domestic space of the gentry household was transformed by seventeenth-century social change: disaffection from public life on the part of gentry men, coupled with a new abundance of luxury goods, meant that the family emerged as a center of taste, recreation, knowledge, and learning. The wider world thus came home to "secluded" women, and the education of daughters was seen as a mark of family refinement.

In this environment, connoisseurship merged imperceptibly with notions of moral cultivation, so that women, typically evaluated in terms of "talent, virtue, and beauty," could participate in the sensuous surrounding culture without a sense of inner conflict. The discussion of footbinding is a key element of Ko's analysis here. Footbinding, as she shows, was practice strictly a as women's culture, with its own religious rituals. The custom probably originated centuries earlier, in the courtesans' quarters, but seventeenth-century elite women revalorized the ordeal of binding the feet as moral training. Mother and daughter participated together in this ritual-and then might valorize themselves with poetry celebrating the sensuous result. Ko's point is not, of course, to "justify" footbinding, but to show how it actually functioned in the self-representation of her subjects.

In Part III, "Women's Culture," Ko describes in detail the women's literary communities enabled by all of the factors described above. Chapter 5 shows us the "domestic" community of the poet Shen Yixiu, who took full advantage of her "separate sphere" to enjoy poetry and wine-drinking gatherings with her sisters, daughters, and cousins. The world of publishing gave Shen a public role even though she rarely left home: moved to a sense of urgency by the tragic deaths of two talented daughters, Shen enlisted her husband's help to collect women's poetry from all over the empire, for preservation in an anthology. Most gentry women had to rely on their male relatives to circulate their work and deal with the business (public) aspects of publishing, but the cult of emotion and the rise of an ideal of companionate (though still hierarchical) marriage made husbands like Shen Yixiu's happy to do so.

Chapter 6 describes women's literary networks that extended beyond the family, drawing on the wider world a woman might encounter by "following" a noted husband, or on the regional fame of a celebrated woman writer. Women continued to be told, conventionally, that their words should never leave their chambers, but in actuality, the talent of noted women became a point of local pride, and might even be recorded in local histories.

In the "transitory" communities of Chapter 7, we finally meet the elite courtesans who are often mistakenly thought to have been the only literate women of pre-modern China. The elite courtesan and the gentry wife, defined in normative texts as poles apart, were in fact members of much the same literary culture. In the unsettled seventeenth century, they sometimes even formed transitory friendships with each other. Ultimately, however, the educated gentry wife was supported by a much more stable network of literary communities.

I have only two reservations about this book, and neither undermines the power of Ko's synthesis. First is the question of periodization. Were all the phenomena Ko describes quite so new in the seventeenth century? Historians of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) like to talk about their publishing boom, and there are Song Dynasty woodblock prints of women readers whose iconography is quite similar to the Ming Dynasty prints Ko reproduces. Second, sixteenth-and seventeenth-century gentry men not only valorized gentry women's writing, but were not above seizing upon the piquant image of the woman writer (private realms exposed!) to produce "women's writing" themselves. Such questions have long been raised about one of Ko's central examples, the "Three Wives' Commentary" on the drama Peony Pavilion. Given the indisputable wealth of authentic women's writing and ritual (including writing on Peony Pavilion), and such clear evidence of women's literary communities, exploring the occasional male opportunism that arose would only serve to underscore how large women's writing loomed in seventeenth-century Chinese culture.

The modernizers of early twentieth-century China needed to paint "Confucianism" in the darkest possible colors, and Ko shows in her Introduction how their agenda required a simple model of the oppression of women, admitting none of the complexities she describes. Ironically, this oversimplified model, central to the self-representation of "modern" Chinese women, denies them centuries of intellectual lineage that could empower them today.

Katherine Carlitz University of Pittsburgh
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Carlitz, Katherine
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:1227
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