AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 547

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Session 547: Para/texts: Constructing Identity and Authorial Image in Women's Literary Collections in 18th- and 19th-century China

Organizer: Grace S. Fong, McGill University, Canada

Discussant: Ellen Widmer, Wellesley College, USA

Late Imperial China witnessed a marked increase in materials that frame or “present” literary collections - what French critic Gérard Genette terms “paratexts.” (Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, 1997) These discursive productions that surround the literary work constitute sites of influence on the public’s reception of the author’s literary work. Poetry collections by women in the Qing are often “packaged” by multiple paratexts as framing devices, including prefaces, inscriptional poems, biographies, marginal and interlineal notes or commentaries, and colophons. The four papers propose to use paratext as an analytical concept to explore the discursive construction of women poets’ identities and authorial image in and through these devices. Fong examines the posthumous collections of Huang Wanqiong and Ling Zhiyuan, women who died in their twenties and were deeply mourned by their male kin in the paratexts they wrote. She argues that the thick layers of paratexts tend to rob these young women of their own voice and subjectivity. Wang Wanming analyzes the paratextual discourses interspersed in the collection of the prolific woman poet Bao Zhihui and demonstrates their legitimizing stance in the complex cultural environment of the eighteenth century. Byrne explores how Wang Peihua’s father-in-law subtly integrates Confucian and Buddhist values in his biographical paratext to endorse her Buddhist practice and legitimate the publication of her writings. Finally, Wang Zhifeng focuses on the contrasting, even contradictory images of Zheng Lansun that emerge when biographical paratexts are read against the author’s own autobiographical texts. Papers will be posted beforehand to facilitate audience discussion.

Texts and Paratexts: Who Speaks Louder in Literary Collections by Young Women in the Qing Period?
Grace S. Fong, McGill University, Canada

This paper is part of a research project on the construction of women’s life histories in their literary collections. I am interested in exploring the presence and function of paratexts in women’s poetry collections and how they affect the conception and development of women’s literary identities. More specifically, I am concerned with their effects on the articulation of writing women’s subjectivities. Different paratextual practices seem to be strongly inflected by the woman writer’s age and the publication context of the collection. Whether a collection is published posthumously or during the woman writer’s lifetime can have vastly different results in the life history and subjectivity represented. In this paper, I focus on two collections by women who died relatively young: the Chaxiangge yicao (Posthumous Drafts from Tea Fragrance Loft) by Huang Wanqiong (1804-1830), native of Ningxiang, Hunan, and the Cuiluoge shici gao (Drafts of Poems and Song Lyrics from the Green Snail Loft) by Ling Zhiyuan (1831-1852), native of Qiantang, Zhejiang. I examine how their short life histories and literary identities are constructed by the accompanying paratexts through the common genres, tropes, and rhetoric deployed in them by the male authors, and also how, in the process of paratextual representation, shared versions of a woman’s life and identity are constructed that tend to diminish and obscure the voice and subjectivity in her own writings. These collections offer a provocative comparison to the texts and paratexts in the collections of older women examined in the other three papers on this panel.

Legitimating the Identity of Writing Women in Eighteenth-Century Elite Discourse: The Case of Bao Zhihui’s Qingyuge yingao (Recited Drafts from Clear Joy Loft)
Wanming Wang, McGill University, Canada

In eighteenth-century China, the Jiangnan region witnessed the flourishing of women’s learning, writing, and publishing alongside debates about the propriety of women’s literary activities, especially writing poetry. As a prolific woman writer of this period, Bao Zhihui, a native of Dantu, Jiangsu, wrote poetry in the context of her elite family as well as in a community of fifty-odd women writers, who were criticized for pursuing publicly visible literary lives with their mentor Yuan Mei (1716-1797), the most famous poet of the time. Bao’s collection, Qingyuge yingao, includes a large number of paratexts: six prefaces, one postface, eighteen colophons, and nine inscriptional poems written by family members and contemporary male scholars. This paper will examine how the authors of these paratexts constructed the image of Bao and expressed their views on her poetry. I will demonstrate how concise descriptions of Bao’s womanly virtues interspersed between flowery praise of her poetic talent and companionate marriage by critics commenting on her poetry suggest that they considered Bao’s poetry as an embodiment of her virtue. They thus validated her literary activities and reconciled the opposition between women’s virtue and talent. The authors also compare Bao’s and other contemporary women’s writings to earlier, well-known writers and scholars, both female and male, and traced the history of women’s writing to classical Confucian canons. Therefore, these texts are examples of an eighteenth-century elite discourse which, in the face of ongoing controversy, establishes a legitimate identity for writing women within the orthodox literary tradition.

Wang Peihua (b. 1767), A Bodhisattva of the Inner Quarters
Christopher R. Byrne, McGill University, Canada

In late imperial China, women sought an acceptable place for their literary activities within Confucian norms of womanly behavior. In a similar manner, many women also sought a proper place within their lives for the practice of Buddhism, accommodating their religious piety within Confucian family values. In this cultural framework, the eighteenth-century laywoman Wang Peihua’s collected writings, Yuanxiangshi biji (Brush Notes from the Incense Hall of Vows), was published. The collection is well-balanced with essays on both Confucian and Buddhist subjects, as well as verses on Buddhist and Daoist themes. Although Wang’s collection contains only one paratext – a biography written by her father-in-law, I argue that it serves the significant function of situating her Buddhist practice within the accepted norms of womanly behavior while asserting her authority as a fully-realized Buddhist practitioner. As is usually seen in the case of women’s literary activities, Wang is said to have relegated her formal Buddhist practice and study to a secondary position, as activities performed in her spare time. Yet, the biography shows that it is only because of her extraordinary religious attainments that her domestic and womanly duties are faultlessly accomplished. In this manner, Wang Peihua’s biography not only endorses Buddhist practice within the inner quarters but also carves out a legitimate space for her writings to be published, read, and valued.

Public Image and Self-Representation: Auto/biographical Constructions in Zheng Lansun’s (?-1861) Literary Collection Lianyinshi ji (Collection of the Studio of Lotus Karma)
Zhifeng Wang, McGill University, Canada

Zheng Lansun (?-1861) was a woman poet whose writing career flourished in the mid-nineteenth century even though her life was disrupted in 1853 by the Taiping Rebellion, which devastated her home in Yangzhou and sent the family fleeing to Rugao as refugees. In this paper, I will investigate the difference between Zheng Lansun’s public image constructed in male-authored biographical writings and her self-image represented in autobiographical writings in her poetry collection Lianyinshi ji (Collection of the Studio of Lotus Karma). The extant auto/biographical accounts of Zheng Lansun’s life preserved in her literary collection include a biography, several prefaces, including two by Zheng herself, a postscript, and an appended record, all of which provide some biographical details. My analysis will first focus on Zheng’s public image in the biography written by Yu Yue (1821-1907), a well-known Confucian scholar and historian in the Late Qing. Through my analysis, I attempt to demonstrate that Yu Yue put his efforts into representing Zheng Lansun’s womanly virtues in accordance with classical Confucian formulations. Second, I will examine two self-prefaces and an essay mourning herself by Zheng Lansun so as to identify her self-constructed image. It is striking that, as I will show, under the persona of a devout follower of Buddhism, Zheng de-emphasizes the public recognition given to a virtuous woman. Her self-narratives or autobiographical writings in effect undermine the monolithic Confucian image of a virtuous woman established by male authors.