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Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century

March 20, 2010

Susan Mann. Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Dahpon D. Ho (2003)

Delving into Susan Mann’s Precious Records engages the reader in a scholarly yet personal conversation with elite women in China’s “long eighteenth century” (1683-1839). “Only by making our sources talk to one another and by placing women at the center of historical analysis,” Mann asserts, “can we study gender and culture in the High Qing” (p. 7). This elegantly composed book is an excellent work of scholarship that does not shy away from the controversial. Particularly inspired by the work of the late Joan Kelly (who questioned whether Italian women had a Renaissance), Mann applies a critical eye to Qing dynasty gender relations and takes account of important shifts that have heretofore been overlooked. She asks: “Did women have a High Qing era?” (p. 8 )

To answer this question, Mann takes a thematic approach: chapters entitled Gender, The Life Course, Writing, Entertainment, Work, and Piety comprise the body of her work. Throughout, Mann examines the opinions of scholar-bureaucrats and the effects of Qing state policy on female economic and social roles. Government campaigns like the emblematic cult of the “chaste widow,” encouragement of women’s domestic textile production, changes in legal protection, and even the futile attempt to abolish footbinding reflected the state’s close concern for management of women. Moreover, the Qing state actively cultivated the ideal of the refined, married woman (guixiu) as a model of familial morality and instructor to her sons. Also of interest is the book’s discussion of the intellectual and cultural “querelle des femmes” (debate about women) that engendered controversy during the High Qing classical revival (p. 83). In Mann’s analysis, two classical models – the moral instructor (eg. Ban Zhao) and the brilliant prodigy (eg. Xie Daoyun) – were fundamentally at odds in the debate over the nature and purpose of women’s education. The arguments of scholars like Zhang Xuecheng and Yuan Mei illustrated that the question of confining women to moral instruction or allowing them to fully express their poetic voices was not easy to reconcile.

The strongest aspect of the book, however, is not its account of official state policies or the debates of scholar-officials, but rather its sensitivity to the “extraordinary power of the written word in the hands of learned women” (p. 119). Demographic changes in the High Qing had expanded the market for female labor and reduced female infanticide, creating a more balanced sex ratio and increasing the chances for classical education for elite women. In this context, Mann treats seriously the agency of Qing women in creating their own identities. Published poetry anthologies like Wanyan Yun Zhu’s Correct Beginnings revealed erudite female voices with “enviable aesthetic autonomy in late imperial society” (p. 206). In addition, women as writers and workers derived social authority from their literary talents, and “the power of women’s writing and of women’s religious practice means that women themselves participated in the reconstruction of gender relations” (p. 222). Thus, Mann reacts sharply against scholarship that casts the Qing dynasty as “an era of unremitting female oppression” (p. 8 ) and shows instead that elite women in the High Qing had remarkable freedom and enjoyed a high degree of both education and social prestige.

One charge that has been leveled at this book is that it cannot possibly represent even half, much less all of the women in China in the long eighteenth century. “The contributions of this research are enormous, but it helps us to understand the lives of the poor majority only in the most tentative and indirect ways,” writes Matthew Sommer (Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China, p. 15). Indeed, Mann states from the outset that “Chinese women writers of this era were part of a tiny elite” (p. 4) concentrated mostly in the Lower Yangzi region. Thus, the other 99.9 percent of women in the late imperial period remain unaccounted for. That is perhaps an inevitable and unfortunate shortcoming of such a focused study. However, as an attempt to transcend the “male gaze” of traditional Qing biographies and recapture some of the educated “women’s own subjectivity,” this book is a valuable contribution to Chinese studies that one hopes will stimulate more research into the shifting gender dynamics of the late Qing period. In the words of one reviewer, Precious Records “should serve as a research guide for aspiring historians of Chinese women” (Cynthia Brokaw, JAS 58.2, May 1999).

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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