China Beat Archive



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January 27, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright January 27, 2008. Used by permission.


Two new English-language books by two of my favorite scholars in Chinese women’s studies are not to be missed: Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, and Harriet Evans’ The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China. Harkening to Margery Wolf’s foundational concept of the “uterine family” (see Wolf’s Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan), both works explore Chinese culture and history through the lives of women and their relationships with their sisters, mothers, daughters, and aunts.

Best known for her 1997 book, Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century, whose arguments rely on a more literal and textual analysis of elite women’s poetry, in this work Mann has taken a new direction. She provides a creative reading of the poems, essays, and letters that passed between seven women in three generations of the erudite and prestigious Zhang family of nineteenth-century Changzhou (a city located between Nanjing and Shanghai). The book is as smooth as a novel, but readers like me who trust Mann’s research know that she fills in the gaps with the talent and creativity of a historian-cum-sleuth, who first reads late Qing gynecological health manuals and then deduces that Tang Yaoqing’s aunt probably told her about the importance of women’s orgasm to conception (especially of a son!) in the weeks before her wedding.

Charting their lives through the Taiping Rebellion, Hundred Days’ Reforms, first Sino-Japanese War, and up to the eve of the Boxer Uprising, Mann shows that the oft-neglected “talented woman” (cainü) of late imperial China was a direct link to the much-celebrated “new woman,” despite Liang Qichao’s hyperbolic claim that these genteel ladies were late nineteenth-century China’s principal source of cultural backwardness and national shame. She therefore crafts a potent argument for cultural continuity across the empire-nation divide.