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The Talented Women of the Zhang Family by Susan Mann.

June 1, 2012

The talented women of the Zhang family by Susan Mann.   Berkeley: University of California Press, c2007.

A fascinating history of three generations of fascinating women writers in 19th century China.  It is a well-researched and innovatively presented book for novices as well as experts in Chinese women’s history.

Susan Mann has introduced us a women’s culture I hadn’t known existed, one in which “talented women,” as they were known, wrote and published poetry.  At the same time they were mothers and wives holding their families together while their scholar husbands/fathers studied for exams and served in remote government offices.  In this dual role, they were an essential part of late imperial China.

Mann focuses on six of these women; Yaoqing, her four daughters, and one of her granddaughters, a family in the western sense of the word, but with different surnames and family distinctions for Chinese.  The Zhang family was from Changzuoh, a prosperous town situated in rich farmlands of lower Yangzi River valley. This region was home to other educated women, many of them, like the Zhang women, wives and daughters of the men who studied, took exams, and joined the civil service network which governed the country.  Among these families, women did not necessarily leave their family homes when they married.  In fact, two of the Zhang daughters married men who became part of the family in which their brides had been raised.

The women of the Zhang family were members of an intellectual and political elite, but not always a social or economic one.  Their lives were broken by illnesses, economic hardships, and deaths.  Before husbands and fathers passed exams and received governmental appointments, the women of the family were often hard-pressed to support themselves.  As young girls, the Zhang daughters, for example, did fancy embroidery to sell.   Because of the frequent absences of men, mothers took own extensive roles in educating their children, even in teaching them classical Chinese literature.  The Zhang girls grew up in a household where word games and poetry writing went on constantly.  One person would write a poem and send it to another family member who would write a response and send it on to the next.  In the second generation, the Zhang son established a household where he lived with his wife and children along with two of his sisters and their husbands and children.  This family was memorialized in a painting where couples in three different rooms are writing such linked poems. (See image above) Poetry writing and publication was a family affair.

Ann Mann is a fine historian who pushes at the edge of her discipline in writing about her research.  In alternating sections she tells the women’s stories in two voices.   In one, she is primarily a storyteller, giving an accurate account drawn from the family’s writings, but not afraid to supplement it with speculation here and there.  In a manner more typical of traditional Chinese histories, she “sets the stage” for the people and events she has researched.  She claims that thinking of her material in this way has deepened her insight into it.  Once she has told the stories, she moves back into her role as traditional western historian providing detailed analysis of situations, comparisons and larger context.

The impact of this dual method is impressive.  Although I knew next to nothing about Chinese history, Mann was able to lead me into the heart of her stories very quickly.  By the time she discussed the impact of the Taiping Rebellion, I already understood how it had affected individual family members and could grasp what she said about its other effects.

As an historian, Mann discusses the women’s lives and writings.  She points to their silences around topics like foot-binding and sexuality.  In addition to the women censoring themselves, their writings were published by the male members of the family who would not have approved sensitive topics or emotions.  The women did, however, write explicitly about political topics.  The Zhang daughter whose marriage took her to Beijing wrote politically and viewed herself as a classic “woman warrior” defending her country.  She also mentored younger women writers.

Women’s roles were key in the scholarly families that held local governmental authority.  Although money is only obliquely mentioned in the families’ writings, it was often women who were responsible for finding and managing the families’ resources.  Women had their own money from dowries and often were the means by which money was given to a family from mothers and aunts.  In the Zhang family, women also sometimes earned money through sewing or from practicing the calligraphy developed by their father.   For cultivating financial support for their families, women were credited as being “virtuous.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese imperial system had been weakened.  Western ideas, including Christianity, were squeezing out old ways and the opportunities for “talented women” were diminishing.  Reformers, wanting to push aside existing traditions as worthless, sneered at their poetry as decadent.  In the twentieth century Chinese women would seek to be equal to men, rather than finding an influential role as members of important families.

As I read, I realized how as a naïve American, I still harbored the reformers’ views of Chinese women stuck in a dismal past, a view I probably first heard as a child from missionaries who had lived in China.   I am grateful to Mann for correcting my misconceptions.

I heartily recommend this book to many readers: to those interested in women’s history in China, or globally, or in how historians provided us images from the past.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    June 3, 2012 5:19 pm

    This sounds fascinating! I would love to learn about how women used their influences in different cultures around the world, and it seems like the system in China is very foreign to any that I have seen. Glad you unearthed this book!

  2. June 4, 2012 6:07 pm

    Yes, it is fascinating. I am interested in the different ways women in different societies, past and present, live, and I often chose books about that to read and review, in addition to dabbling in other types of reading.

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