2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 137

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Self-Censorship in Women’s Writing

Organizer: Chengjuan Sun, Kenyon College, USA

Chair: Paul S. Ropp, Clark University, USA

Discussant: Paul S. Ropp, Clark University, USA

Self-censorship in women's creative efforts was a natural by-product of the suspicion with which direct displays of talent by women were viewed in traditional Chinese society. Women were known to edit and destroy their writings, or to refrain from working in genres usually reserved for men. Such acts of self-censorship are often regarded as the results of restrictions imposed upon women and blamed for the narrow scope and conventionality of women’s writing. Our panel aims to explore women’s self-censorship in terms of its productive effects, viewing it as an important strategy women writers employed to position their writing against repressive forces in a male-dominated world. Concerns over appropriateness and legitimacy did not necessarily stem creativity. By continually weighing what was most strategically advantageous in their navigation of these strictures, women writers were prompted to contemplate what a distinct literary tradition for women should look like and to create aesthetic and formal innovations. Focusing on discourses of gendered power, Rebecca Doran’s paper explores the (self)presentations of the women leaders of the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Wangling’s paper investigates poetry by ninth-century courtesans in light of their marginal registration. Chengjuan Sun’s paper examines an aesthetic of decorum created by elite women under attack at the turn of the 19th century. Xiaoxiang Luo’s study of Wang Zhenyi (1768-1797) reveals the relationship between self-censorship and class consciousness. Yanning Wang investigates the struggles and strategies of Ming-Qing women concerning talent, virtue, emotion and gender consciousness by examining their act of burning manuscripts.

The Voice of a Proper Lady: Aesthetic of Decorum in Xi Peilan’s Poetry
Chengjuan Sun, Kenyon College, USA

Xi Peilan’s (1760-ca.1829) poetry has a characteristic that one would hardly expect to find in the favorite student of Yuan Mei (1716-1797), the most controversial poet of that period known for his lax morality. Although she repudiated the repressive patriarchal prescriptions that women should remain benighted (shouzhuo) and ought not to seek literary fame, she only wrote of socially sanctioned feelings, and her poetry depicted herself as a perfectly proper lady, or even a paragon of womanly virtues. Such an overarching concern over appropriateness reflects her endeavor to offer a revisionist approach to Yuan Mei’s xingling (native inspiration) ideal, by wedding it to the orthodox teaching of Maoshi tradition, and more importantly it reveals a hidden agenda of her to distance women’s writing from a liberal worldview that Yuan enthusiastically advocates. This forms a sharp contrast with the poetic practice of her husband Sun Yuanxiang (1760-1829), also Yuan’s follower and her literary companion, who was a firm believer of the poetic autonomy and independence and left us with a sizeable collection of erotic poetry. By comparing her poems with those by her husband, by her teacher, and by her fellow lady students, the paper aims to examine how Xi Peilan self-consciously invents an aesthetic of decorum to legitimize women’s writing in the wake of the backlash against Yuan Mei and his support for women poets. Appropriating the moral high ground commonly employed in the genre of biographies of exemplary women, her poetry represents a creative way to overcome the anxiety of authorship by gentry women in the early nineteenth-century Jiangnan.

Attachment and Detachment: On Women Burning Manuscripts in Late Imperial China
Yanning Wang, Florida State University, USA

In late imperial China when women rapidly emerged and prospered in literary arena, they also had to deal with various issues when their talent met social, emotional, and spiritual ideals. Writing was viewed as controversial or even dangerous, and often was associated with the misfortune of a short life. In this cultural context, many talented women writers burned or claimed to burn their manuscripts entirely or partially, attempting to resolve a range of tensions associated with their writings. Through examining the poems and biographies by or on women, this paper argues that, on the surface, the act of burning detached women from their writing or literary bond. However, in reality, it reveals women’s strong bond with writing, which enabled some of their writings to be appreciated in private or public. On the one hand, women enthusiastically engaged in writing; on the other hand, they tried to protect themselves and their writings from social censorship while taking care of their emotional and spiritual needs. In their attempts to escape from the social and personal controversies through burning manuscripts, women became even more attached to their own writings. Burning manuscripts, together with the complex reality behind it, reflects women’s struggles and strategies in surviving the challenges concerning talent, virtue, emotion, and their increasing gender consciousness.

Fear Fame Just Like Fear Tiger': The Ambivalence of Wang Zhenyi
Xiaoxiang Luo, Nanjing University, China

Wang Zhenyi (1768-1797) was a talented daughter from a lesser gentry family of Nanjing. Her short life had some fascinating scenario: she travelled widely with her family and even learned horse-riding and arrow-shooting in Manchuria. She was not only masterful in classic learning but also delved deeply into mathematics, astrology, and medicine. Unfortunately, her humble background provided neither eminent patrons nor powerful family support to cultivate her fame as a talented woman. Her writings reflected the complicated inner world of this young woman. She longed for public acknowledgment but also “feared fame just like feared tiger”. She was proud of her idiosyncratic character but also painfully depicted herself as a modest and conservative woman. How to explain the ambivalence of this figure? By a close reading of Wang Zhenyi’s work, this essay tries to analyze the rationality behind. It argues that the self-censorship and conservative attitude in Wang Zhenyi’s writings were not simply forced compliance, but a strategy to promote her image as a serious scholar and thus differentiate herself from those “frivolous” women writers. Conscious about the class difference and her marginal position within the elite society, she tried to defend the legitimacy of educated women from humbler background. Wang Zhenyi’s case provides us a chance to know the life and mind of talented women from lesser gentry families, a social group that has been less studied.

(Self)Expression and Gendered Legitimacy: Projection of Identity in Late Seventh Century through Jinglong Era Literature
Rebecca E. Doran, Reed College, USA

My paper explores propaganda and (self)portrayals among women rulers in 7th and 8th century Tang China. This was a unique era in which court politics were dominated by women leaders, first Empress Wu, China’s only woman emperor, and, then, the “second generations,” including her daughter the Taiping Princess, daughter-in-law Empress Wei, and granddaughter the Anle Princess. I analyze the way in which these women leaders themselves wished to be rhetorically constructed, the images and allusions with which they desired to be figured, and the way in which they were rhetorically reconstructed by later writers after their deaths. I focus on the theme of auspiciousness, in particular, the definition of the “natural,” in relation to gender identity and power. We can gain insight into what themes and images supported the self-portrayals they desired to project through analysis of the prose and poetry which they wrote and which was written to their command by courtiers eager to please and well-versed in how to do so. The images evoked by Empress Wu, Shangguan Wan’er, and courtiers in their works of ritual writings, poetry, and prose suggest an overarching concern with the projection of harmony and cosmic sanction beyond the expected emphasis in court writings on the harmony of the state as opposed to governmental chaos or ineffectiveness. Empress Wu’s ceremonial works stress the unity and interpenetration of yin-yang, qian-kun, and other male-female pairings, suggesting her particular identity as a woman ruler and the special challenges this role entailed. Female imagery is deployed in late seventh and early eighth century works to create the image of a particular brand of far-reaching, generative power possessed and/or desired by the leaders of the time. Beyond revealing the images and allusions with which the female power-holders wished to hear themselves described and exalted, and what occasions were deemed worthy of exalting, these works offer a fascinating counterpoint to materials which retroactively defame this image. The rhetorical strategies and images later used to de-legitimate and denigrate these women’s power often represent opposite treatments of themes present in the court literature from the Zhou through Jinglong era. I aim to demonstrate what this means in terms of conceptualizations of female power as unnatural reversal. Reconstructions of these women’s identities as female power-holders indicate the prerogative of later writers to reshape their images in accordance with their own judgments, conceptualizations, and fears of female power.

Self-Censorship Bound to Marginal Registration: Courtesan Poetry from the Northern Quarter in Ninth-Century China
Jinghua Wangling, , USA

While the political and literary influence of court or elite ladies waned after the seventh century, courtesan poetry began to shed its unique light on women’s literary tradition in the subsequent two centuries. Compared to the women of proper families, female entertainers and semi-entertainer Taoist nuns of this period had more opportunities to interact with male literati and thus possessed more occasions for composition. Concentrating on Sun Qi’s (fl. 889) Records of the Northern Quarter, this paper investigates how the marginal registration of courtesans in the Northern Quarter caused their poetry to be functionally, thematically, and stylistically different from the verses composed by male literati or elite women. During the ninth century, registration or class was an important factor determining self-censorship, whether conscious or unconscious, in women’s writing. This paper also argues that for the courtesans in the Northern Quarter, writing poetry was not only a skill to increase their occupational value and attract or please their male literati clients, but also a way to assert their poetic voice in a literary world predominated by men. This voice was so distinct that writing poetry for a period of time was even marked as a skill that common women should not excel in.