Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China
256pp. May 2008
Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China
Author: Fong, Grace S.;
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title

"Grace Fong has written a wonderful history of female writers’ participation in the elite conventions of Chinese poetics. Fong’s recovery of many of these poets, her able exegesis and elegant, analytical grasp of what the poets were doing is a great read, and her bilingual presentation of their poetry gives the book additional power. This is a persuasive and elegant study." —Tani Barlow, author of The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism

"In this quietly authoritative book, Grace Fong has brought a group of women poets back to life. Previously ignored by scholars because of their marginal status or the inaccessibility of their works, these remarkable writers now speak to us about the sensualities, pains, satisfactions, and sadness of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Professor Fong—a superb translator of Chinese poetry, prose, and criticism—has rendered the works of these women in a way that is true both to our theoretical concerns and theirs." —Dorothy Ko, author of Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding

"Professor Fong approaches the poetry of Ming-Qing upper-class women as a social-cultural activity that allowed these women to manifest their agency and assert their own subjectivity against the background of virtual and actual networks of fellow female poets. As the distillation of more than ten years of research by one of the leading scholars in this field, this work is a timely contribution that eminently deserves our attention. Given the inclusion of translations of some of the texts discussed, the book provides a comprehensive introduction to the reading of women’s poetry of the Ming-Qing period." —Wilt Idema, Harvard University

Herself an Author addresses the critical question of how to approach the study of women’s writing. It explores various methods of engaging in a meaningful way with a rich corpus of poetry and prose written by women of the late Ming and Qing periods, much of it rediscovered by the author in rare book collections in China and the United States. The volume treats different genres of writing and includes translations of texts that are made available for the first time in English. Among the works considered are the life-long poetic record of Gan Lirou, the lyrical travel journal kept by Wang Fengxian, and the erotic poetry of the concubine Shen Cai.

Taking the view that gentry women’s varied textual production was a form of cultural practice, Grace Fong examines women’s autobiographical poetry collections, travel writings, and critical discourse on the subject of women’s poetry, offering fresh insights on women’s intervention into the dominant male literary tradition. The wealth of texts translated and discussed here include fascinating documents written by concubines—women who occupied a subordinate position in the family and social system. Fong adopts the notion of agency as a theoretical focus to investigate forms of subjectivity and enactments of subject positions in the intersection between textual practice and social inscription. Her reading of the life and work of women writers reveals surprising instances and modes of self-empowerment within the gender constraints of Confucian orthodoxy. Fong argues that literate women in late imperial China used writing and reading to create literary and social communities, transcend temporal-spatial and social limitations, and represent themselves as the authors of their own life histories.

2 illus., 3 maps

"As always with Professor Fong’s work, the strengths of [this book] lie in her lucid and jargon-free writing, and her commitment, shown through her years of careful archival research, to expanding our knowledge of the range of late imperial women’s writings and practices of writing. Professor Fong has honoured her subjects and graced us readers with the rare privilege of hearing these women speak in their own voices." —Pacific Affairs (83:2, June 2010)

"Fong is a sophisticated and careful reader, and she has written a literary history which is author-centered, which addresses the question ‘Why did she write poetry?’ rather than ‘How good is this poem?’ The audience for this terrific book should include not just scholars interested in Chinese women and literature, but those interested in questions of why people write and why people read. Not only has Grace Fong found new texts for us, she is showing us new ways of reading them." —Journal of Chinese Studies (50, 2009)

"Takes the discussion in an exciting new direction. . . . The greatest contributions of this book . . . are the introductions of various women writers and the translations into English of their compositions, many discovered by the author and not heretofore translated into English. . . . Essential." —Choice (November 2008)

Author: Fong, Grace S.;
Grace S. Fong is associate professor of Chinese literature at McGill University.
Read the introduction (PDF).


Chapter 1
A Life in Poetry: The Auto/biography of Gan Lirou (1743–1819)

Chapter 2
From the Margin to the Center: The Literary Vocation of Concubines

Chapter 3
Authoring Journeys: Women on the Road

Chapter 4
Gender and Reading: Form, Rhetoric, and Community in Women’s Poetic Criticism


Appendix 1
Gan Lirou’s "Narrating My Thoughts on My Sixtieth Birthday"

Appendix 2
Xing Cijing’s Summary of the Journey from Qian

Appendix 3
Wang Fengxian’s The Homeward Journey East