In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women Poets and Authors in Late Imperial China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Chinese Studies Women Poets and Authors in Late Imperial China
Nanxiu Qian
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0209


One of the most exciting developments in the study of Chinese literature in late twentieth century has been the rediscovery of an extremely rich and diverse tradition of women’s writing of the imperial period (221 BCE–1911 CE). Only recently has the enormous literary output of women writers of the Ming and Qing periods (1368–1911) been rediscovered. That women’s writing in traditional China has needed to be rediscovered is caused by two problems. The first lies in its controversial nature: although women found a great venue in writing, poetry especially, to communicate their inner feelings and thoughts, publishing and leaving their writings to later generations did violate the Confucian gender demarcation that confined their voices to within the domestic domain. The second reflected their marginalization by late Qing reformists and the New Culture Movement. Proponents of both views stubbornly adhered to a rigid scheme of historical evolution, and designated late imperial women as oppressed or silenced, thus neglecting and/or suppressing women’s writing. The late imperial period alone left more than four thousand collections of women’s literary works. Together they provide us with moving insights into the lives and feelings of a surprisingly diverse group of women living in Confucian China, a society that perhaps more than any other is known for its patriarchal tradition. Many of these writings are of considerable literary quality. These poets include imperial ladies, gentry women, courtesans, Buddhist and Daoist nuns, as well as commoners such as farm wives. Some women wrote out of isolation and despair, finding in words a mastery that otherwise eluded them. Others were recruited into poetry by family members, friends, or sympathetic male advocates. Some dwelt on intimate family matters and cast their poems as addresses to husbands and sons at large in the wide world of men’s affairs. Each woman had her own reasons for writing poetry and her own ways of appropriating, and often changing, the conventions of both men’s and women’s verse. The primary purpose of this article is to put before the English-speaking reader evidence of the poetic talent that flourished, against all odds, among women in premodern China. It is also designed to spur reflection among specialists in Chinese poetry, inspiring new perspectives on both the Chinese poetic tradition and the canon of female poets within that tradition. The history of women writers in late Imperial China both connects with and departs from the established patterns for women’s writing in the West, thus complementing current discussions of “feminine writing.” This article looks into this grand matter in four sections, namely: General Overviews, Primary Sources on Women Authors, Studies of Women Authors, and Studies on Women and Gender as Historical Background. This bibliographical entry tries to provide in-depth perspectives into the study of late imperial Chinese women poets and authors through recent scholarship.

General Overviews

The earliest modern Chinese writing of “the history of Chinese women’s literature” appeared in the early Republic of China, represented by Xie 1916, Liang 1927, and Tan 1930. Xie continued traditional views on literature, separated from Tan and Liang by the May-Fourth literary debate. Although all three share the common goal of affirming gender equality and supporting women’s liberation, they are different in the specific connotation and implementation path of gender equality, corresponding to their academic generations. Furth and Lee 1992 provides the first Anglophone scholarship that called academia’s attention to the previously ignored rich resources of the writings by late imperial Chinese women. This special issue of the journal Late Imperial China samples how to approach these materials and showcases a collaboration of historians and literary scholars that has led to further interdisciplinary study in this field. Two book-length studies, Ko 1994 and Mann 1997, appeared soon afterwards, both by historians drawing upon women’s poetic works for their reconstruction and reconceptualization of Chinese historiography from the perspectives of women and gender. Ko 1994 challenges the May-Fourth paradigm that designated late imperial women as oppressed or silenced, arguing that, as writers, readers, editors, and teachers, these women created a rich culture and meaningful existence from within the constraints of the male-dominated Confucian system. Mann 1997 places women at the center of the High Qing era and shows how gender relations shaped the economic, political, social, and cultural changes of the age. Widmer and Chang 1997 expands the study from previously a handful of known women writers to several hundred rediscovered works by women. The authors not only enlarged the range of study but also enriched methodologies and approaches. The volume concludes with a chapter that relates the concerns of the other chapters to literary and feminist studies outside the China field. These four works led to a plethora of further studies. Idema and Grant 2004 explores Chinese women’s writings throughout the imperial period by translating selected texts in poetry, essays, letters, drama, religious writing, and narrative fiction, presenting them within their respective biographical and historical contexts and classifying them by themes. Fong and Widmer 2010 and Berg 2013 focus on women’s literary output, the former of the Ming and Qing periods (1368–1911), and the latter of the late Ming to the early Qing (1580–1700). They open up new critical space in Chinese literary history and offer new perspectives on China’s culture and society. Li 2014 demonstrates the Ming-Qing dynastic transition as an epochal event that reverberated in Qing writings and beyond; political disorder was bound up with vibrant literary and cultural production. Qian, et al. 2008 studies previously ignored roles of women in China’s reform era (1895–1912) when, for the first time in Chinese history, they emerged in public space in collective groups and demanded equal political and educational rights with men through both conventional and new literary genres published in news media.

  • Berg, Daria. Women and the Literary World in Early Modern China, 1580–1700. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203114223

    The sixteenth century brought rapid developments in technology, commerce, and the publishing industry that saw women emerging in new roles as both consumers and producers of culture, providing rich detail of exceptionally fine, interesting, and engaging literary works. This book opens fascinating new windows on to the lives, dreams, nightmares, anxieties, and desires of the authors and the world out of which they emerged.

  • Fong, Grace S., and Ellen Widmer, eds. The Inner Quarters and Beyond: Women Writers from Ming through Qing. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    This volume analyzes and theorizes the rediscovered literary output of Ming and Qing women writers that reflects the complexity of women’s experiences in the inner quarters and their varied responses to challenges facing state and society. Taking a truly interdisciplinary approach, it rewrites Chinese literary history and ends up illuminating the centrality of writing women to the social, political, and intellectual life of late imperial China.

  • Furth, Charlotte, and James Lee, eds. Special Issue: Symposium on Poetry and Women’s Culture in Late Imperial China. Late Imperial China 13.1 (1992).

    This special issue resulted from a meeting that brought together, for the first time in the Anglophone scholarly community, feminist researchers who explored writings by women poets and scholars working on women and gender issues in late imperial China. The collaboration of historians and literary scholars makes it possible to hear the literary “voices” of these women, and so to explore their intellectual and social worlds in new depth.

  • Idema, Wilt, and Beata Grant. The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1tg5kw2

    This anthology offers a glimpse of women’s writings throughout China’s imperial period (first century to 1911) by translating selected texts in poetry and other genres. The authors have presented the selections within their biographical and historical contexts and classified them by themes. This comprehensive approach helps to clarify traditional Chinese ideas on the nature and function of literature as well as on the role of the woman writer.

  • Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

    This pathbreaking work argues that literate women in 17th-century Jiangnan (South of the Yangzi River) were far from oppressed or silenced. As writers, readers, editors, and teachers, these women created a rich culture and meaningful existence from within the constraints of the male-dominated Confucian system, brought together by their shared love of poetry and common concerns as women through three types of women’s communities, domestic, social, and public.

  • Li, Wai-yee. Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1163/9781684170760

    This book focuses on the discursive and imaginative space commanded by women during the Ming-Qing transition. Women and men wrote in a feminine voice or turned women into a signifier to convey their lamentation, nostalgia, or moral questions for the fallen dynasty. This multivalent presence of women provides a window into the emotional and psychological turmoil of the Ming-Qing transition and of subsequent moments of national trauma.

  • Liang Yizhen 梁乙真. Qingdai funü wenxue shi (清代婦女文學史). Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1927.

    Liang, like Xie, focuses on mainstream genres of women’s works from the Ming-Qing transition to the late Qing, paying special attention to their substantial influence on the history of literature. He discusses the Qing inheritance of Ming women’s writing styles, and the causes of the growth and decline of women’s literature in the Qing. He also introduces the major Qing women’s poetry clubs and their close association with leading male literati of the time.

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

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503622517

    Drawing on one of the first anthologies of women’s poetry compiled by a woman, this first book-length study of gender relations in the Lower Yangzi region during the High Qing era (c. 1683–1839) examines not only literary sensibilities and intimate emotions, but also political judgments, moral values, and social relations. It thereupon challenges enduring late-19th-century perspectives that emphasized the oppression and subjugation of Chinese women.

  • Qian, Nanxiu, Grace S. Fong, and Richard J. Smith, eds. Different Worlds of Discourse: Transformations of Gender and Genre in Late Qing and Early Republican China. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

    During the late Qing reform era, women for the first time in Chinese history emerged in public space in collective groups. They assumed new social and educational roles and engaged in intense debates about the place of women in the present and the future. These debates found expression in new media, which encouraged experimentation with a variety of new literary genres and styles—works increasingly produced by and for Chinese women.

  • Tan Zhengbi 譚正璧. Zhongguo nüxing de wenxue shenghuo (中國女性的文學生活). Shanghai: Guangming Shuju, 1930.

    Tan’s book on the literary life of Chinese women prefers a May-Fourth approach to promote popular literature such as tanci or lyric storytelling, novels, vernacular and erotic literature.

  • Widmer, Ellen, and Kang-i Sun Chang, eds. Writing Women in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

    Until recently only a handful of women writers were thought to have existed in traditional China, but new scholarship has called attention to several hundred whose works have survived. Coming from the fields of literature, history, art history, and comparative literature, the fourteen contributors to this volume apply a range of methodologies to this new material and to other sources concerning women writers in China from 1600 to 1900.

  • Xie Wuliang 謝無量. Zhongguo funü wenxue shi (中國婦女文學史). Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1916.

    Xie systematically writes on the history of Chinese women’s literature from China’s antiquity to the Ming, focusing on traditionally mainstream genres such as poetry, prose, ci-lyric, and fu-rhyme prose, as well as letters, prefaces, epitaphs, and inscriptions. He cites representative works of each period and genre, attached with his insightful comments, and thus presents the evolution of Chinese women’s literature and confirms its indispensable position in the history of Chinese literature.

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