Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China

Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China

Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China

Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China


"Rejecting popular image and accepted scholarship on the status of women in premodern China, this pathbreaking work argues that literate gentrywomen in seventeenth-century Jiangnan 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. The author reconstructs the social, emotional, and intellectual worlds of these women from the interstices between ideology, practice, and self-perception. Born out of curiosity about how premodern Chinese women lived, this book proposes a new way to conceptualize China's past. This reconception rests on the premise that by understanding how women lived, we better grasp the dynamics of gender relations and gain a more complete knowledge of the values of Chinese culture, the functioning of Chinese society, and the nature of historical change. The book examines three types of women's communities that developed in this environment: domestic, social, and public. Women from different families, age groups, and social stations were brought together by their shared love of poetry and common concerns as women. Though important at the time, most of these ties proved fragile and transitory because of women's inherently ambivalent position. The author argues that the gender system identified women both by their shared gender, or women-as-same, and by their social station, or women-as-different. This contradiction accorded women freedoms within their own limited spheres, but these spheres were fragmented and often demarcated by the class of male kin. As a result, even the most mobile and articulate of women had no institutional means of launching fundamental attacks on the gender system." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Contrary to persistent gender stereotypes that relegated females to an intuitive and sentimental existence, educated women inhabited a world rich in both intellectual and emotional meaning. in fact, it was the act of reading that joined the cerebral and sentimental into a closed circle. in the preceding chapter, I offered an objective overview of the sociocultural position of the woman reader in the print culture of seventeenth- century Jiangnan; in this chapter I examine the subjective meaning of reading -- of dramas, poetry, and each other's works -- to the woman herself. in particular, I focus on the craze of women for The Peony Pavilion, a tribute to love by the great late Ming playwright Tang Xianzu, to illuminate two significant results of reading: how reading romantic fiction helped shape women's self-perceptions, and how women projected their self-perceptions onto pages of commentaries and poems, fueling a cult of qing among the reading public.

The Obsessive Reader: the Three Women's Saga

Ming and Qing women did not read to master a canonical tradition in order to compete in the civil service examinations, nor did they leaf through books casually just to pass the time. They read for edification, often with an intensity that bordered on fanaticism. Drama and other fictional works were particularly engaging, for they gave shape to the reader's aspirations while offering solace for the imperfections experienced in real life. From pages of fiction woman readers built their own floating worlds in which intellectual stimulation conjoined with emotional and religious gratification.

Specifically, the meanings that the obsessive female reader found in fiction and drama can be understood in four ways, as this chapter will . . .

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