ONE EVENING IN THE MID NINETEENTH CENTURY in a large house in southeastern China, a young girl excitedly looked over the poem she had just finished. Its title was "Red Plum." She ran to show it to her father, who, in response, took up his brush and wrote a poem of his own. He then showed both poems to the child's mother, who was in bed. The mother arose and wrote yet another poem, which was brought to the room of her brother, whose family was one of three residing in this spacious abode. After receiving his sister's poem, the brother took up a brush as well, added his own version, and sent the papers on to yet another sister. "At dawn," writes Susan Mann in The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, "they were still up writing poems to each other while the maid ran back and forth and the house rang with laughter."
The city was Changzhou - home to many scholars and remarkable for the unusually learned women to be found among its leading families. The Zhangs were a celebrated example. One particularly gifted generation boasted four talented daughters, three of whom became published poets and the fourth a noted calligrapher.
Artists are not often associated with domestic serenity, which makes literary families such curious cells of inspiration and psychology. Take the Brontes, whose literary talents developed in private amidst the hothouse conditions of youth and siblinghood. In contrast, the Zhang sisters and their offspring benefited from an elaborate social network characterized by guixiu, or genteel women. In this wider society, literary production was both feminine adornment and high art. Home workshops published poetry under proprietary imprints such as Pale Chrysanthemum Studio or Green Scholar Tree Studio, two names associated with the Zhangs' "publishing house." Young girls were raised on word puzzles and rhyming games. The four sisters of the Zhang family, in order of their birth, were Qieying, Guanying, Lunying, and Wanying. The eldest and the youngest siblings were brothers. The first, Juesun, died, still a young man, in 1803, possibly the result of medical incompetence, spurring his father to take up medical studies as a "literati physician." The youngest, Yuesun, was eventual editor of his sisters' work and husband of another talented woman, Bao Mengyi.
Wang Caipin, the young girl who set off a torrent of verse with her "Red Plum," was a noted prodigy, born in 1826, among the next generation of Zhang family cainii, or "talented women" - a direct translation of the Chinese term. In later poems she commented on the effects of the devastating Taiping Rebellion, the defining, calamitous fourteen-year uprising that claimed twenty million lives, including twenty thousand in Changzhou. In her poem "Moved by Events," whose title echoes that of a poem written a generation earlier by her aunt, she poses a series of blunt, ironic questions (e.g., "Whose dead bodies, wrapped in horsehide, are pledged to die for our country?") about the origins and rapid spread of the rebellion, building to a sly, circumspect accusation of the country's failed leadership: "Since ancient times, good governance has rested upon agriculture and sericulture." In paraphrase: From food and silk came peace.
Wang Caipin's poetry was an anomaly even among cainii. Mann emphasizes the trouble she had reconciling "her conviction that she was talented . . . with her fate as a young woman." Imagining her way into Caipin's experiences, the author dramatizes the female poet's existence in a society dominated by the learning and talents of men: "Truly, . . . this is what they mean when they talk about how poetry can compromise a woman's moral convictions. Her feelings for her mother and her celebration of her mother's wifely devotion had all vanished. She was in love with her art. She had never felt so amoral."
The 2005 painting Linking Verse across Adjoining Rooms, by Chinese-born Hong Zhang, who resides in the United States, depicts the collective efforts of the Zhang siblings. …