"Zhang history as recorded here is somewhat unconventional," author Susan Mann advises in the prologue to her remarkable book, The Talented Women of the Zhang Family. "In Chinese it would be called a waishi, meaning a history that is slightly outré or out of bounds. …Although most of the stories in this book come directly from the Zhang family records some of what you will read is my own conjecture and invention."
In this unconventional history, Mann structures each chapter first as an engaging narrative and then concludes with a shorter section of commentary, The historian says. "Here I have followed a central tenet of Chinese historical writing, which strives to bring to life people from the past with their feelings, words, and deeds intact. My comments as the historian, which follow each section … attempt to honor both the style and the critical standards set nearly two millennia ago by the great Han historian Sima Qian."
From a narrative section comes the following description of a Zhang woman at her calligraphy: "[Lunying] used thick, heavy brushes and viscous ink on large surfaces. Her scrolls were monumental … every massive stroke flawlessly placed, each character perfectly balanced, the completed phrase precisely in harmony… It required utter concentration and meticulous planning, as well as powerful physical force." This is a particularly thrilling portrait of a guixui ("genteel lady") of nineteenth-century China but other passages also expand our understanding of women’s engagement in their writing as well as the artistry they brought to traditional handicrafts.
Among the talents Tang Yaoqing (1763-1831) brought with her when she married into the Zhang family was a "nearly encyclopedic mastery of the whole corpus" of the great Tang and Song era poets. In part, this achievement can be traced to her upbringing in Changzhou, a town in an area of southeastern China known as a preeminent center for women’s learning. It was the kind of place where, upon arriving with a family of one boy and four girls, "Yaoqing and her husband reveled in the congratulations that flowed their way on their return home with four daughters, for Changzhou people loved baby girls."
Though attached to an elite and educated family, the large household was chronically short of resources. During her husband’s long absences from home as he studied to move up in government service, it was Yaoqing who arranged ways to fulfill a host of necessary obligations. In her commentary, Mann makes clear the kind of financial management strategies that would have been available to a woman of the time, from fostering social reciprocities to portioning out dowry resources to capitalizing on the value of her silk embroideries.
After telling the story of Yaoqing, the narrative folds back to set forth the lives and circumstances of the second and third generations, starting with the childhood of the eldest of the four daughters, Zhang Qieying (1792-after 1863). Here in particular, the family’s literary pursuits are detailed, as Qieying’s passion for learning revives her mother’s spirit for poetry and, in turn, involves the others. "Networks of intellectual and personal friendship … joined them with other writers, both male and female, who took an interest in their work and saw to its circulation and critical acclaim."
The family’s practice of composing poems in a chain of response to each other, and their good life together inspired a grateful brother in 1840 to commission a handscroll painting to be called "Linking Verses Across Adjoining Rooms." The painter was asked to create the illusion that the three couples pictured "had adjacent studios, harmoniously attached in a linked fashion." Full color plates inside present both the entire scroll and details of each of its panels.
Notable for a scholarly title from a university press, the book includes a wealth of reader-friendly touches, beginning with a section of useful maps, a genealogical chart (including a place for the mysterious Miss Fa’s entry into the family), and color illustrations, concluding with a condensed Zhang family chronology, Chinese language appendices, a bibliography, and an excellent index.
Summing up her work, Mann writes, "As they tell their stories across three generations, the Zhang women whose lives fill this book also show us how changes in nineteenth-century China—changes wrought by war, colonialism, economic crisis, and political strife—affected women’s consciousness, their life chances, and what they chose to write about."
This unconventional history is scholarly, engaging, and exhilarating to discover.
Reviewed by Bridget Boylan