Engendering Lives: Women as Self-Appointed Biographers in the Qing Dynasty

School of Chinese Distinguished Lecture Series

Engendering Lives: Women as Self-Appointed Biographers in the Qing Dynasty

Speaker: Professor Grace S. Fong ( McGill University )

Moderator: Professor Shu-mei Shih

April 30, 2015 (Thursday), 4:30-6:00 pm
Room 436, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU

The recent rediscovery of a large corpus of women’s literary collections in the Qing dynasty offers unexpected materials for research and has opened up the space of critical inquiry into historical and cultural practices in late imperial China. However, women’s biographical writing remains a largely unexplored subject in this new field. Sanctified by its place in the dynastic histories early on, biography was an important form of writing serving both historiographical and commemorative functions throughout Chinese history. As the life and deeds of a person recorded and represented by another, biography both transmits knowledge of the deceased and exemplifies the authority and judgement of the biographer. The typical biographer was the scholar-literatus-official. In this study, I focus on an unexpected sample of biographies written by gentry-women to examine several issues on the tension between gender and biographical writing: How and why did women appoint or position themselves as biographers? What were the motivations behind this self-appointment? Did gender figure in their identity as biographers? Who were their biographical subjects? What generic norms and conventions did women appropriate or depart from when re-presenting the lives of their subjects? I suggest that women’s biographical practices signaled new forms of knowledge production and discursive authority, building “textual capital” that became a force in women’s transformation into increasingly self-directed subjects in the Qing dynasty.

Professor Grace S. Fong (方秀潔) is Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Studies, McGill University. Her research interests encompass classical Chinese poetry and poetics, the theory and practice of life writing, and women writers in late imperial China. She is director of the Ming Qing Women’s Writings digital archive and database project (http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/mingqing/) and editor of the Women and Gender in China Studies series published by Brill. Her recent publications include Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China (University of Hawaii Press, 2008); 《美國哈佛大學哈佛燕京圖書館藏明清婦女著述彙刊》 (廣西師範大學出版社, 2009), co-edited with Wilt Idema; and The Inner Quarters and Beyond: Women Writers from Ming through Qing (Brill, 2010), co-edited with Ellen Widmer (Chinese edition:《跨越闺门:明清女性作家论》北京大学出版社, 2014).