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Women’s learning and women’s writing in China’s High Qing dynasty was a reincarnation of classical thought of the woman’s role in society championed throughout China’s earlier dynasties, but lost during the eighteenth century. Women’s writing, and poetry in particular, gave elite women during this time a route through which they could transcend the inner chambers, and even influence matters in the external realm. The scholarly Chinese woman during the High Qing era were championed through two opposing views; one which sought the moral instructress who was diligent in her role as a spouse, and the other view which epitomized the child prodigy and the naïve creativity of women, the willow catkin view. Both of these models for women were designed by the male scholars, Zhang Xuecheng and Yun Zhu respectively. These men sought to reconcile the qualities of the present day women with the societal norms of the Qing dynasty and the scholarly heroines of China’s past.

The classical revival which took place during China’s eighteenth century stimulated men and women scholars to reexamine ancient texts, and to uncover within historical records, what was the woman’s role in society. This interest was in part affected by the frustrated scholar, whose knowledge of Confucian virtues during this time did not guarantee him passing the Civil Service Exam. Also responsible for interest in women’s learning and writing was the emergence of prominent women writers from the elite society. Texts of particular interest were the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites, and to a lesser extent, the Spring and Autumn Annals. These three Confucian classics revealed the moral behavior for which women were expected to embody. In accordance, Women were expected to dwell internally in the inner chambers of her household, to morally uphold her husband, and to incorporate moral values into her children. The Book of Rites also revealed how women should behave, addressing the chaste widow, suicide, and women’s marital and funeral rites in accordance to Confucian virtues.

Women mannerisms that were revealed through the classical revival did not wholey agree with the present day norms of China’s eighteenth century. Many male scholars in particular viewed examples of empowered, erudite women as inconceivable or lewd. Some went as far as to discredit the sources, and to attribute collections of women’s poetry as having been written by men who used a female pseudonym for added effect. Not only were scholars unable to come to terms with the prominent women figures found throughout China’s history, but also many of the Confucian ideas conflicted with conventional norms of the Qing dynasty. For example, the chaste widow was seen as the exemplary model for women during the High Qing era; she was virtuous because she upheld her deceased husband’s honor and continued to solitarily support his family. Women’s work was stressed and education was viewed as necessary only for the education of her sons and to manage household finances. Within Confucian texts and historical records however, scholars found that women were participating without the household and the erudite woman knowledgeable in Confucian ideals was exemplified. A Woman’s education was not merely for the education of her sons or for finance, but also to expand her creative prowess. A widow’s chastity was appropriate under average conditions, but if conditions were unkind or harsh or proper rites were not observed, the woman was not expected to remain chaste. Such ideas brought forth by the classical revival challenged the woman’s role in eighteenth century society. Scholars were reminded of China’s historical society and became confronted with reconciling the past with the present.

The eighteenth century scholar, Zhang Xuecheng, reevaluated the classical texts in order to resolve this conflict. During the High Qing era, upper class women were held within the inner chambers of their household; they performed the chores and duties of a wife in their husband’s household. As young girls, they practiced these tasks, preparing themselves for the day that they would be betrothed to their future husband. And it was not till they reached their elderly years, and had a daughter-in-law, did they retire to more self-indulging activities. This was the current setting from which Zhang Xuecheng’s perspective originated from and in which he himself grew up in; one where women were seldom seen or heard in the public realms and much less any presence of women’s writing and poetry. Thus, the mention of past history where women’s writing and the appreciation of it was contrary to the Qing dynasty’s baffled him. In his research, Zhang came across characters such as the Han historian, Ban Zhao, and the five, learned Song sisters who were advisors to the Tang court. These female figures represented the epitome of the scholarly figure, one who was knowledgeable in Confucian ideals, familiar with the Book of Odes and the Book of Rites, and one who was a prominent and influential person in history; yet these persons were women.

Ban Zhao was perhaps the penultimate figure of women’s learning in Chinese history and most certainly that of the moral instructress model. An advisor to the Han palace, author of the text Instructions for Women, and influential in completing the Han dynasty’s historical records, she was quite accomplished in her own rights. She was the precursor of many of China’s learned women who would follow her, and the teacher to the empress Deng. As a widow dedicated to learning and teaching the Confucian ideals, she somehow also fit the chaste model that was so highly acclaimed during the Qing dynasty. Therefore, it is not so adverse to think that or to understand why Ban Zhao was agreeable to Zhang’s view of a woman’s model. She was a strong and powerful moral instructress. The five Song sisters, similarly, were admired by Zhang Xuecheng. The sisters and especially the two, Song Ruohua and Song Ruazhao, were acclaimed for their knowledge of the classical texts. They were advisors to the court and to the emperor during the Tang dynasty. These sisters who parallel Ban Zhao from a historical perspective, fit naturally into Zhang’s model of the moral instructress.

It was the opinion of Zhang Xuecheng that the ideal woman was the moral instructress, as was found in Ban Zhao and the five Song sisters. He was able to accommodate this model into the High Qing era by allowing that women should be scholarly, yet her writing was to be done from the inner chambers, and she should exemplify family learning, the teaching of righteous morals to her lineage.

Also prominent in historical texts were women poets. From this stand point arose the Qing scholar Yuan Mei. He championed this model and figures who embodied it, and most of all, the woman poet Xie Daoyun. Xie was one of the poets during the Six Dynasties era. She was claimed to be a child prodigy knowledgeable in the use of Confucian ideas in her prose. As texts tell, as a child she was given a challenge by an uncle to describe in couplet, the scene as snow began to fall outside. Her cousin first replied, “Could it be salt shaking down through the air?” Xie then replied with her own verse, “More like willow catkins tossed up by the wind.” Her elegant composition displayed her poetic abilities at a young age; her abilities delighted her elders and usurped her male counterparts. To Yuan Mei, such a prodigy as Xie Daoyun represented spontaneity, simple diction, and a child’s pure emotion.

However, these two dualistic models of the female writer, the moral instructress and the willow catkin, represented some difficulty. As It could not be reconciled to Zhang Xuecheng, who became an ardent opponent of the women’s poetry and of Yuan Mei and his model for a scholarly woman. He repeatedly criticized the validity of sources in the historical texts, claiming that it was impossible for a woman especially one of such young age to be able to spontaneously compose poems that are far beyond the abilities of male scholars way beyond her age. He did not believe that women’s poetry was an accurate transmission of Confucian ideas and did not hold a place in society during the Qing dynasty. He also argued that such poems which pronounced a woman’s true feelings were not possible, pointing out the paradox that, “the promiscuous among them would never expose themselves in this way, and the chaste among them would never be so open.” Zhang thus claimed that women’s poetry was nothing but the poems written by male authors who had used female pennames for added effect, as a way of narrating from the first person perspective of a woman. Zhang’s inability to accept the model for which Yuan Mei so vehemently promoted, and the phenomenon of woman poets such as Xie Daoyun, came from the ingrained model of societal norms of the High Qing. Not to say that he was closed minded, but rather that he struggled to merge the established doctrine of woman’s behavior in High Qing society with those he uncovered in the classical revival.

Both Ban Zhao and Xie Daoyunn were able to transcend from the inner chambers of a woman’s realm into the public realm dominated by men. Both became powerful in their own right, evoking pupils and transmitting their writings into the classical texts, they influenced both the men and women of their eras. Both were scholars of Confucian texts, drawing inspiration from the Book of Odes and the Book of Rites; and through writing, transmitted Confucian ideas and themselves into Chinese history. With such parallels, these two dualistic models and scholarly figures may be reconciled with each other. As for a resolution between the model women from the High Qing period and those of the Han and Tang dynasties and the Six Dynasties period, there resides a subtle resemblance between the modes of women from each of these two time periods. Women tied into the elite society during the High Qing era were able to display both the roles of moral instructress and poetess. While young, girls in elite society had the opportunity to learn from classical texts so that they could uphold proper Confucian moral values and so that when they grew up, they would be prepared to teach their own progeny. They were taught calligraphy and poetry. It was at this age where the child prodigy had an opportunity to emerge. Once married, the woman was expected to work, but also to perform the role as the moral instructress. A wife should have a moral influence on her husband and she is responsible for maintaining household finances and for the family teaching, the education of her children of Confucian moral values. Here, a similar parallel may be drawn connecting the models championed by Qing scholars to the women of the High Qing period.

The trend of women’s learning and writing which emerged in China’s High Qing dynasty was a reincarnation of women’s values the championed throughout China’s earlier dynasties. The erudite women, Ban Zhao and Xie Daoyun, from the Han Dynasty and the Six Dynasties period were recognized and championed as models for the moral instructress who was diligent in her role as a spouse, and the child prodigy with the naïve creativity, the willow catkin. During the classical revival their names were brought forth by the two scholars, Zhang Xuecheng and Yun Zhu. The apparent prominence of these two figures left the parallel to Qing societal norms to be disputed. But by understanding the subtle similarities between women’s roles between the two time periods, one may recognize the shifts connecting the scholarly heroine of the past and the present-day women during China’s High Qing era.