Yanning Wang. Reverie and Reality: Poetry on Travel by Late Imperial Chinese Women. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. 206 pp. ISBN978-0-7391-7983-3 (hardback).
Thanks to scholarly efforts over the past two decades, we have now rediscovered the vibrant literary culture of women in late imperial China (circa 1500-1900), a literary past summarily forgotten during the process of modernization at the turn of the twentieth century. We now know that many educated women were extremely active in reading and writing poetry, the most important literary genre in Chinese history. It is even more exciting to see that their thematic range is as wide as the poetry by male literati who had a much longer history of and better access to the practice.
Travel is one of the popular themes that emerges from the rich corpus of women’s poetry, and Yanning Wang has chosen a particularly interesting angle for her study. Women’s poetry on travel is interesting because of the irony that, unlike men, women were not allowed to travel. According to the gender norms prescribed in the Confucian classics, a woman’s place was defined as being within the domestic/inner sphere. Travel beyond the home for women was allowed only under extraordinary circumstances. Thus, when women wrote about travel, they were writing about extraordinary experiences. Many of them inevitably brought into their poetry a gendered perspective, expressing their feelings about travel as a woman. By focusing her book on women’s travel poetry, Wang provides an insightful exploration of women’s gendered approach to writing about travel in particular and to poetry in general.
The depth of Wang’s insight is reflected not only in her choice of subject but also in the structure of the book in two parts, “Reverie” and “Reality.” Although “recumbent travel” was also part of men’s experience, traveling by imagination was more often than not the female reality. Wang devotes two chapters to depicting women’s imagined travels. Chapter 1 examines poems on “recumbent travel” by means of painting and written texts that describe landscapes and journeys. Chapter 2 discusses women’s youxian shi (poetry on roaming as a transcendent), an established subgenre depicting travel to the lands of the immortals, mostly the Daoist realm. On these vicarious travels, Wang’s discussion demonstrates how women poets used the power of their minds to transcend the limitations and difficulties of reality. As she suggests, the image of female immortals with which the women poets identify “represents the collective consciousness of Qing women who were fully aware of the restraints and predicaments that women faced in the world, and that an individual was often too weak to change the prevailing social norms. Under such circumstances, self-cultivation becomes an essential path, if not to change the world, then at least to change one’s ability to deal with the world and to provide a new outlook” (p. 57).
Part II, “Reality,” consists of three chapters, in which the author explores three important aspects of women’s actual travel experiences. Chapter 3 records “women’s footprints beyond the inner quarters.” Here the author surveys a range of circumstances under which women traveled: following male family members, visiting the natal family, escorting corpses, exile, and, perhaps the two examples most likely to be volitional, pilgrimages and visiting poet friends. Distant travel for a literary gathering was, in particular, a late imperial phenomenon. Wang’s chapter touches on all typical travel situations depicted by late imperial Chinese women. Chapter 4 focuses on the case of Gu Taiqing, a Manchu woman poet. It appears that the author wanted to include in her study a case of a woman with an ethnic background different to those of other female poets/travelers. Although it is not apparent that Gu’s ethnic identity creates significant textual differences in her poems on travel, the chapter still makes a good case study of an individual woman’s rich record of traveling in poetry. Chapter 5 moves on much further in both time and space to explore the case of Shan Shili’s international travel, a case that might have been possible only in the late Qing, when China was undergoing unprecedented historical changes. At that time, women were called on to step out of the inner chambers and even to study abroad.
Wang’s book is well-conceived and structured. Her translations of the poems cited in the book are accurate and felicitous, and her interpretations are revealing. To sum up, the book is a fine piece of scholarly work that builds on previous scholarship and enriches our understanding of late imperial Chinese women’s lives and literary achievements.
(Li Xiaorong, University of California, Santa Barbara)