Rethinking the Late Qing Reforms from a Gender-Network Perspective

Danni Cai

Nanxiu Qian’s monograph offers a unique gender-network perspective to rethink the final years of the Qing Dynasty through the remarkable life of Xue Shaohui (薛紹徽1866–1911) and the reform-minded members of her glittering social and intellectual network. Qian takes explicit issue with the long-term understatement of Chinese women’s role in late-Qing sociopolitical and literary history.

This monograph characterizes Xue and other late Qing women as ‘active, optimistic, autonomous and self-sufficient agents of reform’ and distinguishes Xue’s reform ideal, the zhiren (至人perfected-person) or xianyuan (賢媛 worthy lady) model, from the predominant valorisation of the ‘patriarchal nationalism’ of their day (p. 9). Qian bemoans the loss of Xue’s eclectic approach for championing a cultural synthesis of the Confucian sage ideal and the Daoist zhiren ideal during the late-Qing era, as nationalism and revolution became the pressing themes of political life. She thus hopes that her case study of Xue not only raises questions about the received historical narrative of the late Qing, but also provides valuable resources for the study of late-imperial Chinese history.

Literary Practices and Companionate Marriage

Qian’s major contribution to this project is manifested first and foremost in her rigorous interpretation of Xue’s myriad works, which consist of approximately 300 poems, 150 song lyrics, and 20 parallel-prose essays, as well as her expository essays and translations of Western works. Among these literary genres, Qian calls special attention to poetry in light of its largely neglected status as a potential reform-era topic among present-day scholars of Chinese literary history. She argues that Xue inherited the time-honoured tradition of xianyuan, a chapter title of the New Account of the Tales of the World (世說新語) that refers to prominent women in the Wei-Jin era (220–420), as seen in Xue’s repeated references to the allusions from the New Account of the Tales of the World, such as Bamboo Grove aura (林風) and willow-catkin (柳絮). In addition, Qian’s analysis attempts to further Maureen Robertson and Charlotte Furth’s arguments about the relationship between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ perspectives. By incorporating wide-ranging forms of knowledge, such as the biographies of foreign women, scientific developments, and technological prowess, into her classical writings, Xue availed herself of the unprecedented opportunity to transform China steadily without disturbing the routine lives of ordinary people abruptly. Qian aptly points out that Xue attached equal importance to the traditional virtue and the new learning in her curricular proposals for women, (146–148) and Xue employed two literary forms to convey these new messages to Chinese readers: classical parallel prose and the less complex genre of quasi-vernacular fiction (p. 187). Xue’s open-minded and compatible position is interpreted as an embodiment of the resourceful zhiren/xianyuan model, a cultural outcome indebted to the profound interactions of multiple philosophical schools, including Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, as well as their hybrid variants Xuanxue (玄学) and Neo-Confucianism. This unique model metaphysically ‘focused on the concept of a powerful spiritual self-confronting a rapidly changing world’ and experientially ‘emphasized engaging and employing all relevant knowledge, regardless of the source, and remaining open to all possibilities’ (p. 265). Consequently, this inclusive model was conceivably applicable to the newly imported western ideals and concomitant Chinese reform agenda. In this sense, Qian unequivocally articulates Xue’s ingenious appropriation of traditional and modern capital for her own aspirations.

Another notable aspect of Xue’s life is her extensive connection with many prominent Fuzhou natives in modern China, including Yan Fu (嚴復 1854–1921), Chen Baochen (陳寶琛 1848–1935), Lin Shu (林紓 1852–1924), and Chen Yan (陳衍 1856–1937). These connections were probably ascribed to Xue’s companionate marriage with Chen Shoupeng (陳壽彭 1857–ca. 1928), a graduate of the Fuzhou Naval Academy. Though not as influential as his brother Chen Jitong (陳季同 1852–1907), Chen Shoupeng also had oversea traveling experience, first to Japan and later to Europe. In the years they were apart Xue suffered from Chen Shoupeng’s absence which actually stimulated her literary creations, which were not only reflected in her longing verses to her distant husband, but also in the new motifs inspired by the gifts and correspondence from the West. Xue’s literary career proceeded after Chen Shoupeng returned, as seen in their several collaborative projects of introducing western knowledge to Chinese audiences. Though they never lived a wealthy life, Xue and Chen Shoupeng’s conjugal life appears especially idealized when considering the marital life of Chen Jitong, who had at least one Chinese wife, two French wives, and two Chinese concubines. Qian speculates that Xue’s observation of the lonely life and untimely death of Chen Jitong’s first wife made Xue send a poem demanding the absolute loyalty of her husband in Europe. While idealizing the model of reciprocal monogamous love in marriage, Xue never publicly criticized the polygamous life of her brother-in-law Chen Jitong, instead, she had a harmonious relationship with his family. Through Xue’s life, Qian presents an arresting case study for readers to consider how gentry women in a time of transition perceived and practiced gender equality in their everyday family lives.

Questions on the Xianyuan Ideal and Xue’s Role as an Educator

The espousal of the xianyuan ideal, which gave rise to what Qian calls the ‘Min (閩) writing-women culture’ (pp. 16 and 40), is elaborated in the literary activities of women from a broader intermarriage network comprised of the Xu, Huang, Zheng, and Liang families in Fuzhou, where Xue was born and grew up, though, there is no direct evidence showing that these Fuzhou women writers were consciously in favour of the xianyuan ideal. A relevant concept that appears in Xue’s writings is the ‘famous ladies’ (名媛), which Qian takes as an equivalent to xianyuan without extrapolation (p. 30). Further, Qian’s usage of Min, which refers generally to the Fujian province, is a highly culturally diverse area and thus is not a wholly accurate concept since the territory she examines is mainly the Min river delta. Xue and members of her female network might have distinguished themselves from the despised model and borrowed ‘talented women of the distant and idealized classical past’ (才女)[i] to justify their literary composition. Yet, it remains inconclusive whether their sporadic efforts of adopting New Account of the Tales of the World allusions in their poems can be regarded as the formation of a fixed, new cultural identity.

To corroborate Xue’s significant contribution to late Qing reforms, Qian extends her analyses from Xue’s literary activities to her public engagements, such as her articles written for the newspaper endorsed by the Women’s Study Society (女學會) without requesting pay. But a closer look at Xue’s personal collection – Collected Poems and Other Writings of the Daiyun Chamber (黛韻樓詩文集) – complicates Xue’s image as an enthusiastic educator and journalist. According to Chen Shoupeng’s account, Xue rejected the invitation of taking charge of Chinese women’s journal, the Chinese Girl’s Progress (女學報), when they were in Shanghai and declined the offer of teaching at a female school in Suzhou in order to stay with her children in Fujian, the latter of which is also recorded in Xue’s own poem.[ii] In fact, most of her public engagements were likely in response to the calls of her renowned brother-in-law Chen Jitong, whose name was listed in the steering committee for establishing the first Chinese girls’ school.

Through her thorough study of Xue Shaohui, Qian successfully brings to light a talented woman of the late Qing who has otherwise been forgotten by history. Although Qian perhaps overstates Xue’s commitment to the reform agenda, it is still impressive to see how Xue lent her voices to many pressing issues in her elevated classical writings, such as women’s education, science, and technology, as well as many astounding events of her day, such as the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, the Hundred Days’ Reform, the Boxer Rebellion, and the implementation of the ‘New Policies’. Apart from her clear narrative structure and absorbing analysis of Xue’s network, Qian’s accurate translation of Xue’s poetry across diverse topics will certainly promote the English-language study of Chinese literature and, in particular, furnish a new window into Chinese women’s writings.

[i] Joan Judge, Reforming the feminine: Female literacy and the legacy of 1898, in Rebecca E. Karl and Peter Zarrow (eds) Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002, 164.
[ii] Chen Shoupeng 陳壽彭, 亡妻薛恭人傳略 (A brief biography of my late wife, Lady Xue), 1911,, accessed 23 October 2018; and Xue Shaohui 薛紹徽, 外子書言有人欲延余入蘇州主講女學走筆答之 (A reply to my husband’s letter regarding an offer for me to teach women’s learning in Suzhou), 1911,, accessed 23 October 2018.