Grace Fong, professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Studies at McGill University, talks with Choice about Ming Qing Women’s Writings, a digital archive consisting of women’s writings from the Ming and Qing dynasties in China.
How would you describe the project to a perfect stranger?
Ming Qing Women’s Writings is an open-access, online digital archive currently containing 320 collections of poetry, essays, verse novels, and other genres written by women in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. These writings bear witness to a flourishing women’s culture in late imperial China rediscovered only in recent decades. They provide rich windows into women’s personal lives and experiences, giving us fascinating details, nuances, and affective dimensions that are absent in official histories and other formal records. The digital archive is supported by a robust database accessed through the website and enables a wide variety of inquiries.
What is the intended audience of Ming Qing Women’s Writings? The project’s introduction states that “Chinese women’s writings constitute a significant resource for ground-breaking research.” What research fields do you envision benefitting from this collection?
The Ming Qing Women’s Writings collection is intended for an audience with knowledge of literary Chinese, such as graduate students, researchers, and teachers who are interested in Chinese culture and society from a gender perspective. Advanced academics and graduate students in the fields of literature, women’s autobiography, social and cultural history, and subfields such as book history and family, among other humanities disciplines, will find exceptional materials and data to work with. For example, depending on the research questions, the subject of how women writers’ life histories are constructed between their own writings and those of others about them can shed light on issues ranging from questions of authorship, representation, and genre to women’s roles and identity in shifting family and gender relations in late imperial China. They also provide robust data for comparative period and regional analysis in the geographical spread of women’s education and publishing, and more broadly to printing and book history. But really, readers who enjoy poetry and life writing will find an abundant repertory of writings by and about women for their delectation.
How did the archive come to be? Was there one overarching question or goal that catalyzed its creation?
Once their hidden survival in rare book libraries in China became known to feminist historians and literary scholars doing research on women’s history and literature, the overwhelming concern was how to make these amazing works accessible to the research community at large. I was one of those scholars combing through old, fraying rare book catalogs in libraries in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou during hot summer trips in the 1990s. Conditions were far from ideal, the process was slow, the bureaucracy frustrating, and results were unpredictable. Some books were already worm-eaten—yes, by real bookworms—or badly damaged by water and other traumas, others were so coated with mold and dust that they triggered my hyper-allergic reactions, and still others could not be located. But it was then also the dawning of the digital age, which ultimately provided effective tools for research and preservation.
This project is made possible by a large-scale collaboration with Harvard-Yenching Library, Peking University Library, Sun Yat-sen University Library, National Library of China, and East China Normal University Library. Tell me more about the process of collaborating with these libraries.
After Harvard-Yenching Library, the challenge was to seek further funding and to secure the willingness of libraries in China to join the digitization project. Between 2008 and 2013, I was successful in applying to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the International Opportunities Fund and then the Partnership Development Grant to collaborate with the libraries of Peking University and Sun Yat-sen University to digitize collections of women’s writings in their rare books holdings. The director of the important China Biographical Database project, Professor Peter Bol at Harvard, now Vice Provost of Advances in Learning, joined as partner in the project. Our collaboration built interoperability and enhanced the biographical data of both databases. Since 2013, the project has expanded with the collaboration of the National Library of China under the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation. More than 200 collections from the National Library are in the process of being added to the digital archive and website. Our other partner, East China Normal University in Shanghai, has been sending graduate students annually to McGill to train in data analysis and inputting.
Although the database encompasses an immense amount of poetry and other writings, it is well organized and has an impressive user interface that allows a visitor to search the collection using seventeen different indexes and a variety of filters. Can you tell me more about how one might go about navigating the site?
In each phase of development, with support from the digital services team at McGill University Library, we have modified and improved the search interface as well as the back end—the data entry interface where several “generations” of graduate student assistants at McGill and now also from East China Normal University have done the vital work of populating the database by analyzing the texts and inputting the data. For example, when inputting the title of a piece of writing, the student assistant has to determine its genre or subgenre: for a prose piece, whether it’s a preface, epitaph, letter, postscript, and so on; for a poem, they need to identify which of the classical poetic forms the poem belongs to. Therefore, these student assistants are well trained in literary and formal analysis. The fruits of their work over the years constitute the data generated when one uses the browse indexes and search functions on the search interface.
The browse indexes give results for each category for the entire database. For example, if one wants to know how many women wrote prefaces to their own collected works, one only has to click on Prose Genres, then 自序 (zixu), and a list of forty-two self-prefaces with the author and collection identified for each will be generated. The user can proceed to read them or, with the downloadable Access database we began to provide in the last two years, the user can build queries to get specific information from the data, such as patterns in age, marital status, geographic region, and other information about the woman authors who wrote prefaces to their own works. Access can generate particular sets of data to be exported to programs and used in visualization of social network analysis or of geographical distribution. Keyword search can be performed on the titles of collections, poems, and essay. These searches have produced fascinating results in thematic research on illness, food, embroidery, travel, painting, friendship and kinship, and many other themes and subjects in women’s writing, some of which are gender-specific while others are not.
The Ming and Qing dynasties lasted from 1368 to 1911, with the Ming dynasty spanning 1368–1644 and the Qing dynasty spanning 1644–1911. I imagine there were a lot of changes in social roles, culture, and literature over such a long period of time. How might some of these changes contribute to the project’s reasons for specifically focusing on writings from the Ming and Qing dynasty?
Women who were educated and could write can be found throughout Chinese history, but their numbers were scarce. Due to a conjunction of factors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as an affluent economy and accompanying high degree of cultural refinement that spread in the urban centers of the lower Yangzi Delta region in the southeast (present-day Jiangsu and Zhejiang), many families were increasingly interested in daughters’ education often as a marriage asset. We witness the rapid rise of women writers, whose works were printed, circulated, and selected in large female-exclusive poetry anthologies. Many young women demonstrated not only interest but persistence in reading and writing poetry. Once learned, writing served other functions than the original practical or didactic purpose. Poetry was not only a means of self-expression, it was also a medium of communication, a means of cementing homosocial friendship and building intimate conjugal relations, a commemorative tool, and so on. I think once women writers formed a critical mass, there was mutual encouragement, whether between kith or kin, and there was no turning back in spite of strong disapproval and opposition from conservative quarters, and in spite of the turmoil of the conquest of the Ming by the Manchus in the mid-seventeenth century.
Have you found that the collection represents a certain group of women in greater proportion than other groups? Why might this be?
Certainly it does. Research using the biographical data enabled by collaboration with the China Biographical Database shows that the majority of the women writers are from families with a tradition of learning and scholarship. Many had male kin who were successful in the civil service examinations, which led to prestigious, if not wealthy, careers in office. Daughters in scholarly families often grew up in a supportive environment that nurtured their study. Some tragic marriages (arranged by parents in those days) for women with literary training and talent arose from the incompatibility of the match.
Traditional Confucianism, a philosophy that emphasizes the prioritization of ritual and compliance with social roles and norms, influenced all layers of society in late imperial China. Can you characterize women’s roles in traditional Confucianism? How might female literacy have affected the ways in which women navigated those roles?
The Confucian gender regime socially and economically subordinated women to men in the family hierarchy, famously encapsulated in women’s “thrice following.” A daughter follows her father, a wife her husband, and a mother her son. In this sense, “following” does not only express obedience, but has the meaning of relying on, being economically dependent. In this sense, a daughter and wife are supposed to obey father and husband respectively, and a mother, by virtue of her parental role, does not “obey” the son; rather, he is supposed to obey her while she is economically dependent on him. Literacy and book learning could be a double-edged sword for women. Depending on their attitude and application, there are examples of women who chose self-abnegation and stopped pursuing literary activities, and others who negotiated the norms and expanded their social, artistic, and intellectual space. From my survey, the latter were in the majority.