Voices of Women Historians in Late Imperial China

March 7, 2018


People may generally think that feminist ideas spelt out by Chinese female historians appeared only in the twentieth century. But this was not the case. Although historical writing was dominated by male scholars, women showed significant interest in history and their efforts in producing historical works should not be neglected, even if the total size of output was small.


To many scholars, Ban Zhao 班昭 of the Eastern Han Dynasty who was one of the authors of the second standard history, Han shu 漢書, may appear to be the only woman historian in pre-modern China. However, recent scholarship reveals that throughout history, and especially during the five hundred some years of the Ming-Qing period, women did participate in the writing of a variety of genres traditionally classified under Chinese historiography, such as biographies, annotations, works of evidential research, historical criticism, travel notes, maps, tables, and bibliographies.  Examples of women historians who produced books that survived include Wei Yuyun 魏于雲, Li Wanfang 李晚芳, Yun Zhu 惲珠 Wang Zhaoyuan 王照圓, Tang Shuyu 湯漱玉, Liu Wenru 劉文如, Liang Duan 梁端, Xiao Daoguan 蕭道管, and Xue Shaohui 薛紹徽. There are other women who left shorter essays or even poetry on historical themes. (See my Caide xianghui: Zhongguo nüxing de zhixue yu kezi 才德相輝:中國女性的治學與課子 [Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company, 2015], 24-77 and “History as Leisure Reading for Ming-Qing Women Poets,” Hsiang Lectures on Chinese Poetry, 7 [2015]:27-64).


It is worth-noting that quite some forceful messages and compelling judgements are carried in the writing of women historians. Some women presented their comments authoritatively, conforming to the legacy style of male historians or even questioning the merit of conventional historians excluding most women from history (eg. Xu Yuan 徐媛, Lu Qingzi 陸卿子, Cao Zhenxiu 曹貞秀, Wang Zhenyi 王貞儀, Zhang Lingyi 張令儀, Zhang Wanying 張紈英); some took the initiative to write a family history (eg. Yuan Jingrong 袁鏡蓉); some demonstrated passionate ambition in preserving women’s history (eg. Liang Xiaoyu 梁小玉); while others dared to challenge individual views and assumptions of mainstream historians (eg. Xu Deying 徐德英, Li Wanfang 李晚芳, Wang Duan 汪端). A significant number of discussions hit the central issues of Chinese historiography, leaving female voices, soft or loud.


There are some sparkling titles of historical works authored by women. For example, Liang Xiaoyu in the late Ming authored a general history of women in the past and present, entitled Gujin nüshi 古今女史. The work contains eight categories of women, and Liang declared that in compiling this history she wished to be named as a woman Dong Hu (Nü Dong Hu 女董狐), after the well-respected historian Dong Hu of the Spring and Autumn era. Unfortunately, this work of Liang no longer exists and only the preface is available. In the preface, Liang criticized the standard histories of her time for largely ignoring the records of women, and this was why she was motivated to rewrite the history for women. 


Another woman historian in the late Ming, Xu Deying, was no less ambitious than Liang Xiaoyu. She authored a work to comment upon the twenty one standard histories (Pidian ershiyi shi 批點二十一史). Unfortunately, the work has been lost. But judging from the very limited works that Xu has left, her enthusiasm and ambition in historical inquiry was explicitly manifested. She authored historical essays in different genres, evaluated eminent historical figures since the ancient times, and sometimes revealed a critical voice in commenting upon the incapability and unfairness of male historians in writing historical narratives in the past. For instance, one most striking title is a basic annal (ji 紀) for the Jianwen 建文emperor of the early Ming, who disappeared after the 1420 usurpation of Prince Yen 燕, the then Emperor Chengzu 成祖. Xu was certainly courageous to make an attempt at this male-dominated historiographical genre, but of course the length and quality of her annal cannot be compared to the one in the standard history, Ming shi 明史. It would also be interesting to read how Xu criticized harshly previous historians who tolerated the emperor Sui Yangdi 隋煬帝without denouncing and condemning him.  Xu believed Sui Yangdi killed his father, and therefore she opined that the history of Sui Yangdi’s reign should be rewritten in a moral light. In her essay, she challenges conventional historians several times and offers suggestions to the “gentlemen historians.” Xu’s works deserve scholarly attention because it was not common for a woman in those days to comment so heavily against the community of male historians (See my “Mingdai guixiu shijia Xu Deying 明代閨秀史家徐德英,” Historical Studies of Women and Gender [Shanghai], 1 [2016]:115-133).


Compared to Liang Xiaoyu and Xu Deying of the late Ming, Li Wanfang of the early Qing was more fortunate in the sense that her book offering insights into history (Dushi guanjian 讀史管見) has survived and was widely circulated in different editions in China and Japan. In her book, Li dares to offend the grand historian Sima Qian 司馬遷, author of the grand history Shiji 史記. Li accuses Sima Qian of extreme and often biased views, she points out that the mind of Sima Qian was never peaceful, and he was too self-oriented without realizing his own shortcomings. Li was of the view that Sima Qian lacked the basic professional ethics as a historian to produce reliable records of history.


All these examples bring us to an observation that it would be hard to overlook Chinese women historians who put on the historian’s gown and offered powerful comments from their perspectives, and on their own terms, long before the imagined beginning of the era of feminist histories in most people’s mind.

Clara Wing-chung Ho is Professor and Head of the Department of History, Hong Kong Baptist University. She also serves as the Co-Chair of the newly established Gender Studies Concentration program of the same university. Her research interests include women, gender, children, and historiography in pre-modern China. She publishes in both Chinese and English.  Her self-narrative, “Working on the History of Chinese Women: My Story,” appears in Rekha Pande (ed.), A Journey into Women’s Studies: Crossing Interdisciplinary Boundaries (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 194-211. Image credit: Clara Wing-chung Ho.




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