By the end of the nineteenth century, China was in a crisis. The Qing dynasty, which had ruled since the mid-seventeenth century, was moribund. Interminable court intrigue, corruption and incompetence within the civil service, rebellion against its rule, and foreign impingement upon its sovereignty had collectively exhausted its vitality. Dismayed by such circumstances and anxious for the future of China, a band of civil servants and intellectuals led by the scholars Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929) began an enthusiastic discourse on the reformation of Chinese society. One common theme that soon emerged within this discourse was the condemnation of classical education as an impractical means for producing modern women, and a certain group of women, the cainü or “talented women,” came to epitomize that inadequacy for such reformers.
The cainü were good wives and wise mothers of the scholarly elite who were also classically-educated writers, particularly of lyric poetry. Their male peers tended on the whole to be appreciative of their efforts, albeit with trepidation since literature was a traditionally male pursuit. Thus, the cainü who won the most praise were those who remained scrupulously mindful of their virtue and domesticity as they created beauty through calligraphy and poetry. Reformers, however, disdained them as privileged narcissists who hindered the modernization of China. Liang notoriously argued that classical education “really cannot be called learning at all” and so branded them as “ignorant” and “useless” women who “toyed with ditties lamenting spring and bemoaning separation” and were to be pitied for their bound feet and dependency upon men. This line of criticism, repeated and developed by other reformers, turned the cainü into a symbol of reactionary decadence within early discourse on modernizing China.
In The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, Susan Mann explores the world of the cainü through a series of biographies spanning roughly three generations of the eponymous family, arguing that the reformers were grossly unfair in their denunciation. The cainü, she asserts, maintained the stability of elite families by using their domestic industry in the absence of wage-earning husbands and fathers on scholarly or imperial business. For example, Mann shows how the Zhang family cainü sold embroidery, calligraphy, and books; pawned items from their dowries; and used their ties with other elite families and local merchants to sustain their families (26, 83). She also disagrees with the reformist denigration of their poetry as “ditties,” noting that though they wrote in traditional modes, they show a keen interest in national crises such as the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1866), in addition to personal ones brought on by the turmoil of the era (94, 159). Finally, Mann points out how reformers misinterpreted the cainü as reactionaries when they were actually the earliest “modern women” of China because of their independence of mind and domestic initiative, citing how women writers in the early twentieth century particularly thought of them as inspirational forerunners (196, 199).
Her biographies of the Zhang family cainü are highly engaging and successful at conveying the individuality of the women, especially in her discussion of their artistry, which is expected given that anthologies and encomia form the greater part of her sources for their lives. The master calligrapher Zhang Luying, for example, comes to life in a vision of her at work: a slight, timid woman who belied her size and demeanor by vigorously yet authoritatively pushing large brushes against larger pieces of silk, even standing upon her bed for enough leverage. The products of her engrossment with her craft won her buyers as far away as Korea, whose patronage aided the family (83). Another example is the enigmatic Miss Fa, who resided with the Zhang family after her betrothed died suddenly. Bound by the moral expectations of elite society, Miss Fa could neither remarry nor return to her natal family and suffered a profound psychological breakdown, living as a hermit within the family home and spending her rage by using her position as a “widow” to cow social inferiors into submission (31, 91). Through her turbulent life, Mann illuminates a darker side to the life of the cainü and the psychology of traditional Chinese mores.
Even though Mann successfully recaptures the lives of the Zhang family cainü, she does so through a methodology and narrative which might be controversial for devotees of objectivity. She describes her monograph as a waishi, a history “slightly outré or out of bounds,” which uses supposition and invention when sources are scarce; her overall goal is to preserve the personality of the subject (xv). One such invention is a confrontation between a young cainü and her father regarding the propriety of a woman writing poetry, which is based on a scene from a popular novel of the era rather than a primary source (13, 230 n. 18). The scene illuminates the tensions regarding elite gender roles, but is presented in the narrative with no hint to its fantasy but an endnote. Another instance involving a bit of banter based on a contemporary euphemism for prostitution could conceivably have happened, but, again, has no supporting evidence for such an exchange (78, 245 n. 24). Mann asserts that this approach allowed her to see links between outwardly disparate data which a straightforward reading may not have produced, and her strong research in secondary sources supports it in most cases. Even so, this willingness to create good facts to supplement real facts evokes a bit of unease.
Reservations aside, The Talented Women of the Zhang Family is a vicariously captivating work that does much to rehabilitate the cainü from their historical denigration and illuminate their world. For general readers, it does presume a familiarity with the fundamentals of traditional Chinese society but not to the extent that the attentive reader would be lost. However, the strength of its human interest is enough to overcome any trepidation.
 Quoted in Hu Ying, “Naming the First ‘New Woman’,” in Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China, eds. Rebecca E. Karl and Peter Zarrow (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002), 185. [back]