It is a common myth to people of Western world that women in imperial China were closeted, constantly subjugated and not allowed to make anything of themselves beyond a good daughter, wife, and mother. To the contrary, women, as mentioned in The Death of Women Wang by Jonathen Spence, had come options open to them, and while certainly they were not as numerous or desirable as those open to men, they did exist [Spence 124]. Six Records of a Floating Life bu Shen Fu portrays women in quite a different light that women of imperial China are generally perceived with; the author's wife is creative, intelligent, spirited and active. She was educated to some degree and would make up spontaneous poems with her husband [Fu 31, 34]. In Chinese literary tradition, women authors are often only briefly touched upon or ignored completely, while in fact there were many of them, some of whom made a living for themselves by writing or painting.
There are, in fact, over a dozen examples of women who were published for their writing skills, from the Tang to the Qing, but here the focus in on the Qing, which began officially in 1644 and ended in the 1900's. These short examples are all of 17th-century China, drawn from Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism, edited by Kang-i Sun Chang and Haun Saussy and published by Stanford University Press in 1999.
The earliest example comes from before the Qing: Xu Cun, a poet born in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 1610. She married Chen Zhilin, who became a jinshi in 1637, and later held the titles of Grand Secretary, Junior Guardian, and Grand Guardian of the Hair Apparent. He died in 1666 and five years later Xu Cu petitioned the emperor to have his remains reburied in his home area of Haining. She was also a prominent member of the Banana Garden Poetry Club, known for writing using the wanyue, or 'delicate restraint' style. Her poems were collected in Zhouzhenguan shiji (Poetry collected from the Garden of Unsuccessful Statesmen) and Zhouzhengyuan shiyu (Lyric collection from the Garden of Unsuccessful Statesmen) [Chang and Saussy 337].
Another interesting tale is that of Liu Shi, a courtesan and poet born in 1618 in the Jiangnan area. Admired for her beauty, she had a love affair with a Ming loyalist, Chen Zhilong, whom many of her poems are about, and eventually married the renowned poet Qian Qianyi. She was known for her poem series "Eight Quatrains on the Lake of Hangzhou" and for Wuyin cao, a manuscript published in 1638 [Chang and Saussy 359-51].
The mid-17th century saw many women poets of prominence, beginning with Huang Yuanjie, born in the early Qing in Jiaxing. She married a poor against her family's wishes and was separated from him during the Qing conquest. Intensely loyal to the Ming, she lived with another woman poet and earned attention and praise from their male contemporaries. However, on a journey ro Beijing, one of her two children drowned and the other died once...