In early 2008, before I moved to Berlin, I had a book-buying spree, and a couple of those books I didn’t finish before it was time to pack them all into boxes and off to storage, where they would remain for the next three years. I’m about to embark on one of the bigger, more serious books on my list, Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory — Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, and noticed on the back cover Susan Mann provided a quote. Her The Talented Women of the Zhang Family was one of the unfinished ones I had to choose between taking on the plane or boxing up. At the time I found it a demanding read, and so it remained behind while I flew.
I’m not really sure why I decided to read it, thought I’m pretty sure it was a post by Nicole Barnes at The China Beat that was responsible, and feeling a little daunted by Gail Hershatter’s monograph, as well as somehow feeling drawn to this unfinished one, have instead spent the last few days immersed in one of the most beautiful scholarly works I’ve ever read.
Coincidentally, some of the names that appear in Julia Lovell’s The Opium War recur here, though from the opposite side; through the lens of late-Qing Dynasty literati and scholar-civil servants.
What draws me to this book now, and to much on my upcoming reading list, is the centrality of women in the historical narrative. I notice this near-total absence especially in Central Asian and Afghanistan scholarship, as well as in a significant proportion of Chinese writing — the history, culture, art of these regions as commonly presented is in fact the men’s history, and for no good reason.
Perhaps to say, in praise of this work and the author, that I have already put her other works on my reading list, and it is very unlikely I will not be writing about The Talented Women of the Zhang Family again. Also that it has unexpectedly rekindled my love of Chinese history and culture, and her passion for the subject has reminded me of this which I’d forgotten.