Reading: Susan Mann – Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century

Shortly before departing for Brussels, I finished Susan Mann’s brilliant The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, and began Gail Hershatter’s equally sublime The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, which I’m still slowly chewing through. Both these books mark something of a specific beginning or new direction in my reading, one which has been obvious before now, but with these two authors and some recent others either read or waiting to be read, I think it is worth noting.

My reading has drifted eastwards from Central Asia and Afghanistan (at least until Poetry of the Taliban is published) to arrive once more in China, and a China I am embarrassed to say I have neglected. It is easy to read on a subject such as these and follow the grand narratives – politics, culture … the longue durée, and yes, these matters are intriguing, essential to an initial general understanding, and can even consume one’s entire inquiry for years. It is also easy to unintentionally fail to consider nuances in these, to partially or wholly miss entire facets due to the relative unimportance they are afforded, or to only perceive them in a particular context, an aside to the central theme.

I am careful to say also, that these absences do not, by their being brought to the fore, constitute a ‘truth’ in opposition to the other, they do not substantiate themselves as the ‘real’ story. Merely, they provide another way of regarding things. Equally though, they should not be reduced solely to this regard; they are not symbols, representations or stand-ins for a singular agenda. They exist in and for themselves, without which any understanding can only ever be said to be partial and conditional.

That my reading is lately drifting from Central Asia and those western borders of China is in part because there is scant new to be said, when what is being said is either traditional generalist or filtered through the narrow gaze of America’s incoherent imperialism, both of which fail comprehensively on the subject of women. (And framing women as variously marginalised or emancipated in a dialectic centred upon the Taliban, pre- post- or during, is not equivalent to a proper attention given to the subject.) I would certainly read anything from the region of the likes of Susan Mann or Gail Hershatter, but with the exceptions of a couple of monographs have so far been experiencing disappointment.

So then, I arrive at Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century. Perhaps to say, Susan Mann shows unequivocally that no account of the Qing Dynasty can be said to have genuine worth, or be a work of serious scholarship without giving equal weight to women and their place in this history, and by obvious extension, this applies to all fields of study. That she is a beautiful, subtle, poetic and sensitive writer with a serious and diligent intellectual approach of course means I’m having a thrill to be reading her once more.