Organized Panel Session
In late imperial China, where submission (cong 從) was regarded as the foremost principle of womanhood, women were rarely encouraged to make choices on their own. This was especially true for concubines, who hailed from underprivileged families and later entered elite households by marriage. Nonetheless, biographies of Qing-dynasty concubines, mostly authored by male literati, often highlight the concubines’ personal wills in choosing the lives they wanted. On the surface, these documents suggest a considerable amount of autonomy the Qing concubines might have enjoyed. A deeper and more contextualized reading, however, reveals the paradox of such autonomy. In this paper, I argue that the concubine subjects’ alleged self-made choices embodied the values held by male literati-biographers, who aspired to restore their identities as scholars in a time when the literati community suffered severe political and emotional traumas.
This paper analyzes the constructed images of the Qing concubines through male literati-authored biographies. It also examines the sociocultural contexts that influenced male literati’s decisions on how to memorialize women. The study aims to provide a new perspective of the intellectual and cultural history of Qing China by placing the concubine in the center, a figure who served as the recipient and disseminator of literati culture while at the same time contributing to its development and transformation. By exploring both the possibilities and the limitations of Qing concubines’ agency and subjectivity, it also enriches and complicates the existing scholarship on late imperial Chinese women and gender relations.