Nanxiu Qian - Associate Professor of Chinese Literature, Rice University
The Biographies of Foreign Women (Waiguo lienu chuan) was compiled by Xue Shaohui (1866-1911) and her husband Chen Shoupeng in 1902 and first published in 1906. Chen searched and orally translated two hundred fifty-three biographies of Western women, dated from antiquity to 1885, and Xue rewrote them into ten categories.
A leading woman writer and thinker in China’s reform era (1890s-1911), Xue openly argued against male reformer’s nationalistic approach that subordinated women’s issues to larger national concerns, and advocated to prioritize women’s self-improvement over national empowerment. This paper focuses on Xue’s effort in redefining moral and intellectual space for Chinese women via foreign women exemplars. It first examines Xue and her fellow women reformers’ visioning of an ideal womanhood in accordance with their desire to break the longstanding demarcation between the inner and outer domains. Against this backdrop, I shall then detail the process of the compilation of the WGLNZ, pointing out that the course of compilation also served as Xue’s own venue entering the public space. The third section will introduce Xue’s portrayal of exemplary foreign women, primarily scholars and writers, on how they carved their self-invented space within the male-dominated world. This women’s own space, as the WGLNZ also revealed, was however facing constant intimidation from the male world. Keenly aware of the threat, as discussed in Section Four, Xue then placed her ideal womanhood in the wonderland of Greco-Roman Goddesses that Xue transformed, through imagination, into an ideal republic of women.