Ming Qing Women's Writings Digitization Project
Ming Qing Women's Writings Digitization Project

Introduction to the Online Digital Archive of Ming-Qing Women’s Writings

Chronological Range of the Publications:

With the December 2023 update, the online Ming Qing Women's Writings digital archive now contains 431 collections of poetry and other writings by women from the holdings of seven participating libraries. These digital collections comprise a total of 74,644 scanned images of texts and illustrations, which users can search, browse, and peruse (see Overview and Search menus). The database is populated by 5239 women poets and writers and 2511 male writers. Many of the male authors wrote paratexts such as prefaces, biographies, endorsement verse, and postscripts for individual women’s collections; others compiled and edited both anthologies and personal collections of women’s writings. Women themselves also took up the compiling and editing of women’s poetry. These engagements in writing and publishing contributed to a vibrant and complex women’s literary culture from the late imperial into the modern period.

In total, Ming Qing Women's Writings provide a significant chronological range of imprints and manuscripts of poetry and other writings by individual women. The earliest title is Lan xue xuan shi 蘭雪軒詩 , the collection of classical Chinese verse composed by the Korean woman poet Hǒ Kyǒngbǒn (Ch. Xu Jingfan 許景樊, also known by her style name Hǒ Nansǒrhǒn 許蘭雪軒, 1563-1589), published in 1608 in Korea and held in the Harvard-Yenching Library. Beginning with Phase III (2013-2018), titles from the late Qing and Republican periods from the National Library of China and later the Chinese University of Hong Kong Library have been added to the Ming Qing Women’s Writings digital archive. These literary collections by women printed in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century provide rich materials for research on the enduring strength of the culture of talented women in the period of rapid social, cultural, and political transformation and modernization.

Types of Publications:

Our digital archive offers examples from a variety of types of publications prevalent in late imperial China. The largest category of publications are separate collections of poetry (some with prose) (bieji 別集) by individual women writers. This substantiates the recognition of women as individual authors in this period. Women's literary visibility and status are also reflected in the several large anthologies of women's poetry (zongji 總集) published between the 1620s and 1830s, including the landmark anthology, the Guo chao gui xiu zheng shi ji 國朝閨秀正始集 (1831), compiled and edited by the woman scholar and poet (Wanyan 完顏) Yun Zhu 惲珠 (1771-1833), and its sequel Guo chao gui xiu zheng shi xu ji 國朝閨秀正始續集 (1836), co-edited by Yun Zhu's granddaughter Wanyan Miaolianbao 完顏妙蓮保. 1 The four examples of the genre "remarks on poetry" (shihua 詩話), that is, critical notes on poems - here all focused on poetry by women - contain the important work Ming yuan shi hua 名媛詩話 by the woman poet Shen Shanbao 沈善寶 (1808-1862), originally published in 1846 and reprinted with a sequel in 1879. The other three shihua on women's poetry by male scholars published in the Republican era (1911-1949) also suggest interesting cultural intersections in this modernizing period.

Two other formats of publications unique to printing practices in imperial China deserve mention. One is the "joint" or "combined printing" (heke 合刻 or huike 彙刻), a format which includes individually titled collections under one collective title. Often these are family publications, that is, the literary collections of individual women in a family are published together in a set, such as the Jingjiang Bao shi san nü shi shi chao he ke 京江鮑氏三女史詩鈔合刻 (Joint printing of the poetry drafts by the three Bao sisters of Jingjiang) published in 1882. We also find large sets of "joint printings" such as the Xiao tan luan shi hui ke bai jia gui xiu ci 小檀欒室彙刻百家閨秀詞 (1896), compiled by Xu Naichang 徐乃昌 (1868-1936), which is dedicated to collections of ci 詞 (song lyrics) and includes a total of one hundred individually titled collections by one hundred women. The other format is the collection which is "appended" (fulu 附錄) to another. Usually these consist of the literary collection of a wife appended to her husband's collection. Not surprisingly, these women's writings are often overlooked. "Buried" or "subsumed" under their husbands' names and works, their own names are usually not listed independently as "authors" of collections in catalogues. But we have made an effort to identify these in our digital archive.

Finally, our digital archive also contains single examples of some categories of works that represent particular genres of writing, such as the prose writings of Xu Yezhao 徐葉昭 (eighteenth century), the commentary on the Shiji 史記 (Records of the Historian) by Li Wanfang 李晚芳, and several verse novels by women (tanci 彈詞). The user can browse the Books (Collections) by type on the Search page.

The Online Scholarly Apparatus and Search Interface:

The analytic fields of information in the Ming Qing Women's Writings database supports detailed research related to many aspects of women's literature and culture. This online resource provides materials and data for important areas of research. For example, by making accessible online editions of women's writings in varied forms and quality from different regions and different periods, researchers can investigate issues related to printing and publishing in late imperial China. Two individual collections each having two editions not far separated in time are included for comparative interest.2 The comprehensive, searchable database supports statistical research on women's social and marital status, ethnic identity, their geographical location, family and regional networks, male involvement in women's publication, and many other issues related to the social and cultural history of women. For biographical data on the women writers, the user can click on the woman author's name linked to the China Biographical Database, e.g., Search the China Biographical Database for further information on Xi Peilan.

Foremost, the database supports detailed literary research, whether on a textual level with a formalistic, stylistic, or thematic orientation; or on a contextual level with respect to critical or theoretical issues. Not only can users browse through the scanned images of each text by using the page turner device, more importantly they can conduct analytic and statistical queries in many fields. In addition to the basic author/title search, the contents of each collection are analyzed and entered into a large set of searchable categories. These categories include paratexts such as prefaces and colophons, titles of individual poems in each collection, and ci (song lyric) tune patterns. Each piece of writing, no matter what the genre, is keyed to individual authors. For example, all prefaces written for individual collections are keyed to authors. Furthermore, if a woman wrote a preface to her own collection — a self-preface (zixu 自序), it is identified as such. Given the prevalence of poetry writing by women, each poem is categorized according to one of the classical poetic forms (e.g., five-character ancient style verse, seven-character regulated verse, etc.) (Browse by poetic form index). Each song lyric is identified by the tune pattern (Browse by ci tune pattern), and the text of its subtitle, if there is one, is searchable. In collections which include selections from prose genres, each prose piece is also categorized by genre (browse by prose genre index).

While most of the individual poetry collections in our digital archive are by women of the Ming and Qing (with a few who lived into the Republican period), several large anthologies of poetry and prose are diachronic in coverage and include selections by women from legendary and high antiquity all the way down to the period of compilation. Thus, the several thousand "women authors" in the database span the complete dynastic chronology of Chinese history. These vast anthologies, searchable by author and poem title (or prose title), also enable the researcher to do various types of comparative studies: variations in selections, textual variants, and editorial changes when the same poem is included in the original author’s collection and in anthologies, to name a few possibilities. A poem by Yuan Ji 袁機, (1720-1759), younger sister of the famous poet and scholar Yuan Mei 袁枚, (1716-1797), entitled "Wen yan 聞雁," provides an illuminating example when we can see the radical changes Yun Zhu made in the version she included in her anthology mentioned above in comparison to the version in Yuan Ji's collection published by Yuan Mei, the Suwen nü zi yi gao 素文女子遺稿. The textual emendations demonstrate Yun Zhu's interest in the moral dimension of poetic expression.

The innovative potential for research provided by our online digital archive and search interface awaits your use and discovery.

Grace S. Fong
Project Director
Professor of Chinese Literature
Richard Charles and Esther Yewpick Lee Chair in Chinese Cultural Studies
Dept. of East Asian Studies

December 2023

  1. back to text Romanization of titles follows the Library of Congress system.
  2. back to text Baibao Youlan 百保友蘭. Leng hong xuan shi ji. 1875.
                      Baibao Youlan 百保友蘭. Leng hong xuan shi ji. 1882.
                      Kong Xiangshu 孔祥淑. Yun xiang ge shi cao. 韻香閣詩草. 1886.
                      Kong Xiangshu 孔祥淑. Yun xiang ge shi cao. 韻香閣詩草. 1889.