The digital age has turned anyone with a stable internet connection into content creators. Although digital inclusion still has a long way to go, marginalised groups have found a space to make themselves heard.
This is hardly a novel phenomenon. A similar cultural shift was present in late 16th-century Jiangnan in Ming dynasty China where women writers emerged in droves.
Of course, women have always written.The three thousand years of Chinese history remembers a few illustrious women writers like Ban Zhao and Li Qingzhao.
However, Ming dynasty women writers had an advantage their predecessors did not. Unprecedented economic growth and urbanisation in the Jiangnan region had made printing and paper affordable. It became easier than ever in Chinese history to get their works out to a wider audience.
Women published poetry collections and wrote commentaries of their favourite dramas. They formed collaborations over time and space, such as the three (successive) wives of Wu Ren, who co-authored a commentary on ‘The Peony Pavilion’ — despite never meeting each other in real life. (The first two died young and the last picked up where they left off)
1. They wrote binge-worthy novels
Ming & Qing women writers were fond of writing ‘tanci’ novels, which were basically novels written in lyrical form that could be set to music with simple instrumentation.
These tanci novels were written chapter-by-chapter and were circulated among friends for their reading pleasure.
Stories often featured strong female protagonists who outshone men in exams and on the battlefield. Some were essentially fan fiction spun off popular tales such as the ballad of Mulan. Others featured original characters, but still favoured the cross-dressing theme popularised by Mulan. (Disney’s remake of Mulan isn’t something entirely new after all.)
Women writers were acutely aware of their literary talents and intellect. They also bemoaned their lack of agency in a male-dominated world — they were barred from enrolling in the imperial examinations and holding official positions.
So, they poured their dreams into fantastical stories of women breaking gender boundaries. One such story, “Zai Sheng Yuan” (Continuing Past Affinities) featured protagonist Meng Lijun who cross-dressed as a man in order to escape a forced marriage. Meng topped the imperial examinations, became a government official, but was pressed to marry the emperor after her identity was revealed.
The novel ends on this cliffhanger—but later writers have attempted to fill the gap by giving Meng Lijun the happy ending she deserves.
This story proved so popular that it became adapted into operas, songs, and even into a 2002 TVB series.
This is similar to modern webnovels in a way. Authors post their works online by chapters while fans eagerly wait for the next instalment. Famous novels are even adapted into tv series — though it is unlikely that the ancient Chinese writers were ever compensated for operatic adaptations of their works!
2. They struggled to get exposure
Every writer knows how hard it is to get exposure for their early works.
One particular tanci author, who lived in the Qing dynasty, prefaced her chapters by noting her ‘view count’—or lack thereof.
Chapter Two, “I sigh for the lack of friends…my crude stories are my solace”
Chapter Three, “Who can I share my thoughts with? No one but myself.”
Perseverance pays off. By chapter ten, she gleefully notes, “I have found friends to send my stories to! Their appreciation makes me proud.”
Any struggling author can surely empathise with that.
A good strategy to get exposure is to get an established writer to give you a shoutout. Established poets, male and female, were invited to write prefaces for poetry collections.
Others leveraged their connections to form poetry collectives and compile works for publication. Ming dynasty poet Shen Yixiu undertook such an endeavour; she published a poetry collection of 241 poems by 46 female poets. In a letter to her husband, she expressed her wish to help other women writers preserve their works for posterity.
Women supporting women — that’s the way to go.
3. Some successfully monetised their content
Every author dreams of making a living off their art. Some succeed spectacularly; others barely earned a penny.
A number of Ming and Qing writers did become professional writers and poets and supported their families with their works.
One such example is Huang Yuanjie. She lived in the late Ming dynasty and kept her family alive by selling her artworks and poems. Her fame grew and controversy followed suit.
Her contemporaries hardly knew what to think of her. Here was a woman of good birth, who travelled about (presumably on her own), sold her works for profit, and mingled with courtesans.
“Her works smack of the wind and dust [of the pleasure quarters]” one critic sniffed.
“She probably plagiarised her poems” another contended.
It was an era where women writers were still controversial, despite, or perhaps because of their increasing visibility. Some thought it better for women to commit their poems to the flames instead of publishing them. As to selling them for profit — totally unthinkable.
But Huang Yuanjie was too busy to care. The bills have to be paid, the children have to be fed. And people actually enjoyed her poems. If you have traffic, why not monetise your content?
4. They had to fight for the resources to write
At a literacy rate of ten percent among the general population, women writers were the exceptions to the rule. Many came from the literati class and had the wealth and connections to write and publish.
They were a privileged lot, but privilege is relative. Writing is not a prerequisite of a good Confucian wife and daughter. Household duties were still a priority. Even if a woman was fortunate enough to receive a good education in girlhood, she may find any literary ambitions dashed by the demands of married life.
Consider this lament penned by a Qing dynasty writer Qiu Xinru, “I have been burdened by housework since my marriage. My mind occupied with worries, my hands busy at work. I tended to my wifely duties with anxiety. How do I find the leisure to dip my brush in ink? Alas, my poetic instincts are mired in sauces and seasonings.”
Despite her difficulties, she was inspired to pick up her brush by her sister. Nineteen years has lapsed since she last wrote; but words proved therapeutic. Her life did not get any easier from that point onwards; writing kept her spirits alive.
It is unclear exactly how women back then managed their time. We know they wrote late into the night — the only time of the day when they could proceed undisturbed. They were motivated to write for the other women they cared about — mothers, sisters, friends.
Today’s content creators know how it feels like to squeeze our work into every silver of spare time. During commute, over lunch, before the day begins. This was how this article and it’s accompanying artwork came into being — and that is why I find the stories of these women relevant, even if they belong to another time and place.
If there’s one thing we content creators can learn from them, it is this: Life gets in the way — but we will find the time to create, somehow.