Much recent scholarship on the culture of writing in the Koreas and Chinas of the past has been exploring women’s active roles in shaping their contemporary literary, artistic and social worlds. Rather than understand Korean and Chinese society as unfolding solely along binary (and, frankly, boring) trajectories of patriarchal Neo-Confucian values, careful readings and re-readings of women’s literary texts (as well as other forms of expression, such as material culture) lend themselves to an understanding of “woman” as a multi-dimensional, many-layered and often fiercely ambivalent identity.  Women in these societies simultaneously occupied literal and figurative spaces of both the inner chambers and of political, literary, public domains by virtue of their varied roles as daughters, concubines, wives, mothers, and daughter-in-laws—roles that inevitably and variously placed them as educators of their children (if they were lucky enough to have any) and contributors to and daily managers of the household’s economic activities.

Through their bodies, minds and lives, women negotiated idealized and gendered definitions of morality (i.e. filial piety, feminized/masculinized virtue) and their role within a larger cosmic order. Legal petitions, candid letters to children and spouses, authoritative and instructional writings (especially of widows) amply evidence their active engagement with politics, education, and the textual, public world1. As such, the acts and products of female writing comprise a rich and layered realm in which to seek questions and answers regarding the variety of ways in which women understood themselves, how their contemporaries understood (or fantasized about) them, and the dynamic exchanges between and across genders, societies, and these gendered individuals who somehow did not or would not be pinned down. Why and how did the picture of the writing woman come to occupy such a salient space in the social imaginary?

For this exploration, we turn to the figure of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn (Xu Jingfan). Many scholars have understood her primarily as a Daoist woman poet2 or a kyubang poet from the "inner rooms"3 whose poems in classical Chinese (hansi 漢詩) and fame spread throughout Korea, China and Japan across the span of five centuries. In this project, we hope to supplement that research by exploring how her life, her hansi, and the posthumous production and publication of these poems in Korea and China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries played into gendered and dynasty-specific notions of aesthetic, the creative, and the authentic. We consider questions of authorship and authenticity by looking at which of her poems were selected and/or edited for inclusion in a number of anthologies. Related to these questions is one that asks how her identity—as female, Korean, poet, mother, sister, woman—was produced not only through her poetry but also (and perhaps largely) through paratextual writings (short biographies, prefaces, and postfaces) in the anthologies.

Thus, we will discuss her as a transdynastic literary icon and are specifically interested in how her status and identity were produced, published, modified, challenged, and contended by both male and female literati across landscapes of place in Korea and China. Simply put, what did she come to signify for the literati, the poets, the women, and men who were her readers? How did her image change in relation to negotiations around gender, place, and aesthetic value? We hope that our exploration of these questions will demonstrate ways in which not only identities, but also values and morality are never stable, but rather are always subject to rewritings and reinterpretations.

To guide us through this exploration, we have included two tables: one of the anthologies that included Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn’s hansi, and another detailing the modifications and inclusions/exclusions of her hansi among the various anthologies. We have further included English translations of several of her poems, a short literary reading/analysis of her poetry, and a discussion of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn as a contested and ambivalent icon of place, poetry, and gender. All translations are our own unless otherwise indicated.

1. For examples, please see J.K. Haboush, “Gender and the Politics of Language in Chosŏn Korea” in B. Elman, J. Dunacn, H. Ooms, eds., Rethinking Confucianism (UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 2002), “Letters to My Son” by Gu Ruopo (1592-ca. 1681) in Susan Mann and Yu-Yin Cheng, eds., Under Confucian Eyes (University of California Press, 2001); Ban Zhao, “Precepts for My Daughters (Nujie),” in Wilt Idema and Beata Grant, eds., The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China (Cambridge:  Harvard University Asia Center, 2004); and Ch’oe, Lee and de Bary, eds., Sources of Korean Tradition, Vol. 2 (Columbia University Press, 2000).

2. See Yang-hi Choe Wall, "The Sino-Korean Poetic Tradition of the Late Sixteenth Century: Background to a Study of the Poetry of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn," Papers on Far Eastern History (33: March 1986) 139-157.

3. See Cynthia Childs, "Song From the Inner Rooms: The Poetry of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn," Acta Koreana (Vol. 4, 2001) 143-155.




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