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Yun Zhu

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History

Ellen Widmer

Yun Zhu 


an anthologist and moralist of nineteenth‐century China. Yun Zhu was one of the most talented and versatile women of her era. Her talents included painting and embroidery, and the titles of some of her most famous works in both arts have been passed down. Medicine was another of her interests, and she wrote an unpublished book on the subject. She was deeply interested in Confucianism and Buddhism. Yun Zhu was also an accomplished poet, but except for those in the very skimpy Hongxiangguan shi cao (Draft Poems of Red Fragrant Studio, 1814), no other poems of hers survive. This reflects Yun's own priorities. Said to have been embarrassed when her famous son Linqing (1791–1846) published the collection without her knowledge, she resolved to edit the writings of other women rather than produce her own. This decision resulted in Guochao guixiu zhengshi ji (Correct Beginnings of Talented Women in the Qing Dynasty), an outstanding edited collection of women's writings. The collection came out in two stages: one in 1831 edited by Yun herself, the other begun by Yun but completed in 1836 by her daughter‐in‐law Wanyan Foyunbao.

Guochao guixiu zhengshi ji is a milestone in the literature of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) by women. This is partly a matter of its size—more than 1,500 authors are represented, and more than 3,000 poems are included—as well as its representativeness. Although it excludes certain categories of women, such as nuns and practicing courtesans, it reaches out to a wide range of ethnicities. This feature enables Susan Mann to claim that the project had a broad “civilizing mission,” one that parallels the dynasty's own efforts to represent the wide range of cultures subsumed under the Qing empire. Yun Zhu's marriage to a Manchu, unusual in its time, may have contributed to her broadmindedness on this score.

The work is also significant in its efforts to grapple with two contradictory trends. The first is the widely held prejudice that “lack of talent in a woman is a virtue.” Yun herself was educated by her family, and she studied with her aunt Yun Bing, the leading woman painter of the Qing. Guochao guixiu zhengshi ji was designed to demonstrate not only that educated women did not lack virtue but also that virtue was well served by educating women. The second development was the tendency of certain collections of women's poetry to favor talent over virtue. Yun's collection was modeled after that of the male anthologist Shen Deqian (1673–1769), which also took a virtue‐minded approach. Overall, Yun's collection promotes the goal of womanly virtue in the service of the social order. Hence it avoids frivolous subjects altogether and includes only poems that emphasize a woman's duty within the home. Ironically, the collection's strong rhetoric and broad scope led to Yun herself being celebrated after her death, despite her professed wish to avoid the limelight. Her son Linqing's autobiography, published in 1846–1850, added to Yun's luster with its celebration of her career.


Chang, Kang‐i Sun. “Ming and Qing Anthologies of Women's Poetry and Their Selection Strategies.” In Writing Women in Late Imperial China, edited by Ellen Widmer and Kang‐i Sun Chang, pp. 147–170. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. The best discussion of the issue of talent versus virtue.Find this resource:

    Chang, Kang‐i Sun, and Haun Saussy, eds. Writing Women in Traditional China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. Gives a biographical sketch of Yun.Find this resource:

      Mann, Susan. Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. The leading work on Yun.Find this resource:

        Ellen Widmer