1: Unveiling Sentiments: “Yunzhen's Letter to Her Husband”
Saturday, March 26, 2022
4:00pm – 5:30pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
University of California, San Diego, United States
In the late 18th century, the discovery of a letter written by a woman caused great excitement in literati circles. Titled “A Letter to My Husband” (Jiwai shu), it was attributed to a “lady of the boudoir” (guixiu) named Yunzhen, whose identity, however, was a mystery. Its unknown origin notwithstanding, the long and elegantly written letter circulated widely through the 19th century to become one of the most renowned letters authored by a woman in the Qing period.
How did an intimate correspondence of obscure origin capture the imagination of the elite, men and women alike? Focusing on this question, the paper takes the close reading of the letter as an opportunity to understand the textures of sentimentality concerning the family, wifely role, and marital relationships. It suggests that, while the letter maintained a “private” voice of one woman, in the initial process of its surfacing and circulation, it was reworked to create an emotional narrative of family life to which all could relate. The letter’s resonating power, therefore, rests on its dual nature: a self-expression of an exemplary wife and a representation of collective sentiments of educated men and women. A contextualized reading of the letter thus offers an intimate glimpse into the ideals and realities of educated elite families in the High Qing era when the entanglement of female talent, wifely virtue, marital love, and family tension became integral to the lives of the social elite.