Trail of An Unknown Voice

The mysterious poet Shuangqing: was the 18th century poet a female peasant or a male scholar? Two very different academics work to unravel the mystery


In 1737, an obscure Chinese scholar named Shi Zhenlin wrote his memoirs - a collection of rambling jottings describing his friends and travels in China. He could hardly have imagined that, two and a half centuries later, his Random Notes from Xiqing would spark an intense academic debate.

His work probably wouldn't have attracted much attention, except for one thing: It included haunting poems written by an extraordinarily beautiful and talented peasant woman named Shuangqing. Today she is regarded as one of the most captivating voices of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Her life is the stuff of fairly tales: Coming from a poor farming family, she learned to read by sitting outside the village classroom where her uncle taught. She exchanged embroidery for poetry, and wrote touching poems despite doing backbreaking farm work and suffering from malaria and cruel treatment from her illiterate husband and evil mother-in-law.

In the mid-1980s, Paul Ropp, professor of history at Clark University in Massachusetts, stumbled across her work in an anthology of Chinese women poets. He was immediately hooked. Having grown up on a farm in Illinois himself, he was intrigued that an uneducated peasant woman had developed such refined literary skills. His own grandfather, a farmer, had written poetry, spending some of the family's hard-earned cash to buy books and publish two small volumes of his work.

Around the same time, on the other side of the world, a Chinese scholar was hard at work on her first book about the peasant poet. Du Fangqin, professor of Chinese literature at Tianjin Normal University, was a latecomer to the academic world due to the Cultural Revolution. A pioneer in women's studies in China, she was unable to begin her graduate work in classical Chinese literature until 1979, when a new era of reforms gave Chinese intellectuals a new lease on life.

The two scholars had not yet met, but their mutual interest would lead to a close friendship, as well as a journey through the Chinese countryside to seek traces of the mysterious poet.

Meanwhile, there was just one problem. Ropp was having trouble pinning down historical details of the poet's life, and soon began to wonder whether she was in fact a literary creation. Du plowed on, convinced of the poet's existence. The two went on to write separate books that reached opposite conclusions. (Ropp's is due to be published later this year).

Their search for Shuangqing offers a study in contrasting cultures and scholarly styles. Academic Challenge The story begins in 1989, when Ropp gave a paper on Shuangqing at a conference at Harvard University. Ten minutes into the discussion period, he was chagrined when a young scholar of Chinese literature stood up and asked if he really believed a peasant could write such highly stylized poetry. Ropp was shaken, and became determined to prove Shuangqing's existence.

During a sabbatical at the Stanford Center in Taipei, Ropp plunged into a newly reprinted copy of Shi's Random Notes. (No other primary historical mention of the poet Shuangqing has ever been found.) Fortunately, he had the help of Liu Chunhua, his teacher at the Stanford Center and an expert on Chinese poetry. Over the coming months, the two attacked the memoir line-by-line, sometimes word-by-word, hoping to show that the poet it portrayed was real.

But as the weeks and pages passed, Ropp's doubts grew. He was troubled by the fact that Shuangqing had no surname or date of birth, and by Shi's repeated likening of his memoir to a dream. He was also suspicious of Shi and his literati friends, and claims that they frequently communicated with female immortals through spirit writings. Ropp finally concluded that Shi had invented Shuangqing.

"I tend to have the view that he found his own best voice in her poetry," he says, talking over tea in Cambridge, Mass.

He speculates that the memoirs were a metaphor for the many scholars of the time who failed to pass the grueling imperial examination to win a government position. "There was a strong fascination among educated males of the 18th century with unappreciated talent and beauty, because this is how they saw themselves," says Ropp."Using Shuangqing in such a way afforded the male writer a mask."

Ropp points out that he was not the first scholar to question the poet's existence. In the 1920's, the Chinese intellectual Hu Shi declared that Shi's memoir lacked credibility on many accounts. He also questioned Shuangqing's supposed ability to write detailed verse in powder on tiny leaves, the only writing materials she could afford.

Du concedes that male poets throughout Chinese history have written in believable feminine voices. But during a meeting in her office on the Tianjin campus, she explains why a man could not have written such poems.

"When Shuangqing speaks about the oppression of women, the beatings and cursings by the mother-in-law, this is all very unique. This could not have been written by a man." Du also waves away many of the questions that nag Western scholars, such as the lack of a surname, and points out that girls from literati families often burned their poems to prevent others from knowing what was in their hearts.

"In Chinese history there are a lot of people for which we have no actual proof," she says, citing the example of Qu Yuan, a celebrated poet believed to have lived around 200 B.C. Finally, she wonders, if Shuangqing didn't write the poetry, then who did? "What I can't understand is how such a true story as this could introduce a fake person, or a person who is based on fiction," she says.

Seas Divide Sinology

It wasn't until 1997 that Ropp and Du met. He volunteered to drive his Chinese counterpart, who was visiting Massachusetts, to Harvard for a conference. The two talked excitedly about their common obsession along the way. It was then that they hatched the idea of a trip to China to search for the poet's birthplace. The following year they took an overnight train to Jiangsu province, where Shi claimed to have discovered the beautiful Shuangqing in a remote village called Xiaoshan. While sitting on the train they excitedly pored over old maps of the area and historical Chinese documents.

Upon arriving in the area, they examined local maps and gazetteers, but were disappointed to find no references to Xiaoshan. Local officials pointed out that the area was razed in the mid-1800s during the Taiping Rebellion, which left millions of people dead and hundreds of towns destroyed, and that the ancestors of the present inhabitants had moved there from other places. No records remained, and no anecdotal evidence could be found.

In the end, the visit failed to ease Ropp's doubts - or for that matter, shake Du's conviction. When local officials took the pair to areas that seemed to fit the description in Shi's memoirs, Du immediately saw parallels, while Ropp saw terrain that could exist all over China.

Ropp believes the main difference between himself and Du lies in the different approaches taken by Chinese and Western scholars. Du, he says, is "operating in an environment where skepticism about text is not a big part of the culture."

"Professor Du says Shi has dates and places in there. Why should we doubt it?" American scholarship, he says, "is influenced by deconstructionism, post-modernism and new historicism. Over the last 20 years, it has been harder for us to take our sources at face value.''

Wilt Idema, professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University, says that while Western scholars are trained to seek the most primary sources available, materials easily available in the West are still not readily available in China.

"It makes quite a difference whether your first acquaintance with the materials is through Shi Zhenlin's quite baffling Random Notes from Xiqing," he says, "or from anthologies and other secondary works that present Shuangqing as a historical person."

He also believes that Chinese readers traditionally view poetry as a direct expression of authentic emotion. "If you feel that the poems and lyrics embody emotions that only a woman could have felt, you will be convinced that the poet must have been a woman," says Idema.

Kang-i Sun of Yale University agrees Chinese and Western readers often differ in their approaches.

"Chinese scholars tend to accept Shuang-qing as a historical person because traditionally Chinese readers like to bring historical contexts into their reading of poems," says Mr. Sun. "In sharp contrast to this, Western readers are inclined to take "persona" and "fictionality" into consideration when they read poetry."

Sun adds that while Chinese are also aware of the possibility of a "mask" in literature, they believe that even in the context of a mask there are strong autobiographical elements.

Grace Fong, chair of women's studies at McGill University, believes the Chinese readiness to accept Shuangqing as a historical person is due partly to "feminist and nationalist pride toward the discovery of such a rare female talent from the peasant class." She herself declines to rule out the existence of such a person. "I can imagine a talented female autodidact who wrote the poems recorded by Shi Zhenlin, which he could have revised and further refined in the process of putting them into his personal journal," she says.

As the debate rages on, Du and Ropp appear to agree on one thing: "There may be no way to prove who's right," Du says.

"Ultimately, I don't think this is a riddle that's solvable," agrees Ropp, who says he reached the conclusion reluctantly.

But, he says, the argument is largely academic: "In functional terms in Chinese culture, she's real. She's become an important part of China's heritage."

Professor Paul Ropp's book, "Banished Immortal: Searching for Shuangqing, China's Peasant Woman Poet," was published by the University of Michigan Press in April 2001. The is available for purchase through


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney