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A Pictorial Autobiography by Zeng Jifen (1852-1942) and the Use of the “Exemplary” in China’s Modern Transformation

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image of NAN NÜ

Zeng Jifen (1852-1942), a daughter of the distinguished Qing official Zeng Guofan (1811-72), incorporated rich visual materials into her self-edited nianpu or chronological ­autobiography (1931; 1933) for the purpose of modelling the “ancients’ practice of incorporating pictures and texts concurrently.” The effect was a pictorial autobiography that launched a social critique through an exemplary life story and the art of “praise and blame” inherent in the Chinese biographical and artistic traditions. In highlighting the mechanisms Zeng employed to construct her personal history and engage in conversations on familial and national levels across several decades, this study illuminates her ongoing efforts to capitalize on her family heritage and the Confucian ritual tradition for social and political reform. During the process, what may appear to be her tenacious grip on the ritual restraints on women, as previously interpreted, initiated a sea change in women’s education and expanded the authority of women from the domestic sphere to the nationalist state.

Affiliations: 1: The University of Hong Kong


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