Epistolary Gentility of Literary Women in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Crises, Health, and Friendship in Ding Shanyi’s Letters

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Danni Cai



Focusing on Correspondence from the Double-Cassia Studio (Shuanggui xuan chidu 雙桂軒尺牘), a collection of letters by a gentlewoman named Ding Shanyi 丁善儀 (1799–after 1861), this paper examines how elite women in mid-nine- teenth-century China applied epistolary conventions in their social life. Com- pared to other literary collections of individual women in late imperial China, Ding’s letter collection is exceptional in recording the life of its author through the epistolary genre and in revealing the sociopolitical dynamics that underlay elite women’s epistolary gentility. Ding’s letters are indicative of the noticeable concerns shared by gentlewomen in mid-nineteenth-century China and provide specific contexts for understanding some of the epistolary techniques used by lit- erary women to facilitate social networking. This paper uncovers Ding’s life and explores three major themes in her epistolary collection: her responses to crises, concerns about health, and cultivation of friendship. Ding’s letters show how elite women evinced sophistication and erudition in their epistolary composition, which was an important way for them to express themselves and demonstrate their mas- tery of language and rhetorical tradition.

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