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What My Heroes Taught Me about Writing: Wang Zhenyi

by Rochelle Melander

It’s made to believe,

Women are the same as Men;

Are you not convinced,

Daughters can also be heroic?

— Wang Zhenyi

Wang Zhenyi (1768-1797), a Chinese astronomer, mathematician, textbook writer, and poet, lived at a time when women had no legal rights and were rarely educated. Largely self-taught, Zhenyi took complicated mathematical and astronomical events and wrote books that students could understand, opening up new worlds for ordinary people. She was prolific writer, writing at least 12 books as well as academic articles and poems.

In her day, people believed that an eclipse was a message from an angry god. To explain them, she set up a miniature eclipse in her back yard to study what happened during the eclipse. She later wrote an article to educate people about the phenomenon, “The Explanation of a Solar Eclipse.”

She brought the same fresh approach to her poetry, creating poems about everyday experiences. The poet Yuan Mei commented that her poetry “had the flavor of a great pen, not of a female poet.” Zhenyi’s subject and style choices had been intentional. She wrote: “The mountains and rivers on the way were marvelous, enough to broaden my horizon. … As for losing the style of the inner quarters, I purposefully avoided a feminine style.”

A writer’s takeaway

Your voice matters. Wang Zhenyi chose a unique approach to her writing, avoiding the popular feminine style she was expected to use. How do you want to tell your story?

Persist. Zhenyi studied difficult concepts. She wrote, “There were times that I had to put down my pen and sigh. But I love the subject, I do not give up.” When your work or circumstances are challenging, take time to sigh or scream. Then try again.

Explore and read. Zhenyi gained most of her knowledge through travel and reading. She adopted the philosophy of men of her day, writing: “Treading ten thousand miles and reading ten thousand volumes. I once compared my ambition to a kind even stronger than a man’s.”

For more information on Wang Zhenyi and other fierce women, check out my book, Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries who Changed the World through Writing

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