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Women Writers in Postsocialist China

Women Writers in Postsocialist China

Martin Lavicka29 Sep 2014Leave a comment

Written by Kamila Hladíková

Schaffer, Kay and Song, Xianlin. Women Writers in Postsocialist China. London, New York: Routledge, 2014. 191 pp.; ISBN: 9780415682749; 155 USD (hardback)

Since the early 1980s, when the first works of feminized writings by Chinese women writers started to appear in the post-Cultural Revolution PRC, this kind of literature has proliferated and encountered enormous changes in all aspects, literary-theoretical, social and personal. The first introspective works – which reflected the previous tragic era from a personal point of view, but with a broad social impact, as they told stories so familiar to everyone in China – adored love, both the personal and a generalized form of “humanism”, as an utmost value. The early works of Zhang Jie 张洁 (b. 1937), Zhang Kangkang 张抗抗 (b. 1950), Tie Ning 铁凝 (b. 1957), Dai Houying 戴厚英 (b. 1938), Shen Rong 谌容 (b. 1936) and others introduced new themes within the Chinese “new era” literature, which revolved around the personal and family lives of Chinese women. Although, as confirmed for example by Larson (1998), during the 1980s the female authors’ aim seemed to be “to write like a man”, paying no attention to a specific female subjectivity, they dealt with “topics deemed trivial and superficial in mainstream circles” (Schaffer, Song 2014: 147). However, this slowly started to change in the second half of the 1980s and during the 1990s. Among the first authors who attempted to break away from the stereotypical positive appraisal of love and family life, and inclined to a feminized perspective, were female middle aged intellectuals, like Wang An’yi 王安忆 (b. 1954) and Chi Li 池莉 (b. 1957), followed by authors of the younger generation, already influenced by western feminist literature, such as Chen Ran 陈染 (b. 1962). The book written by Kay Schaffer, a specialist in gender studies, and Song Xianlin, a researcher of contemporary Chinese literature, starts where most of the previous studies of Chinese women writing (such as Duke 1989, Edwards and Louie 1990, Larson 1998) end, that is after the Tian’anmen massacre of 1989, or, more precisely, after the year 1995 when the United Nation’s world women’s conference was held in Beijing. The two important events roughly delineate a notable departure from the “lofty educative objective” that was still present in the Chinese literature of the 1980s, along with the “ideological concerns of the government” (p. 147).

After the Introduction, which provides a short historical and theoretical background, the book presents seven respective studies of women writers’ works published during the two decades after the Tian’anmen massacre. The authors begin with a specification of genres and works they have considered in their study. Their choice was limited neither by genre classification nor by themes. Instead, inspired by an interpretation of any (semi-)(auto)biographical writing as “life narratives” (Smith, Watson 2010 / mistakenly indicated 2012), they “approached the texts as various forms of life writing”, which they understand “broadly, ‘as a general term for writing that takes life, one’s own or another’s, as its subject’” (p. 1). The authors and works they analyse differ by their settings, themes and styles, but all are somehow “engaging with memory, experience, identity, space, embodiment, and agency” (Smith and Watson 2010: 5; quot. in Schaffer, Song 2013: 1), and all attempt to mediate the female subjectivity of their often semi-autobiographical characters, living either in post-Tian’anmen China, or in a more or less distant historical period.

Writing about Chinese literature in the globalized era, the authors define a broader theoretical frame of their analyses, considering carefully the complex relation between philosophical, cultural and literary traditions of China and the West, and their mutual influence in the globalized world. They use Franco Moretti’s term “distant reading” (Moretti 2000) they read in an imaginary “third space” – “between cultures, knowledge frameworks and sensibilities” (Schaffer, Song 2013: 4) – emphasizing the particular contexts. On one hand, they deal with the influx of western ideas and concepts into the Chinese world, and on the other hand, they consider the reception of those works by Chinese women in the western context, thus examining “the transcultural processes of literary translation, reception and circulation of […] texts [between China and the West]” (p. 146).

The authors continue to introduce the recent development of the feminist movement in the PRC after the year 1978, and point out that the literati culture and the specific role of writers in China historically made women mere “marginalized subjects”, who in fact have not won their voice until very recently. Those writers included in this book can be, without a doubt, considered such voices. At the end of the first chapter, the authors turn to introduce the development of the “autobiographical – self-referential life writing” (zizhuanxing wenxue 自传性文学) in China, which is a mixture of autobiography or memoir and fiction, inspired by the western Bildungsroman. As a genre of great popularity among contemporary Chinese women writers, it marks a shift in literature from collectivist consciousness to an individualized self, which is, according to the authors, originally a purely western concept.  It was the introduction of western postmodern concepts and ideological movements that caused a notable change in Chinese literature and produced writers, who have substituted the (male-centred) “grand narratives of nationalist history” with subjectivised personal narratives telling life stories of individual people.

The following chapters of the book deal with particular women writers and their works, respectively: Hong Ying 虹影 (b. 1962), Chen Ran 陈染 (b. 1962), Lin Bai 林白(b. 1958), Sheng Keyi 盛可以 (born in the 1970s), Xinran 欣然 (b. 1958), Wei Hui 卫慧 (b. 1973), Mian Mian 棉棉 (b. 1970), Zhang Yihe 章诒和 (b. 1942), Chen Danyan 陈丹燕 (b. 1958), Zhao Mei 赵玫 (b. 1954), and Xu Xiaobin 徐小斌 (b. 1953). They are writers from different backgrounds, living in China or abroad, some of them growing up during the Cultural Revolution or earlier, some in the reform era, but they all share a similar experience of life in a male-centred totalitarian society, which tends to silence the individual voices striving to preserve their subjective freedom. Their characters are mostly members of marginalized social groups: underclass outcasts from the margins of society, un-voiced rural women and migrant workers, rebelling urban youth, fallen elite, or just strong women trying to find their place in the male-dominated world. Their works include semi-autobiographical avant-garde fiction (Hong Ying, Chen Ran, Sheng Keyi, Xu Xiaobin), deliberately autobiographical “body writing” (Wei Hui, Mian Mian), memoirs (Zhang Yihe, Chen Danyan), and even journalistic non-fiction (Lin Bai, Xinran) or historical books (Zhao Mei). What connects them, is the experiment with “personalized forms of writing and formations of female subjectivity” (p. 148).

The authors of this book take a great advantage of two mutually complementary backgrounds and specializations, and offer novel and inspiring readings of works that have often become a target of censorship in the PRC, but some of which, at the same time, made a great commercial success both in China and in the West. The book brings new insights, not only for everyone interested in gender studies and in contemporary Chinese literature, but also anyone who wants to learn more about a contemporary Chinese society in transition.

One of the shortcomings of the book is the absence of an index of Chinese names and terms in characters, moreover, characters (especially for Chinese names and book titles) are not always mentioned in the text (in fact they are mentioned only occasionally). Even when discussing a specific Chinese term (such as suzhi 素质, or “inner quality”, p. 60), the characters are not given, which might cause misunderstandings. Notable mistakes appear in the text on several pages, often in the pinyin transcription of Chinese characters, for example Siren shenghuo 私人生活, p. 38 (“shenghou”), Shanghai de jinzhi yuye 上海的金枝玉叶, p. 107 (“jinzhu”), and Zhao Mei 赵玫, p. 124 (“Mai”), or a wrong year of publication for the book by Smith and Watson (2012 instead of 2010) in the Introduction. The book includes additional notes to every chapter, a comprehensive bibliography (but again, without the Chinese characters for names and titles in Chinese), and an index of names and terms with references to particular pages in the text.


Duke, Michael (ed.). Modern Chinese Women Writers: Critical Appraisals. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1989.

Edwards, Louise, and Louie, Kam. “Women in Chinese Fiction: The Last Ten Years”. Australian Feminist Studies, Winter 1990/11: 95-112.

Larson, Wendy. Women Writing in Modern China. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on world literature”. New Left Review, January – February 2000/1: 54 – 68.

Smith, Sidoine, and Watson, Julia. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis, and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2nd edition, 2010.

Yang, Gladys (ed.). Seven Contemporary Chinese Women Writers. [Ru Zhijuan, Huang Zongying, Zong Pu, Shen Rong, Zhang Jie, Zhang Kangkang, Wang An´yi] Beijing: Chinese Literature, 1982.

Zhang Jingyuan. “Breaking Open: Chinese Woman´s Writing in the Late 1980s and 1990s.” In Chi, Pang-yuan and David Der-wei Wang. Chinese Literature in the Second Half of a Modern Century: A Critical Survey. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.

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