The Invention of a Discourse: Women's Poetry from Contemporary China

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The Invention of a Discourse: Women's Poetry from Contemporary China, by Jeanne Hong Zhang (Zhang Xiaohong). Leiden: CNWS Publications, 2004. 304 pp. euro27.00 (paperback).

Gender-based poetry by women writers became a significant force within Chinese literature from the mid-1980s. Jeanne Hong Zhang's book is the first comprehensive study of this phenomenon. She states that the "study focuses on the way the discourse of contemporary Chinese women's poetry has been invented, particularly by poets and critics". The methodology adopted is intratextual comparisons within Chinese culture as well as intertextual comparisons between cultures, and Zhang clearly demonstrates that the analysis in this book is informed by a formidable knowledge of both Chinese and Western literature.

Chapter 1 examines Chinese women's poetry in its historical context. Tang Xiaodu's article "Women's Poetry: From Night to Day" launched "contemporary Chinese women's poetry as a scholarly-critical discourse". In it Tang claimed that Zhai Yongming's poem series "Woman" represented "a breakthrough in Chinese women's literature, surpassing the many theoretical claims and creative efforts since the May Fourth Movement". Thereafter scholars and critics began to debate the meaning and implications of the term "women's poetry", and to categorise which women poets in fact wrote "women's poetry". Zhai Yongming later spoke of women's literature as "a mode of independent writing" not necessarily "related to the female gender", yet not necessarily "gender neutral". For her a gender-neutral position does not exist, and is in fact "a disguised male position" (p. 15).

Zhang notes that, anxious to be accepted into the literary mainstream, Chinese women writers are reluctant to have their work trivialised because of any sort of "feminist" labelling. She draws on the observations of Western scholars to explain how in post-1949 China, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, gender awareness was considered petty bourgeois (Tani Barlow), and that "a kind of androgyny, a sexual sameness, based on the de-feminisation of female appearance and its approximation of male standards of dress, seemed to be the socialist ideal" (Harriet Evans). Aware of the contentious issues in this discourse, Zhang resolutely puts forward her own definition for women's poetry as "female-authored poems that deal with gender-based themes, experience and psychology in a distinctive language usage". She maintains that women's poetry is a separate category of research, and that such a definition allows her analysis to include female-authored texts that are not feminist. The poet's biological sex is used as the starting point, but it is not the only consideration because "not all the texts written by the same woman poet necessarily fit into the category of women's poetry" (pp. 16-17).

The June 1989 issue of Poetry contained a special collection of critical essays on women's poetry by women poets and was followed by the publication of several substantial collections of women's poetry. Zhang acknowledges the important role of official publishing houses and journals in publicising women's poetry, as well as that of a "powerful current of unofficial publications" in Beijing and in various provincial capitals. She isolates the genealogical ties of women's poetry with the Menglong poets, particularly Yang Lian and Jiang He, noting that in their ranks Shu Ting is the only woman. However, post-Menglong women's poetry is radically different from Shu Ting's; its concern is the emotional and psychological world of the individual, and it is distinguished by its "unconventional subject matter and startling imagery". The expressive mode these women poets used "to capture intense, immediate perceptions and feelings tended to be personal, extreme and psychologically oriented". …