Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity between the Wars

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Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity between the Wars. By Katrina Gulliver. I.B. Tauris, 224pp, Pounds 56.00. ISBN 9781848859395. Published 21 February 2012.

This book's title reflects an original and bold move, namely to focus on the location of Katrina Gulliver's subjects (modern women in China and Japan) rather than their national, cultural and/or linguistic background. Her selection of case studies is partly consistent with this approach, as she discusses four Anglo-Saxon women who spent a significant portion of their lives in East Asia, a Chinese woman educated in the US, and a Japanese woman living and writing in Japan. While influenced by the racial and cultural stereotyping typical of Orientalism, all these women engaged such stereotypes critically and offered original views of gender and modernity.

Nobel prizewinning author Pearl Buck, born and raised in southern China by her missionary parents, carefully constructed her self-image as a bilingual and bicultural woman, and used it as a basis for a critique of both Chinese and US gender conventions. With the authority supposedly conferred by her years living there, Buck wrote disparagingly of Chinese culture, attacking what she perceived as misguidedly idealised views of the country by Western authors. At the same time, she condemned the lack of gender equality in the US and hailed Chinese rural society as a better alternative.

Stella Benson, an English novelist who moved to China in her late twenties and remained there until her death at 41, also expressed ambivalent views about the notion of the "modern woman". A self-declared feminist, Benson was supportive of Western activists' patronising attempts to "educate" their Chinese sisters in women's rights, yet was also critical of modernity and its impact on gender relations.

Sophia Chen Zen was one of the first Chinese women to study at a foreign tertiary institution, enrolling at Vassar College in 1915 with a scholarship offered by the so-called Boxer Indemnity Program. In her short stories she describes her experience as a foreign student at a US university. The texts, ostensibly for a Chinese audience, were published in English, thus inviting multiple cultural and linguistic identifications by readers.

Caroline Bache McMahon, a US journalist who spent 14 years in Japan between the 1920s and 1930s, also had ambivalent feelings about her expatriate status. …