Academic journal article Intertexts

Subjectification of the Female Body in Ding Ling's "In the Summer Vacation"

Academic journal article Intertexts

Subjectification of the Female Body in Ding Ling's "In the Summer Vacation"

Article excerpt

In the semi-colonized China at the turn of the twentieth century, the discourse on the reformation of womanhood formed a crucial component of the nation's packaged emulation of Western-style modernity in its resistance to Western imperialism. Such an agenda, however, often--problematically--led the feminist undertaking to be overwhelmed by the nationalist project. At the same time, the enormous socio-economic changes taking place during China's transition from traditional to modern society, such as the repudiation of the traditional inner/outer boundary in intellectual discourse (1) and the emerging commodity culture, while helping to release women from traditional gender norms, also set up new physical as well as discursive restrictions about the female body. As "modern" womanhood was often appropriated as a marker of universal modernity, (2) the reimagining of the female body was fundamentally embedded within the discursive construction of the modern nation-state.

Aside from this, the abrupt social transitions often caused disturbing ruptures for female subjects--and indeed, male subjects as well--who had to go through changes to claim a modern identity supposedly cut off from tradition. The female body, as a result, became a contested site where different leitmotifs of Chinese modernity--gender, nation, subjectivity--became entangled even while they continued to conflict with one another. In this paper, I am going to examine the representation of the female body in Ding Ling's short story "In the Summer Vacation" (Shujia zhong), which, in my reading, reveals the problematic discursive construction of "modern" Chinese female subjectivity. (3) Centered around the subtle negotiations between the discursive as well as non-discursive making of the "modern" female subject and the prescriptive norms that are simultaneously produced and re-produced during this construction process, the story effectively discloses the tensions between female subjectivity and national subjectivity, which are often found in Chinese women writers' works in Dings time.

Working in the spirit of Alphonso Lingis, for whom "a body is a subject of and subjected to power and discourse" (286), I use the term "subjectification" in this paper to refer both to the making of the subject via discursive and non-discursive practices, and to the subordination of the subject to such power and discursive norms by which it is produced. In a Butlerian vein, treating the subjectification of the female body as a subtle process during which gender and sexual consciousness negotiates with the dominant patriarchal-nationalist discourse, I argue that the unsettled existence of female subjectivity in Ding Ling's story reveals the troubled position of the so-called Chinese "new woman" in the 1920s and 1930s, whose identity derived from, but turned out to be dissonant with, the patriarchal-nationalist discourse.

Written in 1928, the story "In the Summer Vacation" portrays a group of women teachers working and living in an isolated new-style girls' school in a small inland town. For various reasons--resistance against mediocre lives of average housewives, (self-) enclosure and lack of marriage opportunities, preference for female-female relationships, and/or avoidance of stressful and hostile gazes from the general public towards unconventional women who refuse to follow traditional gender rules--the teachers vow to abandon heterosexual marriages and live as couples, a decision that may not always be kept. During the long, idle summer vacation, such female-female relationships turn out to be fragile under the pressure of boredom and depression, and constant bickering almost tears apart the small community. Nevertheless, when the new semester approaches, the headmaster returns and the teachers seem to happily re-invest themselves into the cause of educating future citizens as much as into their practice of femalefemale relationships. New couples are formed, and life appears optimistic again, at least before the coming of the next vacation. …

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