Writing Women in Modern China: The Revolutionary Years, 1936-1976

By Wang, Lingzhen | The China Journal, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Writing Women in Modern China: The Revolutionary Years, 1936-1976


Wang, Lingzhen, The China Journal


Writing Women in Modern China: The Revolutionary Years, 1936-1976, edited by Amy D. Dooling. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. x + 323 pp. US$64.50/£42.00 (hardcover), US$24.50/£ 16.00 (paperback).

In her second anthology of Chinese women's literature, on the revolutionary years (1936-76), Amy D. Dooling offers us another excellent collection of Chinese women's literary works in a variety of genres, themes and voices which further helps us re-situate and redefine Chinese women as concrete historical subjects. The book covers three major political and literary periods - the left-wing movement of the 1930s, the Sino- Japanese War (1937-45) including Shanghai during and after occupation (1937-48), and the socialist era (1949-76) - and presents twelve well- and lesser-known women writers working in a variety of literary genres, such as diary, reportage, fiction, essay, drama and autobiography. In addition to an insightful and engaging introduction, Dooling provides a concise and informative biographical essay for each of her subjects. The anthology also includes Chinese women's writing about their experiences abroad, in countries such as Germany and America (Hu Lanqi, Yang Gang), and stories that depict women in other countries, such as Germany and Japan (Hu Lanqi, Xie Bingying). The "Supplementary Readings" listed at the end of the book are especially helpful for those wishing to read either additional critical studies on related subjects or other important literary pieces by the writers included in the anthology.

This anthology stands out for its special emphasis on the complicated relationship between women and Chinese revolutions. I have long lamented the lack of adequate introduction to and translation of Chinese women's artistic practice in relation to Chinese political revolutions, a legacy that demands critical re-examination in today's transnational feminist practice and theory. Thus I found particularly valuable and important the inclusion of works by such women writers as Yang Gang, Bai Wei, Chen Xuezhao, Zong Pu and Ru Zhijuan.

For example, the two journalistic essays on Yan'an during the Sino-Japanese War, by Chen Xuezhao, a May Fourth literary veteran and feminist and also the first Chinese woman to have traveled to Yan'an and documented life there, offer fresh and revealing sketches of the Communist region in the late 1930s and 1940s. These sketches differ from, yet complement, Ding Ling's later, better-known writing. Chen's more straightforward and positive depiction, especially the contrast she makes in her "The Essentials and Ambience" (1940) between Yan'an's spartan material conditions and its pure and enlightening spirit, and her own subsequent move to Yan'an as a permanent member there, demonstrate a different take on and reflection of Communist policy and practice in the Yan'an era. Chen's pieces, together with Ding Ling's writing, enrich and complicate the relationship between intellectual, urban feminism and Chinese Communist revolution in a particular historical context, helping us revise the oversimplified view of the relationship in current scholarship.

Ru Zhijuan' s "The Warmth of Spring" (1959) provides the English translation of another good and rare examination of the desires and transformations of women (both the writer and the character) in the socialist construction of the new China and new people in the 1950s. Well-known for her ability to convey socialist themes through details and sentiments, Ru Zhijuan grounds this short story in the vicissitudes of an urban working-class woman's daily activities and domestic responsibilities, detailing her gentle desire, small happiness and emotional loss and her gradual transformation into a socialist subject, a change that finally, ironically, wins back her model-worker husband's affection and respect. As Dooling rightly points out in her introduction, the story raises concrete questions about how the state should reorganize social and domestic responsibilities to reallocate women's labor in the public sector and how it should "take concrete measures, not just inspiring emancipatory rhetoric, to enable women of New China to move beyond their traditional subordination and perform the public roles now expected of them". …

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