When I was doing research for my book Women and Writing in Modern China in the 1990s, I was trying to untangle a knot of questions about what including women writers and their work in the sphere of “literature” could possibly mean. During this time, gender meaning in premodern and modern China was under intense investigation by scholars and activists both in and out of China, which made the project both exciting and, to some degree, experimental. Whether there is such a thing as women’s writing—with not only thematic concerns but also stylistic markers—was an important topic in 1920s China, when national modernisation seemed to hinge on changes in the social role of women. I found that there was a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between women and literary writing, which was largely formed and controlled by male literati and their modern counterparts, male intellectuals. Literary talent, in other words, was gendered as male.
As I evaluated literary writing by women and by men who highlighted female characters, I found disturbing signs that imagining women as fully embodied literary agents was difficult. For female authors, trying to write as women brought up troubling specters. If they found a voice through the much-admired poetic tradition, which was branded as essentially (and positively) feminine by important male scholars such as Xie Wuliang (1884-1964), they were subject to criticism from leftists, who attacked the lyricism of the past as overly emotional and trivial and demanded a literature of social engagement. If they made the vaunted switch from “love to revolution,” they gave up anything that could be called a female tradition or a female voice. In thematic terms, highlighting female experience seemed to take attention away from the national predicament and question women’s dedication to so-called larger issues. And invoking the historical condition of women as something that must be changed for the nation to go forward brought up the possibility that women were so diminished by their exclusion from intellectual activities that by the 20th century, they were little more than a collection of narrow domestic concerns and artificiality.
During the 1950s, the goal was to unify the nation behind the political vision of literature outlined by Mao Zedong in his “Talks on Literature and Art at the Yan’an Forum” in 1942. Women were supposed to hold up half the sky, or be equal to men in all fields. Female writers, like male writers, were sent to learn from the masses so they could write stories that commoners could read and enjoy. Many moved away from May Fourth writing that featured well-off young women like themselves, embracing the new revolutionary ethos and writing about peasants and rural life. For example, Ding Ling (1904-1984), who escaped from a house arrest imposed by the Nationalists and made her way to the revolutionary base of Yan’an, reformed herself, focusing on political ideology, daily life in the countryside, and mass movements. In 1951, she won the second Stalin Prize for Literature for her land reform novel The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River, which has little to do with gender. This accolade did not shield Ding Ling from criticism in a national campaign during the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957, when her most famous story, “Miss Sophie’s Diary (1927), came under attack for its individualised and sexualised heroine, and herself for her pursuit of literary fame. Ding Ling spent twelve years doing manual labor on a farm and was not rehabilitated until 1978.
The socialist tendency to downplay gender politics left a profound influence on women writers who grew up under Maoism. During the 1980s, Wang Anyi (1954-), arguably the most famous female writer in China, stated that being branded as a woman writer diminished her. Her goal was to become a “real writer” just as the men were. Literature written by women, Wang said, relied too much on examining and expressing emotions, avoiding big topics, and thus was less powerful than writing by men. And the journalist and writer Dai Qing (1941-) went even further, arguing that intelligent men outnumbered intelligent women, so it was logical that more of the best writers were male than female. While these statements may be hard to accept, Chinese women writers were trying to carve out a position for themselves in a way that not only allowed for local recognition, but also that differentiated their approach from that of the West, which they regarded as having developed a model of feminism that may not work in China. They sought an indigenous form of feminism that would take Chinese history and the country’s contemporary conditions into account.
More recently, women writers have broken new ground in examining how gender works in China. Rapidly developing capitalism has opened markets, but also has commodified both women and men, whose labor is exploited in the market. Young women, however, are particularly vulnerable, because they are targeted as sexual labourers. Educated women complain that the most lucrative job open to them is as er’nai (literally, second wife, or a woman who accepts housing and expenses from a married man in exchange for sexual and companion services), a social practice that has seen a resurgence in the post-Mao era. The “beauty writers” of the late 1990s and early 2000s addressed this contradictory state, wherein sexual liberation and sexual exploitation were part of a confusing mix of consumerist lifestyles. Female characters in the fiction of Wei Hui (1973-), Mian Mian (1970-), and Anni Baobei (1974-) seek autonomy and sexual pleasure, but often find themselves used.
Although not a young writer, Xu Xiaobin (1953-), who published Crystal Wedding in English 2015 (it has not been published in China), has delved into the social conditions that turn some into “leftover women” who are pressured to marry, writing directly about sex, corruption, and violence. Although Xu claims to have “no interest in politics,” her work portrays a culture—built through political decisions—in which women lose any sense of themselves, becoming little more than playthings or manipulators. She investigates the history that lies behind this situation in her earlier novel Feathered Serpent (2004), which depicts uncomfortable family relations over five generations, highlighting female experience. Xu’s unrelenting novels imply that whereas women still get the short end of the stick, systemic sexual corruption is the norm and everyone is complicit: women pander to men to get ahead, and men look on women as sexual prey.
In the hyper-consumerist society that China has become, the question of whether women writing should be thought of as women’s writing has not been resolved. Xu Xiaolin’s fiction, however, suggests that in a commodified environment, a sharp, self-critical attitude is equally as important.
Wendy Larson is Professor Emerita of Modern Chinese Literature and Film at the University of Oregon. She has published extensively on 20th century Chinese culture, including works such as Literary Authority and the Chinese Writer: Ambivalence and Autobiography (Duke University Press, 1991), Women and Writing in Modern China (Stanford University Press, 1998), and Zhang Yimou: Globalisation and the Subject of Culture (Cambria Press, 2017). Image credit: Lexi Lee/Flickr