Gender has increasingly become an important lens for the critical study of modern Chinese literature in recent years. Making valuable contributions to the accumulating scholarship, the two books reviewed here show significant differences in approach and emphasis that reflect major fault lines in contemporary Chinese literary studies. Whereas Larson strongly argues the need to situate modern Chinese women’s writing in a discursive context shaped by traditional notions of gender and literature, Lieberman vigorously lays out the boundary-breaking possibility of reading modern Chinese fiction through the “alien arguments” of contemporary critical theory, especially feminism, postmodernism, and psychoanalysis. Underlying this divergence in approach is a diametrically different emphasis in the orientation of Chinese studies. Mindful of perpetrating cultural imperialism, Larson conscientiously draws out and preserves the “difference” of the Chinese materials from a hegemonic modernity originated in and dominated by the west. To Lieberman, however, this established pattern of Chinese studies cannot, despite its good intentions, disavow its effect of “policing” a border that excludes and contains China as other. A better alternative, she proclaims, is to confront and celebrate the “uncanny moments when the boundaries lose their coherence.” Reading the two spirited books together affords reflection on the respective strengths and limitations of these positions. [End Page 536]
Larson’s study explores the interaction between notions of the “new woman” and “new writing” to delimit the parameters of women’s writing in early twentieth-century China. Central to her thesis is the argument that, while women’s liberation and an autonomous aesthetic were universally taken to be essential elements of modernization, the gender and literary discourses developed from these claims were specific to different nations and contingent on the cultural traditions. To explore the gendered meaning of literary writing in modern China, then, it is necessary to attend to the “continuing significance of premodern ideological paradigms,” which Larson characterizes as the gendered opposition of de (moral virtue) and cai (literary talent). Drawing on an array of current research on gender and writing in premodern China, Larson argues that a hierarchical ordering of yang/male/positive over yin/female/negative was consolidated in China by the late Ming period in response to perceived western challenges to Chinese notions of gender. This hierarchy maintained an essentializing gender practice which confined women to a subordinate sphere of the “inside” and the familial under the regulating concept of de, enacted in physical discipline and self-sacrifice, and registered by bodily restrictions and mutilations such as chastity and widow suicide. Categorically excluded from this feminine moral virtue was cai, “a transcendent quality that contained a variable content of profound lyricism, deep intellectuality, and analytical skill.” The continuing effect of such a gendered opposition between virtue and writing on discourses of gender and women’s writings in early twentieth-century China is what Larson seeks to establish in her book.
Organized around women’s negotiation of the complex meanings invested in the female body in fictions written in the 1920s, one chapter examines the nationalist demand on a strong female body as signifier of national health and strength, the female body’s continued importance as a site of labor for heterosexual desirability in modern relationships, and women’s claim to subjectivity and intellect which, in women’s writings, is accompanied by the body’s effacement and the development of strong female emotional and erotic relationships. In the writings of Ling Shuhua, Chen Hengzhe, Bing Xin, and Lu Yin, Larson argues specifically that the effacement of women’s bodies reveals how “the female body carried with it into modern times the contamination and antiliterary ideology of the physical woman modulated, tempered, [End Page 537] and toned through moral virtue.” Against this morality-inflected body inherited from tradition, women writers created in their fictions female-oriented relationships rather than marriages embodying the modern virtues of equality or motherhood, with its moral task of educating a new generation of nation-builders.
This focus on relationships and female subjectivity, Larson further argues...