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  • Dragonflies: Fiction by Chinese Women in the Twentieth Century
  • Deborah D. Buffton (bio)
Shu-ning Sciban and Fred Edwards. Dragonflies: Fiction by Chinese Women in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 2003. vii, 226 pp. Paperback, ISBN 1-885445-15-6.

The events of the twentieth century transformed Chinese society in dramatic ways. The Revolutions of 1911 and 1949, along with World War II, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-Mao era, all left their mark on a society that had been characterized—sometimes inaccurately—as "traditional," conservative, and unchanging. This mixture of continuity and change is evident in the lives of Chinese women. In some ways the conditions of women's lives in the 1990s were light years from what they had been in 1925. In other ways things seem not to have changed at all. Dragonflies: Fiction by Chinese Women in the Twentieth Century, reflects that complex reality.

Dragonflies is a collection of twelve selections of novellas and short stories by Chinese women, published between 1925 and 1994. The editors state that they sought to find stories that portrayed "ordinary" women—women who "are neither revolutionary nor ambitious, . . . who seek no more than a simple and happy life" (Introduction, p. 1). The term "dragonfly" is used to represent women "at the peak of life, young and beautiful" (Introduction, p. 21) The stories are arranged chronologically by publication date and provide an array of perspectives on the lives and concerns of women in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in the twentieth century. The Introduction by Shu-ning Sciban offers an overview of events and concerns of Chinese women throughout history, but especially in the twentieth century, and places the stories and their authors in that context. This helps the reader recognize the similarities and differences among women's experiences over time and in the three geographic regions. Each story is prefaced by a brief biography of its author.

Despite the social, political, and economic tumult that has characterized life in China in the twentieth century, there is little that is overtly "political" in these stories. For example, the transfer of Lin Yun in "Women" (1956) only touches on Party politics; in "Love in the Fallen City" (1943), the Japanese occupation of Shanghai seems invisible, although the invasion of Hong Kong is an integral part of the plot. Instead, through all the stories, the larger theme is patriarchy and how it has shaped and controlled relations between women and men and the responses of women themselves. Regardless of the governmental system, it is patriarchal assumptions that shape the lives and personalities of the characters.

These stories illuminate the tension between women's ideals for themselves and the expectations of family, lovers, workers, and society at large. Marriage is the lens through which women are seen and judged. The lives of unmarried women [End Page 169] are not easy, as they are pressured to act in ways that will bring about marriage, or are relegated to a life of loneliness and caring for elderly parents ("Sisters" [1994], "The Embroidered Cushions" [1925], "Rapeseed" [1982]). Married women are subject to physical and mental abuse or to the dismissal of their earlier dreams and ambitions ("My Neighbor" [1945], "Rapeseed"). Women who divorce are dependent on their families for support and considered poor candidates for remarriage ("Love in the Fallen City" [1943]).

In "Sisters," Wang Anyi writes of women who were about to marry: "it was frightening to think about life in the future. A strange village, strange people, a strange home, even you yourself became strange. You would spend the rest of your life in strangeness" (p. 208). In a sense, that applies to many of the women in these stories. They are aliens in their own homes; they have little control over their own destiny, much less the system that determines their fate. Furthermore, their life experiences shape and distort them. In "Rapeseed," for instance, the conditions under which Ah-hui's mother has had to live turn her into an embittered and impossible old woman who perpetuates the system that stunted her own potential. Similarly, in "Waiting for Dusk" (1990), the narrator...


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