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  • From a Distance of One Hundred and Twenty YearsTheorizing Diasporic Chinese Female Subjectivities in Geling Yan’s The Lost Daughter of Happiness
  • Sally E. McWilliams (bio)

Diasporic Chinese women's literature presents a recurring struggle to integrate the complexities of national and transnational pasts with contemporary manifestations of racial, gender, and sexual politics and histories. Geling Yan's The Lost Daughter of Happiness problematizes the narrative conventions used to depict diasporic Chinese female subjects (2001).1 Her examination of female subjectivity interrogates how diasporic Chinese women's narratives cross national, racial, and sexual boundaries. Yan casts her novel as the contestable ground for new feminist textualities and subjectivities of the diasporic Chinese female subject, writing in new ways previously unspoken stories. My analysis of Yan's novel examines the deployment of rescue narratives, the politics of interracial love affairs, and the power of the female gaze in light of the contemporary narrator's self-conscious cynicism about her Chinese heritage and positionality in the United States. Reading about these issues within the novel's metafictional framework compels readers to focus on the contradictions and paradoxes that gird Chinese women's narratives. Yan's text necessitates an investigation into the reconstruction of a feminist literary history and its relation to both the nation-state and current transnational practices of capitalism. In [End Page 133] shaping the discourse of female subjectivity into a site of competing experiences, perspectives, and meanings, The Lost Daughter of Happiness rewrites a masculinized and racialized nationalism into a feminist diasporic space of agency and potentiality.2

Yan's novel is a fictional account of two Chinese women, one living in the late twentieth century, the other situated in the late nineteenth century. The contemporary woman is an unnamed writer and feminist historian who wants to narrate the missing story of her nineteenth-century Chinese counterpart, Fusang. Fusang's story is one of entrapment, exploitation, and silent resistance as a Chinese prostitute in San Francisco's Chinatown of the 1860s. The narrator's personal story reveals a fifth generation cynicism and loss of direction in the urban landscape of contemporary multicultural America. In the course of Fusang's story we come to meet her young white male customer qua lover, Chris; the Christian missionary women engaged in saving Chinese prostitutes; and the infamous gangster, Da Yong, who marries Fusang. In the course of retelling Fusang's story the narrator reveals a world of interracial love, xenophobia, and alienation that unaccountably, and disturbingly, overlaps with her own life. The novel builds on these transhistorical reverberations through a metafictional commentary that draws the reader's attention to the challenge of writing feminist diasporic Chinese narratives. In other words, Yan creates a narrator who wants to write an empowering version of a Chinese prostitute's life, and yet throughout the course of the novel the narrator finds that her creation eludes her telling. Fusang refuses to be controlled, slipping beyond the narrator's creative and interpretive grasp. Rather than crafting a character who can explicate the gaps in the contemporary Chinese woman's cultural, national, and personal lexicon, the author Yan has created a narrator who cannot explicate her creation and a character who refuses to yield her story linguistically, materially, and representationally to the narrator's pen. In this postmodern gesture the novel rewrites itself: no longer merely a feminist recuperation of an exploited woman's story, the text becomes an interrogation into the processes of writing and self-representation that construct the parameters of the contemporary feminist diasporic subject and the historical narrative in which she finds herself. By contesting the rationality of linearity and the normative aspects of representation, the novel reveals the need for historical and literary connections for women of the Chinese diaspora but not at the expense of innovation, creativity, and female agency. [End Page 134]

New pathways for interrogating the construction of subjectivities in the age of globalization have opened thanks to the critical strategies scholars now employ in the burgeoning field of diaspora studies.3 Because the processes and effects of globalization are changing the way scholars and activists conceive of peoples, locations, and cultural artifacts, we can no longer take China...


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