- Feminist Utopian Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Chinese and English Fiction: A Cross-Cultural Comparison
In literary history, the established canon is often associated with stuffy authority and weighty tradition. But, more and more often, new readings and discoveries come along to shake up the canon or breathe fresh air into the hall of fame. Feministre readings of the canon and the inclusion of obscure texts penned by women are a good case in point. Utopian thinking adds ammunition to the feminist critical enterprise. The two are born allies in envisaging alternatives and critiquing the status quo. Ma Qian's book demonstrates how the two imaginaries and critiques, in a united front, are stronger than one and capable of making a strong protest.
This book offers a comparative reading of three English and three Chinese texts from the dual perspective of utopianism and feminism. The Chinese texts [End Page 173] are discussed alongside the English ones, and different discursive and cultural contexts are also elaborated one next to the other. Chen Duangsheng's Zaisheng yuan (Destiny after rebirth) is paired with Charlotte Lenonox's Female Quixote (published in 1752). Chen began writing Zaisheng yuan in 1769 as a tanci, a narrative often performed with musical accompaniment, but the book was not published until 1821. This rarely studied book portrays the literary adventure of a talented girl who excels in men's occupations and social positions. Next we come to a female construction of utopian domestic space. The Millennium Hall in Sarah Scott's novel Description of the Millennium Hall (1762) is paired with an analysis of the Grandview Garden (Daguanyuan) in Cao Xueqing's Dream of the Red Mansion. With a focus on the idealization of female characters, the author considers Lin Daiyu in Dream along with Clarissa in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. In its uniqueness and utopian boldness, Li Ruzhen's novel Jinghua yuan (Flowers in the mirror) (1818) does not seem to be comparable to any English text, so the novel stands alone under examination in one chapter.
One very interesting example of this comparative analysis is the juxtaposition of The Female Quixote and Destiny after Rebirth in the first chapter. The ground for comparison is romance, normally defined as a fantastic narrative of desire and wish fulfillment. Romance is shown to be intimately bound up with feminine desire. The heroine in the English romance, through her imagination enflamed by reading romantic tales, invents a life as adventurous, rich, and rewarding as she would like to lead. Similarly, the eighteenth-century text tanci turns out to be a kind of Chinese romance fueled by female desire. It was a literary form written about women, by women, and for women. Literary women used this form to express their wish for a freer life and their resentment of their bondage. The genre created numerous intelligent, bold, and adventurous female characters.
In this Chinese text the heroine runs away from her home and an imperially decreed marriage, disguises herself as a man, passes the imperial examinations—an exclusive preserve for men—and ultimately becomes a prime minister. With her superb talent and intelligence she rules over men. The Female Quixote portrays a headstrong young lady of noble birth who sets out to control her own destiny. A devourer of romance novels, she embarks on numerous exciting and colorful adventures in order to escape the conventional lot of courtship and marriage. This comparison makes the reader more appreciative of the culturally specific ways in which romance intertwines with female desire and fulfillment.
The question arises as to why these pairings—what besides the comparativist protocols warrants the juxtaposition of eighteenth-century Chinese texts with English ones written around roughly the same time.
Ma responds to this methodological challenge in two ways that grant the comparison a firmer base than coincidence in chronological time. First, she studies and contrasts the respective literary motifs and generic mutations in different texts. If one forgets the social and cultural background that...