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  • The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism
  • Yuk-Lin Renita Wong (bio)
Tani E. Barlow . The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. viii, 482 pp. Hardcover $99.95, ISBN 0-8223-3281-7. Paperback $27.95, ISBN 0-8223-3270-1.

In The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, Tani E. Barlow embarks on the breathtaking project of tracing the genealogy of the subject "women" in China, spanning three centuries from imperial Qing China in the eighteenth century through the market economy of post-Mao China in the twenty-first century. Barlow succeeds in such a massive project by focusing on the life work of three prominent Chinese feminists—Ding Ling, Li Xiaojiang, and Dai Jinhua—and a few selected male intellectuals in the early twentieth century as exemplars of Chinese feminist thought. Their individual lives and respective "thinking" about the subject "women" becomes the anchor for Barlow's inquiry into the material and discursive conditions of the specific eras in which they were situated. The analysis presented in this volume is built on a theoretical foundation of great breadth, integrating historiography, literature, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, feminist studies, film studies, and postcolonial studies. Capturing fully the scope and complexity of this valuable work is a challenge to the reader.

The introduction and first chapters lay the theoretical groundwork for the volume. Barlow introduces two related central concepts—historical catachresis and future anteriority—which help to organize her investigation into the "cumulative" and "discontinuous" thinking about the subject "women" in China. The concept of historical catachresis draws on the work of Gayatri Spivak and Raymond Williams; it refers to "a concept-metaphor without an adequate referent" (p. 15). Barlow takes up two notions of women, nüxing and funü, as catachresis, which she understands to be "occulted (i.e. concealed, hidden from view, condensed, made difficult to read) evidence of normalizing strategies which often appear as a subject form" (p. 32). Historical catachresis "retains the traces of the operating assumptions and normalizing strategies that characterize the other time and space" (p. 2). It is "concrete" and "refers to something irreducibly itself because people in the past have instantiated or testified to its veracity with reference to their own immediate experience" (p. 34). Drawing no distinction between experience and its ideation, Barlow considers historical catachreses as "highly ideated elements of lived experience" (p. 2) and "repositories of past meaning" (p. 34). The starting point for a history of catachreses "might be theories of corporeality and [End Page 57] an investigation of the material conditions that contemporary theories presume" (p. 2). As described, a history of catachreses appears to be like Foucault's established method of genealogy and does not seem to go beyond this method in its contribution to historiography.

"Seeking to accentuate the importance of the historical catachresis in the history of women in Chinese feminism," Barlow highlights future anteriority in history writing (p. 2): "The future anterior is a verbal construction used to stress the covert or anticipated future embedded in the present moment (or a moment that was a present in the past)" (p. 2). Future anteriority, or the focus on "what women will have been" as expressed in the futuristic desires and presuppositions in the writings of theorists and scholars in the past, "destabilizes the referent of women in documentary evidence" and "shifts the way we look at women from a state of being to a name for potentiality" (pp. 2-3). Historical catachresis is "a figure in the social imaginary of the future anterior" (p. 34) and returns us to "these lost possibilities or desires" (p. 3). Reading archival materials in the future anterior tense is useful in showing that "theorists in the past had motivated expectations and were not passively representing verities of 'context,' that is, things as they allegedly really were," as well as calling our attention to "the creative capacity of even the most ideological or banal style of feminist thought" (p. 3).

Chapter 2, "Theorizing 'Women,'" establishes the historicity of the catachreses of funü and nüxing. From the eighteenth century through the post-Mao reform economy, this chapter sketches out the prevailing social, historical, and...