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  • How Tani Barlow Answers The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism
  • Ellen Carol DuBois (bio)

The Journal of Women's History has asked me, as a historian of U.S. and international feminism, to write about Tani Barlow's ambitious study, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism. Although Barlow herself disavows translation, because it equates terms from different representational traditions, I have entered the territory of translation with respect to two languages to think through her book.

First, of course, there is Chinese. Barlow builds her study around the historical alternation between two words for women in the Chinese feminist tradition: funu and nuxing. The first situates/defines women with respect to family relations and kin roles, the second with respect to sexuality and sexual difference. The use of these words carries with them very different frameworks, not only for characterizing women but for setting in motion feminist politics.

The words themselves embody radically different sets of assumptions, which approximate but go beyond the debates we in the Anglo–American world have pursued with respect to our own highly loaded signifiers, "equality" and "difference." To radically simplify, funu looks to public life, politics, and work, for women's emancipation, and ignores or suppresses difference from men. At its worst, feminism built on the framework of funu turns women into second–rate men; at its best, it provides them with a material basis for entering into the flow of historical struggle. Nuxing, on the other hand, seeks to undo women's repressed sexuality and suppressed difference from men to find a radically different future. At its best it offers a revolutionary new subjectivity for women; at its worst, it traps them as a permanent "other." These two terms disappear and reappear at different moments in twentieth–century Chinese history, carrying with them elements of their previous usages, but reintroduced into shifting systems of thought. Funu was the foundation for the Maoist approach and also for contemporary Chinese social science women's studies, nuxing for the new women of the May 4th Movement and for contemporary Chinese postmodern feminism. The English language offers us no such ability to make distinctions. We have only one word, "woman."

The second language is that of postmodernism and cultural criticism, which is only marginally less foreign to me than Chinese. Barlow frames her sweeping history of feminist theorizing in China around two methodological [End Page 227] devices: "catachresis" and "future anteriority." "Catachresis" is a term of rhetoric which Barlow, following Gyatri Spivak, uses to mean "a concept in search of a referent." But that dictionary definition doesn't capture the point of the term, which is to emphasize a "not continuous but cumulative" history of thinking about, in our case, the emancipation of women (1). Catachreses appear to refer transparently to something basic in social experience, and yet are fundamentally abstract and imprecise. In her influential work, "Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History, Denise Riley takes this approach to the term "woman" in late–nineteenth–century Anglo–American usage. A catachresis is like a key word, but with emphasis on the elusiveness of definition. A feminist theorist writing the history of Chinese feminist theory, Barlow is interested in how words and concepts function independently of (though necessarily preceding) political activism. I found the approach quite useful in emphasizing the actively normative rather than passively descriptive role of language in political movements, the rich history built into terms that are so functional that they disappear into the very social reality that they are helping to create. The term itself, I must admit, I find unnecessarily abstruse.

Barlow also employs the term "future anteriority," in English, an obscure verb tense, as in "what I shall have been." I have had to struggle with this term, but as I understand it, the "future anterior" is the future imagined by the present, under certain terms of contingency: "what I shall have been IF" the future emerges from the present in particular, desired ways. In the hands of political theorists, Barlow argues, the "future anterior" represents an ethical ideal, a utopian inspiration. Her intent here is to look at the past as a present...