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  • Chinese Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1905–1948
  • Rong Cai (bio)
Yan Haiping. Chinese Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1905–1948. Asia’s Transformations. London: Routledge, 2006. xii, 299 pp. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 0–415–23288–0.

One cannot approach the development of modern China without talking about “the woman question.” An integral part of China’s efforts at survival and modernization, “the woman question” is both a social issue of great urgency as well as a trope in the new intellectual discourse of self-representation and modernity. Given its central position, it is not surprising that “the woman question” has featured prominently in scholarly studies on modern China and its project of new nation building. The past decade or so saw the publication of a number of monographs dissecting, understanding, and unpacking the feminist agenda in the modern revolution. Chinese Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1905–1948 by Yan Haiping is yet another effort at probing the complex feminist yearnings that motivated women pioneers to breach the ideological, spatial, and representational boundaries employed by various social forces to confine women within their agendas and configurations.

In both methodology and critical perspective, Chinese Women Writers seeks to distinguish itself from previous “word-centered” studies on female writers by treating the female writers’ fictional world and their social activities as inseparable components of feminist praxis. The “word-centered” approach, Yan argues, takes the writings of female authors as the locus of modern feminist imagination without fully considering how this imagination is embodied by these women’s own actions in the real world. The emphasis on fictional writing leaves out women, such as Qiu Jin, whose literary output is relatively thin but whose impact on feminist thought is as significant as that from more prolific writers.

What gives the otherwise divergent and colorful modern feminist vision a distinctive shape is its defiance of the “modern regimes of intelligibility” (p. 11) that interpret and organize the world with a binary system based on biology and ethnicity: the strong versus the weak, male versus female. This “bioethnic” politics, the author charges, commits a double violence against the Chinese nation and women. The label not only reduces them to the designated weak position, but it also becomes “evidence” of their intrinsic and irreversible “weakness.” Acceptance of the label is submission to modern Western nationalist logic that fixes the “weak” in an ontologically disadvantaged position in power relations. In their feminist arguments and activities, Chinese women writers “missed” the bioethnic logic, making female agency and empowerment of the weak the focus of their imagination and struggles. [End Page 276]

This reading of the modern feminist imagination provides a thematic center for Yan’s book. Chronologically organized, Chinese Women Writers analyzes the “lifework” of a wide range of “writing women” in the first half of the twentieth century, from early anti-Manchu activists such as Chen Xiefen, Xu Jinqin, and Qiu Jin to leftist and communist writers such as Ding Ling. Chapters 1 and 2 are devoted to women in the republican revolution who exemplify the border-crossing feminist imagination both literally and figuratively. Stepping out of the inner chambers of the gentry family, women revolutionaries invented a new body image for themselves and went abroad to study. Active in the republican revolution, these female pioneers redefined the nature and purpose of womanhood. Promoting the Western model of women’s rights in China, early feminist writers such as Chen Xiefen and Qiu Jin advocated universal equality and a new future, disregarding bioethnic power politics and refuting women’s “naturalized” weak position. Their bodily transformation in social action and their writings engender each other. As a result of the dynamic relation, their writings are “constitutive of and not merely reflections of changes in life” (p. 43).

Bing Xin, a well-known May Fourth writer whose creative career spanned five decades, is the focus of chapter 3. Reading muai (mother’s love, motherly love)—the dominating ethos of Bing Xin’s creative work—against the critical reception that questions its social relevance in times of national chaos, the chapter illustrates how Bing Xin endows muai with multiple meanings, evoking but also transforming Christian...