- Chinese Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1905-1948
Once a relatively marginalized topic, studies of women's participation in the formation of twentieth-century literary culture in China have proliferated rapidly in recent years, with scholars taking up topics ranging from the enduring legacy of inherited notions of gender and literacy to the preponderance (and [End Page 384] persistence) of autobiographical genres to literary articulations of alternative gender, sexual, and political identities and desires. Not only has such academic work contributed significant nuance to both our empirical and theoretical understanding of the specific historical conditions governing the production, publication, and reception of women's creative output, but it has gone beyond the received literary canon to bring a more expanded range of female authors and their diverse textual practices into current critical discussion.
Yan Haiping's latest study is a welcome addition to the ongoing endeavor to reexamine women's recent literary past in the Chinese context. Drawing upon a rich array of primary historical, biographical, and literary sources, Yan's book traces what she sees as the dynamic interplay between the feminist literary imagination of a number of leading women writers and the actual life trajectories of such women in the tumultuous period spanning the end of the Qing dynasty to the eve of the People's Republic. Central to her argument is the notion that the new literary genres, styles, and tropes associated with women's writing of these decades were not just products of concrete and often stunning changes in daily, bodily life experiences and activities of these authors but that they actively enabled the process(es) of transformation they inscribed. Thus Yan is ultimately less interested in the purely semiotic dimension of the texts in question than in restoring a sense of women's struggles to survive an era of extreme social violence and volatility as inseparable from their efforts to reimagine and rewrite the scripts of female life.
Following a short introduction, the study is organized in roughly chronological order as a series of case studies of individual or paired groups of women writers who are used to illustrate the ways in which women's lives and literary practices mutually inform and alter each other amid the "extreme violence" (243) that characterizes modern Chinese history. The first chapter details the painful physical makeover late Qing author-activist Qiu Jin underwent to revisit the idea that imaginative writings were "stains of blood and tears" (10). Chapter 2 focuses on early May Fourth authoress Bing Xin and other vanguard women writing at a moment "featuring an absence of sustaining social institutions, the reign of warlords in tangled warfare, and massive human displacement" (87) who seized upon literature to create an alternative formulation of community. Bai Wei and Yuan Changying, two playwrights who resisted counterrevolutionary trends in the aftermath of the Northern Expedition, are the subject of chapter 3. Chapter 4 traces the ways Xiao Hong and Wang Ying offer alternative images of kinship and home to counter the social deterioration and destruction wrought by the Japanese invasion and that each author personally experienced. And Ding Ling, whose life work extended through most of the aforementioned history and beyond is the subject of the final two chapters of the book. With the exception of Wang Ying, a fascinating figure in the world of stage and film performance in the 1930s and 1940s who nevertheless remains somewhat neglected in English-language scholarship, most of the writers Yan covers are by now familiar names to most serious readers and scholars of Chinese literature, though Yan consistently adds fresh biographical details and interpretative insights to demonstrate how their literary [End Page 385] output is inextricably linked to the historical moment in which they found themselves. Still, some chapters are more compelling than others and further more explicitly the central thesis of the book.
Of particular note in Yan's analysis throughout is the attention paid to the involvement of women writers in the performing arts—on stage or on screen as actresses, playwrights, or directors. Previous studies have...