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  • When “I” Was Born: Women’s Autobiography in Modern China
  • Jennifer W. Jay (bio)
Jing M. Wang. When “I” Was Born: Women’s Autobiography in Modern China. Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2008. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0-299-22510-0, $65.00.

When “I” Was Born is a substantive inter-disciplinary study of Chinese women’s autobiographies published in the late 1920s and mid-1940s. Combing through extensive sources from classical Chinese historiography to literary works and women’s studies to contextualize her reading of these autobiographies, Jing Wang argues that these works should be seen as a genre of life writing, as defined by the author’s intent and signature. She reconstructs the historical progression of women’s life narratives, from male-authored official biographical traditions in pre-modern China to self-writing in the interwar years, when a large number of women wrote their life stories in response to the cultural and literary stimulus propelled by the May 4th movement in 1919. [End Page 758]

Wang’s objective is not a survey of women’s autobiographies; it is, as promised, an expertly documented, selective presentation showing why and how women constructed and connected their past with the present—the turbulent late 1920s to the mid-1940s. These women accepted the call by leading intellectuals such as the philosopher and educator Hu Shi (1891–1962) to write their life stories. The editor and novelist Lin Yutang (1895–1976) provided spiritual and financial encouragement to these women, who eagerly embraced the autobiographical form and content of translations of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712–1778) Confessions and the dancer Isadora Duncan’s (1878–1927) My Life. Of the large volume of life narratives that these women published, Wang briefly discusses five anthologies of short autobiographies, but devotes separate chapters to Lu Yin, Su Xuelin, Bai Wei, and Xie Bingying, who produced book-length autobiographies.

Wang walks us through the process by which the short autobiographies were inspired by western autobiographies and published in new journals such as Cosmic Wind, and later packaged in anthologies such as Their Lives, My Dream of Being a Genius, Prison House, and Confessions. My Dream of Being a Genius selected thirteen life narratives from 685 entries, including that of Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing, 1920–1995), who would become a literary luminary. Another anthology, Selected Autobiographies by Women Writers, was recently translated by Jing Wang and Shirley Chang, as Jumping through Hoops: Autobiographical Stories by Modern Chinese Women Writers (Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2003).

Next, we hear about Lu Yin (Huang Ying, 1897–1934), born in Beijing and a student of Hu Shi at Beijing University, who published a short life narrative but finished a book-length autobiography before she died in childbirth at the young age of thirty-seven. Considered a notable author of the May 4th generation, she wrote about her career and childhood trauma and rejection by her parents because she had been born on the day her grandmother died.

In the next three chapters, Wang examines three of Lu Yin’s contemporaries from different regions of China, who lived almost three times longer than she did. Wang notes that Su Xuelin (Su Hsueh-lin 1897–1999), a native of Anhui, engaged in autobiographical practice for a long period, from publishing her first autobiographical writing in 1929 to writing her latest at the age of ninety-four in Taiwan, where she spent the last half century of her life. A literary critic also renowned for her fiction, prose, and poetry, Su wrote her autobiographies while integrating history and biographical studies of other people into them. Her literary hero was the eminent poet Qu Yuan (340?–278 BCE), and she also admired Hu Shi and honored him as much as the great sage, Confucius (550–479 BCE). During Su’s thirty-six years of [End Page 759] marriage, she lived with her husband for only four years, and as in the case of Lu Yin, children are not mentioned in her autobiographies. Wang states that Su’s belief in the right of ordinary women to write their life stories, and her documentation of...