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  • When "I" Was Born: Women's Autobiography in Modern China
  • Hong Zeng (bio)
When "I" Was Born: Women'S Autobiography in Modern China, by Jing Wang. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. 266 pp. $65.00.

In Emerging from the Horizon of History, Dai Jinhua wrote, "for those women writers not avoiding revealing their female identity, writing is not so much 'creation' as 'salvation.' It is salvation of the self that is not 'nothing' yet but will soon be. It is salvation of the authenticity of female lives drown by others' discourses."1

Throughout Jinhua's work, which she coauthored with Meng Yue, it is pointed out that "woman" is an empty signifier into which male literary narratives throughout Chinese history (from feudal to revolutionary, progressive narratives) infused their ideological preconceptions, from which women writers struggled with partial success to break free. Based on the similar thesis, another recent critic, Jin Feng, in her The New Woman in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction, also provides a corrective view of the [End Page 399] images of New Women in male fictions by comparing them with those created by early modern women writers, such as Bing Xin, Lu Yin, and Ding Ling.2

Jing Wang's When "I" was Born: Women's Autobiography in Modern China is the first book that gives authenticity to the silenced female voice by studying women's autobiography—a genre ignored by the voluminous criticism on Chinese women writers between the 1920s and 40s. Before going into the details of each woman writer's autobiography, Wang paves a firm theoretic and empirical basis by revealing the causes of the negligence of female autobiography, and the birth of the genre in its historical, economical, and cultural context.

Wang points out, convincingly, that the conflation of biography and historiography in Chinese literary history obliterates biography's independent status. The central position of fiction in the New Cultural Movement also renders women's autobiography invisible. While Jinhua and Yue tried to salvage the individual sensibilities of the same group of early modern women writers out of the nationalistic, collective agenda of the New Cultural Movement and Anti-Japanese War, Wang also puts forward the sensitive and intelligent question, "how did Chinese women's autobiography come into being at a historical time that favored collective action over individualistic choice?" (p. 5). Her answers are: precisely because the literature genre was asked to serve society, women writers gave vent to their autobiographical impulses in autobiography, therefore autobiography, more than their fiction, expressed their unassimilated personal voices. With admirable thoroughness and discipline of historical research, Wang also identifies the influence of Western life writings on Chinese women's autobiographies, life writings such as those by Isadora Duncan and Jacques Rousseau. In regard to economic factors, Wang links the emergence of female autobiography to the book market of the 1930s.

In her chapters on individual writers, Wang studies the narrative strategies in women's autobiography. She discovers that Lu Yin's development from chronological to thematic storytelling in her autobiography helps to reshape her life in the process of writing for the purpose of self-direction. Su Xuelin's reinscription of her name alongside male literary giants reinstates her position in modern Chinese literary history. Bai Wei's delirious narrative weaves into one fabric the past and the present, and highlights most of all the thesis that female autobiography intersects the retrospective and lived experience to allow the birth of self in the act of writing. Wang's study of Xie Bingying's autobiography published in installments is an excellent example of cross-cultural study and cultural translation. It shows the interwoven influence of Western translation of her work and China's collective survival effort.

Besides her discovery of a hitherto ignored genre—women's autobiography—the most original thesis made by Wang is: "autobiography is not [End Page 400] about the truth of the lived experience; it is about the retrospection and interpretation of the experience as the writer is situated in her present moment in history and geopolitical location" (p. 188). This discovery underscores writing as a process: a fluid quality that associates itself with Western feminist theory. Women's intimate...


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pp. 399-402
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