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Reviewed by:
  • Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories
  • Ruiqi Ma
Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories. By Wang Zheng. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xv + 402.

In Wang Zheng's Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories, the term "Chinese Enlightenment" refers to the New Culture Movement (1917- 1926), when Chinese intellectuals attempted to introduce "democracy," "science," and other Western ideas into the indigenous Chinese cultural system in response to the military and ideological challenges from the West. The espousal of women's rights and equality between men and women were among the primary goals of the New Culture Movement. Women in the Chinese Enlightenment reconfigures the narrative of that period through a female perspective. Examining the life stories of five women who were born at the very beginning of the twentieth century, Wang [End Page 139] argues that these women, who worked as a school principal, an attorney, an editor, an educator, and a career revolutionary in the early decades of the past century, are the "forgotten heroines" (p. 119) of modern Chinese history and the real pioneers of the Chinese feminist movement.

The first part of the book describes Chinese society around the year 1920 and offers a sketchy outline of the history of China after that period. The second part, which is also the major section, consists of hybridized texts of authorial narration and interviews with the five women, who were socially and politically active in that era. The structure of the book clearly indicates the author's intention to narrate personal recollections within the framework of official history. The hybridization of oral and textual narratives in recounting the intimate lives of the five women helps the reader to get a general impression of a tumultuous moment in Chinese history. Furthermore, the oral histories of these five women give the book a uniquely female perspective. It is indeed a pathbreaking contribution to make women the primary narrators of a national history, the major witnesses of social transition, and the essential participants of a cultural movement. In taking such an approach, Wang not only affirms the contribution of Chinese female intellectuals to the enlightenment movement as well as to the modernization of China; she provides as well an analysis of the ignorance of the predominant discourses on Chinese feminism. As a consequence, her emphasis on the social changes brought about through the individual efforts of women, as demonstrated by the five women presented here, subverts and disrupts the Chinese Communist Party's narrative of women's liberation, which has up to now accentuated the importance of Marxist ideology and the socialist system to the development of the Chinese feminist movement.

One of the author's strengths is her effective organization of her materials. She efficiently utilizes the abundant official texts on the "woman problem" (p. 36), largely written by men, while at the same time she boldly employs the oral histories preserved and told by women. The textualization of the oral history of women, supplementing the male narrative on women and the "woman problem," serves as the cornerstone for "creating a feminist discourse" (p. 35). In addition, the author makes use of many manifestos and journal articles from the 1920s on the rights and roles of Chinese women. Enhanced by an accurate and excellent translation, this book becomes all the more informative and useful to other researchers wishing to explore the impact of Western ideology on Chinese women and the relationship between Chinese nationalism and feminism.

In addition to its intellectual intensity and scholarly excellence, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment is an unusually affecting human document because of the poignancy and universality of the narration by women of their experiences in the struggle for recognition as equal partners with men in a male-dominated world. The story of their trials and triumphs has relevance to women worldwide.

On the cover of the book are photographs of the five respondents. The contrast between the images of them taken in their youth and those taken in their senior years is so enormous that it inspires a profound contemplation on life and the passage of time. In other words, this is...


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pp. 139-141
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