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  • When "I" Was Born: Women's Autobiography in Modern China
  • Janet Ng (bio)
Jing Wang . When "I" Was Born: Women's Autobiography in Modern China. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. 272 pp. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 978-0-299-22510-0.

Chinese autobiographical writings of the early twentieth century encompass all the literary and intellectual issues of the time: the paradoxical relationship between realism and romanticism, the all-consuming contradiction between individualism and nationalism, the difficulties of using a new vernacular language and the resultant representational problems it created, and the new vista and sense of realness this new language opened up. Autobiography in the early twentieth century is an exciting subject of exploration. However, substantial studies of autobiographies of this period are few. Jing Wang's work in this area is a welcome addition to this scholarship. [End Page 272]

Jing Wang's study, however, sidesteps discussions of the generic complexities of autobiography. Wang begins her study with a survey of the historical norms of autobiographical writings, hagiography, and historical biography in premodern China. This broad survey of the genealogy of autobiography is an attempt to present an argument that women's autobiographical writing in the early twentieth century is a new phenomenon. Wang's aim in this study is to recover the effort of a number of women writers who, despite their valiant but brief literary assertions during the May Fourth period, quickly slipped into oblivion. Wang argues that this neglect is a result of women writers' propensity for the autobiographical.

The rise of autobiographical writing, according to Wang, can be attributed to inspiration from Western works introduced into China through translations. The preponderance of autobiographical writing among women is indicative of the difficulty, if not impossibility, for women to be assimilated fully into the dominant political world. Wang argues that women's expression, which was mostly personal, was deemed irrelevant to the urgent discourse of the nation at the time and was ignored. Indeed, women were, by and large, trapped at home, physically and metaphorically. That many women writers found the best stories to tell in their own lives is not surprising.

Wang also argues that one of the driving motivations for women to write autobiographically is to redefine femininity. From their refusal to depict domestic scenes, to the rejection of traditional marriage, to the adoption of masculine appearances and affects, they literally used their own selves to reimagine women's stories and presence in society. Without a doubt, the life stories of the women Wang has chosen to study, Su Xuelin, Bai Wei, Lu Yin, and Xie Bingying, are gripping and dramatic, and at times, stormy and heroic. Their challenge of the patriarchy was with the full force of their physical bodies. Lu Yin's raging emotions and the disease eating at her body, for example, are more than literal. However, a number of women writers during the May Fourth period faintly disguised their autobiographies as fiction or barely fictionalized their own stories. Writers, such as Bing Xin, Ling Shuhua, Lin Hui Yin, and Lu Jingqing, wrote primarily in the mode that can be characterized as hyper-femininity, or "good-girls texts." Where do their works sit in the framework of Wang's discussion? If "autobiography" as a genre is uniquely important to the process of self-invention, then it is important that we identify the qualities of autobiography as a genre that allow this to happen.

While it seems futile to attempt a conclusive definition of autobiography, there are, nevertheless, certain questions around the genre that would help readers grasp the importance of the particular works chosen for study in this volume. Why was there a full blossoming of autobiography in the 1920s and 1930s, and why is it a compelling literary device especially for women? What literary and epistemological changes arose in the 1920s that created accessibility of autobiography, especially to women? Wang generally explains that modern "autobiography [a]s not about the truth of the lived experience; it is about the [End Page 273] retrospection and interpretation of the experience as the writer is situated in her present moment in history and geopolitical location" (p. 188). This reading strategy is...