After the fighter pilot Captain Yu Xu (余旭 1986-2016) was killed in a training accident in November 2016, commentators on Weibo commemorated her as "the Hua Mulan [花木蘭] of our era."1 Yu, one of China's first female fighter pilots, fit a mold for the female military personnel featured in Chinese media over the past decade—she met standards of female beauty and virtue and was eager to place herself in a typically masculine space. State media lauds such figures for their willingness to transcend gender norms on behalf of the nation.
As Louise Edwards explores in Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China, this view of China's female fighters has its roots in efforts over the twentieth century to legitimize successive waves of militarization by glorifying the military sacrifices of female citizens. While such women have frequently been presented as feminist pioneers, Edwards argues that their framing as female outliers actually reinforces the masculine monopoly on violence: they are commended for having broken the norms but are then often praised for subsequently or simultaneously succeeding at stereotypically female tasks such as raising children.
It is rarely women's satisfaction in or enjoyment of their military undertakings that is the focus of these stories. Instead, the filial duty that motivated Hua Mulan (she joined the army not because she wanted to but to spare her elderly father military service) was transformed during the early twentieth century into a national duty (women fight not because they want to but in service of the nation). Is it really feminism, Edwards asks, if something once done in service of the patriarchy is now done in service of the nation? In such a value system, feminism bolsters rather than challenges militarization, acting not in the interest of women but in the interest of those who claim a monopoly on violence.
Edwards pursues this argument through nine explorations of famous Chinese women warriors. The book begins with Hua Mulan, the model (as the Weibo commentators on Yu Xu's death highlight) by which all female fighters are judged in China. The remaining eight chapters examine women fighters from the first half of the twentieth century and the way that their stories have reverberated until today, including the revolutionary martyr Qiu Jin (秋瑾 1875-1907), the traitorous cross-dressing Manchu princess Aisin Gioro Xianyu (愛新覺羅顯玗 1907-1948?2), and the Communist teenage martyr, Liu Hulan (刘胡兰 1932-1947).
Each of these biographical chapters stands on its own, and all are useful as resources for introducing students to prominent women in modern China. Read together, however, these biographical explorations also make the case for several important trends in the ways that gender and war have been understood and deployed in China. [End Page E-1]
First, Edwards demonstrates that stepping into military spaces did give women new opportunities in the early twentieth century. For instance, the soldier Xie Bingying (謝冰瑩 1906-2000), the subject of chapter 4, was part of a generation of women who "saw warfare and participation in the military as an extension of the wars they were fighting on the family-front" (69). Women like Xie Bingying who became soldiers in the 1920s and 1930s proved that women could contribute to society in multiple capacities, and concomitantly more spaces opened to women.
Second, the shadow of sexual purity is long and confining. Several of the biographies—not just that of Aisin Gioro Xianyu but also those of the Nationalist "honey-trap spy" Zheng Pingru (鄭蘋如 1918-1940) and Ding Ling's complicated protagonist, sex slave and Communist spy Zhenzhen (貞貞)—highlight women caught in a bind as a result of their failure to maintain sexual purity. Acclaimed during the war for sacrificing even their virtue for the cause, in the postwar period such women were pilloried for sexual immorality. Edwards contrasts Zheng Pingru, whose execution bled away some of the taint of using sex to extract secrets from the Chinese collaboration government, to the life of another female spy, Guan Lu (關露 1907-1982), a writer and an agent of the...