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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.2 (2002) 90-126

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Towards an Ethics of Transnational Encounter, or “When” Does a “Chinese” Woman Become a “Feminist”?

Shu-Mei Shih

To begin, two narratives: A Chinese woman who had rehearsed for the lead role in the model opera “Red Azalea” [Dujuan shan] during the waning years of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s decided to emigrate to the U.S. 1 Upon arriving in 1984, she struggled to learn the English language and to make a living. In the span of a few short years, she successfully mastered English sufficiently to accomplish the unlikely task of writing a bestselling autobiographical novel, Red Azalea, named after the opera. The autobiography chronicles the traumas of the Cultural Revolution from a female perspective and clearly proclaims that America is the end of the author's search for freedom and self-expression as a woman. Another Chinese woman, who in the 1980s had single-handedly created the discipline of “women's studies” in the hinterland of China, the city of Zhengzhou in Henan Province, and had freely drawn from Western feminist classics in her writings, was invited to come to an academic conference on Chinese feminism in 1992 at Harvard University. There, she disagreed strongly with the assumptions of Western feminism as represented by some of the conference participants and has since publicly repudiated Western feminism. [End Page 90]

These two narratives seem to fall within two unrelated categories as objects of academic inquiry: the former belongs with questions of assimilation and multiculturalism in ethnic and diaspora studies; the latter raises questions of cross-cultural encounter and conflict in studies of First/Third World feminisms. The former may be construed as a domestic issue belonging to immigration studies or minority studies, since the author of the autobiography, Anchee Min, had clear intentions to stay in the U.S. and has since become a U.S. citizen; the latter may appear as an international topic, since the scholar Li Xiaojiang never intended to stay in the U.S. 2 The main factor weighing in such a conventional academic categorization, it seems, lies in the intentions and the different durations of their stays, where one is construed as immigration and the other as travel.

What complicates this neat distinction between immigration and travel, as is evident in the uneasy way in which the “sojourner mentality” of early Chinese laborers in the U.S. is dealt with in Asian American historiography, 3 is that the intention to stay and the duration of the stay are neither absolute nor useful markers of national, cultural, and individual “identity,” whether for Chinese gold diggers and laborers of the nineteenth century or for Chinese women in the late twentieth century of mobile capital, travel, and migration. 4 In the latter case, regardless of their national and legal citizenship, both women purport to speak as authentic Chinese persons representing China and Chineseness, the former from Hacienda Heights, California, who makes frequent trips to China, and the latter first from Zhengzhou, then Beijing and Dalian, China. Postcolonial studies, dangling over and between issues of immigration and travel, may be considered the fitting paradigm here that can accommodate both women's experiences—except that from the perspective of these Chinese women, their condition can hardly be considered postcolonial. (Post)socialist, in its implied, albeit limited, externality to capitalist-centric Western discursive practices, of which postcoloniality as theorized in the U.S. is an example, is a more appropriate descriptive term here. In the messiness of categorizing these two women vis-à-vis the artificial designations of disciplinary and methodological boundaries, we are coming closer to identifying the fluidity and complexity of our transnational moment, where migration, travel, and diaspora can no longer be clearly distinguished by intention and duration, nor by national citizenship and belonging. We are also witnessing, I think, the inability of postcolonial theory, which arose from capitalist postcolonies and [End Page 91] hypercapitalist metropoles, to deal adequately with the (post)socialist condition...


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pp. 90-126
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Archived 2004
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