WOMEN. In 20th-century China, the women’s emancipation movement began as part of the modernization agenda of the May Fourth Movement, which sought to transform China into a modern nation. The May Fourth intellectuals called for the education of a whole generation of “new women,” physically fit and mentally strong, to join the nation-building project. In order for women to participate in social reforms, traditional institutions that had subjugated them to practices such as foot-binding, arranged marriage, deprivation of education, and other forms of institutionalized discrimination against women had to be dismantled. On the political and legal front, reform-minded activists argued that since women’s equality was predicated on economic independence, laws should be passed to guarantee women legal rights to inherit property, a privilege only sons could enjoy in previous societies. In the campaign to give women economic independence and freedom, consensual marriage and women’s right to divorce their husbands were also put on the table. Based on the principles of gender equality and property ownership, the new legal codes passed in 1928 and 1929 granted Chinese women inheritance rights and freedom in marriage and divorce. The goals to acquire equal rights for education were also achieved. By the end of the 1920s, modern educational institutions at all levels were open to girls.
In the initial stage of the women’s emancipation movement, progressive male intellectuals were major advocates and they used literature as an important tool to embolden and mobilize women. Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, for example, was translated into Chinese and introduced by Hu Shi in the progressive journal Xin qingnian (New Youth) in 1918. Its main character Nora became synonymous with awakened and liberated women. Many characters modeled after Nora appeared in plays written by Chinese authors. Ouyang Yuqian’s Pofu (The Shrew) and Pan Jinlian (Pan Jinlian the Seductress) and Yuan Changying’s Kongque dongnan fei (Southeast Flies the Peacock) all feature female characters who fight for personal independence. Encouraged by these examples, many Chinese women ran away from home to become free agents in their own right.
In no small measures, women’s writings in the early 20th century appropriated the male discourse on women’s emancipation, but soon they developed a voice of their own. While the writings of Xie Bingying, Bing Xin, Lu Yin, Xiao Hong, Mei Niang, and others clearly subscribe to much of the emancipation ethos promoted by male authors, embracing the struggle against arranged marriage, the right to education, and gender equality, works by Ling Shuhua and Ding Ling, while deploring the gender-specific confinements imposed on women by traditional societies, insisted that women’s claim to subjectivity and intellect be accompanied by an emphasis on the development of strong female emotional and sexual desires. Later in the 1940s, Su Qing and Zhang Ailing brought women’s writings to a whole new level. Su’s prose, imploring her readers to understand the challenges faced by career women in the workplace as they struggled to make a living while defending their dignity and freedom, is surprisingly still relevant in today’s society. Zhang Ailing, while depicting urban trivia, delves deep into the psyche of women and men as they engage each other in the game of love and desire.
In modern Chinese literary discourse, the women’s emancipation movement that started in the early 20th century has never truly concluded to this day, and women’s struggle for autonomy has been a recurring theme in women’s writings. From Yuan Qiongqiong, Li Ang, and Shi Shuqing to Chen Ran, Xu Xiaobin, Hong Ying, and Lin Bai, the spotlight is focused on the female body in the belief that the raw intensity of female sexuality embodies women’s sense of self and is therefore a crucial component of the female identity. If the emphasis on the female body is narrowly and internally focused, the fascination with the matrilineal found in the works by such writers as Wang Anyi, Tie Ning, Zhang Jie, and Zhao Mei is by definition grand and epical. Wang’s Jishi yu xugou (The Real and the Fictitious) engages in mythmaking that takes the female narrator to where her maternal ancestry began—the grassland of the northern prairie; Tie’s Meigui men (Gate of Roses), Zhang’s Wu zi (No Written Word), Xu’s Yu she (Feathered Snake), and Zhao’s Women jiazu de nüren (Women in my Family) all trace back to their female ancestors to uncover the spring of strength or roots of madness that contribute to the current mental state of the female protagonists. By reclaiming or recreating the matrilineal records, which have been suppressed or erased by the male-dominated history-making enterprise, these women writers have attempted to rewrite not only individual clan history but also the history of the nation.
It goes without saying that not all women writers prefer to deal with women’s bodies or matrilineal history, or the domestic scene, and every good writer possesses a highly individualized autonomous aesthetic. So characterizing women’s writings in one way or another is no doubt risky. Nevertheless, there seems to be a remarkable consensus among critics with regard to the so-called feminine aesthetic of Zhang Ailing’s writing—known for its meticulous focus on social trivia and its exquisite descriptiveness of the sounds and sights of the urban scene, a style much imitated, even by male writers. The notion of the domestic as the privileged topos for women writers, for better or for worse, is widely accepted as a trademark of the so-called Zhang (Ailing) style. Wang Aiyi, Yuan Qiongqiong, Zhu Tianwen, Zhu Tianxin, Zhong Xiaoyang, and Bai Xianyong are all considered heirs to this feminine aesthetic. See also AN QI; BI SHUMIN; CAN XUE; CAO ZHILIAN; CHEN RUOXI; CHENG NAISHAN; CHI LI; CHI ZIJIAN; FAN XIAOQING; FANG FANG; FENG YUANJUN; HUANG BIYUN; HUO DA; LI BIHUA; LIAO HUIYING; LIN HAIYIN; LIN HUIYIN; LIU SUOLA; LU XING’ER; MA LIHUA; METSO; NIE HUALING; OUYANG ZI; PING LU; RU ZHIJUAN; SAN MAO; SHEN RONG; SHU TING; SU DE; SU WEIZHEN; SU XUELIN; WANG HAILING; WANG PU; WANG XIAONI; WANG XIAOYING; WANG XUFENG; WEI HUI; WOESER; XI MURONG; XI XI; XIA YI; XIAO HONG; XIAO LIHONG; XU KUN; YAN GE; YAN GELING; YANG JIANG; YANGDON; YE GUANGQIN; YI SHU; YO YO; YU LIHUA; ZHAI YONGMING; ZHANG ER; ZHANG JIE; ZHANG KANGKANG; ZHANG XIAOFENG; ZHANG XIN; ZHANG XINXIN; ZHANG YUERAN; ZONG PU.