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Female Voices in Chinese Literature


Many recent studies have focused on female representation in art and literature. Researchers are turning their interest toward the fleeting female identity to be found in literary works of the past and the present. Women’s writing is often inseparable from the concept of gender. Each era in human history can be characterized by region-specific gender roles that are reflected in art, and women have always been present in literature as man-made characters. While male writers have created many complex, vivid, and multidimensional heroines, feminist scholars are increasingly interested in how women have built their own narratives outside the so-called male gaze. Many questions remain unanswered as researchers ponder the nature of the female viewpoint and how the female “I” might be distinct from the broader “I” of a particular context. This paper will compare and contrast two specific periods in Chinese history, discussing the contribution of female writers in depicting and challenging the dominant culture of their time.

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Female Writers in the Qing Dynasty

The Qing Dynasty and Women’s Rights

The Qing Dynasty, established in 1636, lasted for almost 200 years before eventually disappearing by 1912. Modern historians refer to the Qing Dynasty as an era of prosperity and wealth. Furthermore, traditionally reserved and homogeneous China grew more open to the idea of cultural diversity. Allowing migrants from different backgrounds to enter the country boosted the economy and strengthened international bonds. Despite undeniable improvements in the country’s political and economic situation, human rights—women’s rights, in particular—left much to be desired. Women’s freedoms during this period were fairly constrained: after the preceding Song dynasty had solidified the significance of Neo-Confucianism, gender roles became completely rigid. A woman’s virtue was closely tied to her ability to bear children and participate in domestic labor without aspiring to accomplishments beyond the confines of her own house.

Women’s Education

During the Qing dynasty, female education remained a controversial topic in accordance with the roles society assigned to women. Overall, multiple views were evident. Although some women’s passion for learning and ability to read and write won praise, at the same time, literacy was a negligible part of their womanhood and in no way comparable in the eyes of society to their childbearing capacity and domestic crafts. Ho describes the varying attitudes among Chinese families of the time (221), noting that some families forbade their daughters to acquire basic skills such as reading, whereas others supported them in their academic pursuits (Ho 222). The researcher provides an example of a letter that a brother wrote his sister around mid-17th century, admitting that she is the more intelligent of the two but lamenting that her choice to educate herself has brought dishonor to their entire family. In summary, some women had access to education, but Chinese society frowned upon their continuing it on a par with men.

Women’s Literary Talent and Perspective

It is easy to see how social standards regarding women’s rights and education shaped female literature during the Qing Dynasty. Creating literary works required not only talent but also the ability to read and write, which not every woman was able to learn. “Cai,” Chinese for lyricism or literary genius, however, was said to be found in both males and females. Ko maintains that in Qing China, people even believed that females were endowed with more spiritual prowess than men (100). Their peaceful domestic life predisposed them to a heightened sensitivity and more acute perception of the world (Ko 100). Hence, women could be even more poetic than men, and yet, their works were often brushed aside and labeled insignificant.

Despite the challenges, the history of Chinese literature has witnessed many brilliant women writers. One of the most compelling examples of female writing is that of Wang Wei, an eccentric courtesan who lived during the early period of the Qing dynasty. Not much is known about her childhood apart from the fact that she was orphaned. An unknown man brought her to a brothel where her training proved to be a blessing in disguise; she not only became fully literate but also acquired artistic skills. Wang Wei was close to many writers who often accompanied her throughout her day. She expressed the utmost self-agency when she set out on a journey, dressing in a simple cotton robe. Wei penned hundreds of travelogues and poems about nature considered remarkable for their lyricism and serenity. An indispensable part of her unusual character was her refusal to value herself only for her femininity and physical beauty (Xu, The Courtesan as Famous Scholar 38). Wang Wei was unapologetically confident in her abilities and earned the reputation of a renowned author.

Another interesting artifact of the Qing dynasty involves the poetic exchanges between Wang Zhaoyuan and her husband Hao Yixing that took place from 1757 through 1829. While today’s readers would see Zhaoyan’s letters—full of love, respect, and compassion for her husband—as natural expressions of a wife, to her Chinese contemporaries, such correspondence was somewhat revolutionary. The Confucian family order separated formal and emotional domains and assigned them to women of the gentry, wives, and courtesans respectively (Xu, Domesticating Romantic Love 223). It was common in her time for men to seek solace and an outlet for their most profound emotions in the company of courtesans. In contrast, men only mentioned their wives in mourning poems and funerary inscriptions after death (Xu, Domesticating Romantic Love 223). Zhaoyan was among the nonconformist women who ushered the dynasty into the new era of the so-called companionate marriage based on feelings that went beyond formal commitment.

The marriage between Zhaoyuan and Yixing was unusual: they fell in love well before their wedding day. Even though polygamy was not forbidden until after the revolution, Yixing refused to visit courtesans. He called Zhaoyuan his “fairest mate,” and together they shared a passion for literature. The wife researched history and classical Chinese literature on a par with her husband. He was overjoyed to have married such a multi-talented woman, and she supported him in his endeavors. For example, in her poems, Zhaoyuan expressed her concern for his political career: “A man determines to seek favor from the Emperor, / Meeting a sage king, he is an able and virtuous statesman” (Xu, Domesticating Romantic Love 258). Wang Zhaoyuan is an example of a woman who realized her full potential during a particularly conservative era, though having a man’s support.

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The 20th and 21st Centuries and the Female Awakening

Historical Background

The 20th century in the history of China was marked by radical progress and sweeping changes. For the first time, China was recognized as an emerging world power characterized by a large population, steadfast traditions, and political unity. However, the country was not devoid of weaknesses, such as almost nonexistent industrialization, making it vulnerable to foreign intrusion. By the beginning of the 20th century, every Western superpower was attempting to exert as much control over China as possible.

Meanwhile, the Chinese nation was growing increasingly wary of foreigners and dissatisfied with the current system. The people revolted against the failing regime, replacing the 2,000-year-old empire with the Republic of China in 1912. The 20th century saw a power struggle between the two leading political parties, Kuomintang and the eventually victorious Communist Party of China. In 1949, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China and reformed the country in every aspect: political, cultural, social, and economic. Thus, after 1917, China was newly incorporated into the global community and has been gaining power and leverage ever since.

Women’s Role and Artistic Legacy in 20th-Century China

Women struggled, suffered, and promulgated socialist and communist causes alongside their male counterparts. The revolution and the establishment of the new state required the mutual effort of both men and women that led to glorification of female empowerment. The development of women’s literature followed the main milestones of the 20th century; thus, when considering the conceptualization of “I” in female writing, researchers single out four distinct periods.

The first spanned from 1917 and 1927 and was characterized by the writers’ search for agency and subjectivity. Early 20th-century capitalism affected China and made beauty and care products available to broader masses. Women became market agents with the ability to form demand and accordingly shape pricing. They enjoyed societal acceptance of makeup and different clothing styles. However, Chinese women’s capacity for satisfaction was not limited to control over their appearance. Such writers as Bing Xin, Lu Yin, Chen Hengzhe, Feng Huanjun, and Shi Pingmei showed the ability to thrive when afforded the freedom to develop their own delicate, sentimental, and poetic language (Zhu 80). The overarching theme was the desire to live differently despite a lack of clear answers as to what changes had to be made. The volatile political environment found its reflection in female writers’ microhistorical pieces: letters and diaries.

The second period, from the late 1920s through the 1940s, was characterized by female participation in the revolutions. While the first period defined women’s subjectivity, their distinct “I” was blended with that of men to serve the ideals of the new regime. Fundamental political changes left no place for romance and sentimentality: as Ding Ling pointed out in her novel Spring 1930 in Shanghai, both men and women had to make a choice between love and revolution. Xie Bingying, a Chinese soldier and writer, said that living in such historic times obliged people to devote their whole existence to the revolution (Hershatter 150). Akin to the Confucianism of the Qing dynasty, the new ideology discouraged serving individual emotional needs at the expense of upholding societal order. Overall, the romantic style of the first period was replaced by sobering realism filled with political and ideological consciousness.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, female voices were stifled by the communist agenda. The female “I” was nowhere to be found, and the censorship and media policies of the Communist Party of China only aggravated the situation. However, change came in the 1970s when the Republic of China became more open to the global community and its influences. Western individualism found its way into the Chinese nation, and female writers were once again encouraged to engage in soul-searching to find their identity. The fourth period coincided with the second wave of feminism in the United States, and interestingly enough, it reached this Far East country as well. For example, Zhang Jie rejected the idea of highlighting the differences between sexes, feeling that women should be judged not on the grounds of their gender but as human beings.

Women’s writings from the new time combine the romantic subjectivity of the late Qing Dynasty and the committed realism of the first half of the 20th century. However, female writers no longer limit their examined topics to classical problems such as marriage, family, and social status. In a country where gender inequality is experiencing resurgence, they are daring to tackle problematic, taboo ideas, including, for example, deeply stigmatized “leftover” women who did not get married in their twenties and homosexuality. At the same time, women are refusing to commit themselves to a particular ideology. If anything, female writers are capitalizing on the commitment to finding the true self.

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Chinese literature exhibits a rich tradition spanning more than three thousand years of history. Two periods in Chinese history are particularly interesting from the standpoint of artistic expression: the Qing dynasty and the 20th century. Interestingly enough, it is possible to point out certain similarities between female writing traditions in imperial China and the Republic. In search of self-identity, women did not distance themselves from men or make them “the other.” Instead, they wrote their masterpieces side by side with their male counterparts as in the case of Zhaoyan with her husband or women during the Chinese revolution. They cared deeply for men and the future of the entire nation, reflecting these values in their work. The particularities of each epoch pushed women to comply with assigned roles: a courtesan, a noble’s wife, and a revolutionist. In summary, art and culture have always been interrelated: existing ideologies have shaped women’s narratives. Yet some writers took a stand against the dominant paradigm and maintained their own views and nonconforming artistry, thus challenging the norm.

Works Cited

Hershatter, Gail. Women and China’s Revolutions. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Ho, Clara Wing-Chung. “The Cultivation of Female Talent Views on Women’s Education in China During the Early and High Qing Periods.” JESHO, vol. 38, no. 2, 1995, pp. 191-223.

Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-century China. Stanford University Press, 1994.

Xu, Sufeng. “Domesticating Romantic Love during the High Qing Classical Revival: The Poetic Exchanges between Wang Zhaoyuan (1763-1851) and Her Husband Hao Yixing (1757-1829).” Nan Nii, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013, pp. 219-264.

Xu, Sufeng. “The Courtesan as Famous Scholar: The Case of Wang Wei (ca. 1598-ca. 1647).” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies Held 27-30 March 2014 in Philadelphia.

Zhu, P. Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature and Culture. Springer, 2015.

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