Female Subjectivity and Diasporic Experience: Zhao Shuxia’s Life and Fiction


A review of Frauen und Diaspora: Zur Konstitution weiblicher Subjektivität in der Diaspora am Beispiel der sino-helvetischen Autorin Zhao Shuxia, by Kathrin Ensinger.

Kathrin Ensinger’s dissertation explores the constitution of female subjectivity in the diasporic context drawing on the example of the Chinese-Swiss author Zhao Shuxia 趙淑俠 (b.1931). Theoretically situated at the intersection between diaspora studies and gender studies, this dissertation focuses on Zhao’snovel Sai Jinhua 賽金花(1990), arguing that the author’s cultural practice of rewriting the legend of the late Qing courtesan Sai Jinhua (1872-1936) is intertwined with her own need and desire to construct a female, diasporic subjectivity. This lucidly written dissertation offers an illuminating analysis of Zhao Shuxia’s works and thereby contributes to the growing scholarship in Sinophone literature.

In the first chapter, Ensinger introduces her research topic and theoretical approaches. Locating Sai Jinhua at the meeting point between global Chinese-language literature (shijie huawen wenxue 世界華文文學) and gender studies, Ensinger suggests that this work demonstrates a transcultural process of identification on the part of the female author living in Switzerland through her rewriting of the historical figure Sai Jinhua.  Ensinger poses the following important questions (p. 33): what does it mean for Zhao Shuxia to position herself simultaneously as a patriotic and female subject? And how can cultural-nostalgic patriotism, which is predominantly a male-defined political positioning, be brought together with the demands of women’s social rights and public acknowledgement as well as with a woman’s emancipatory attitude and way of life? The dissertation proceeds to redefine Zhao’s “patriotism” as a strategy of coming to terms with her diasporic context, which is entangled with her search for female subjectivity.

The second chapter looks into the literary field in which Ensinger locates Zhao Shuxia’s writings. It consists of three aspects: the context of diaspora, Chinese-language literature, and Zhao’s involvement in artistic networking and establishment of literary institutions. Looking back at a brief history of Chinese diaspora, Ensinger reminds her reader to consider the diaspora’s identification with “Chineseness” as multifold and contradictory: the imaginations associated with the constructed notion of Chineseness are in constant flux and therefore allow the diaspora to project on this notion their ways of identification. Comparing and differentiating several literary categories including Chinese-language literature (huawen wenxue 華文文學), literature of authors with Chinese descent (huaren wenxue 華人文學) and Sinophone literature (huayu yuxi wenxue 華語語系文學), Ensinger sees these categories in terms of transnational and transcultural institutions. Lastly, the chapter delineates Zhao Shuxia’s active role in organizing societies of Chinese-language authors in Europe and argues that these activities are key to her search for a diasporic identity, because this transcultural position has enabled her to negotiate fruitful cultural communications and play the role of a cultural mediator.

The third chapter recounts Zhao Shuxia’s life story, particularly her writing career. Zhao rose to fame in Taiwan towards the end of the 1970s with her stories on the life of overseas Chinese. In the 1980s she actively fostered and contributed to cultural contacts and exchange with literary and cultural institutions in Taiwan, mainland China, and Europe, including European sinology and various literary associations or research centers. She initiated the foundation of the Association of European Chinese-language writers in 1991, with the wish of making Chinese-language literature into a minority literature of Europe (p. 68), namely, as part of European literary tradition. Although Zhao started her writing as a strategy of coping with lost homeland and loneliness, according to Ensinger the significance of the literary trope “homeland” in her works has changed over time. The lost “homeland” defined territorially and culturally at the beginning of her career would evolve into an important departure point and fundamental part of a new “homeland” that integrates the diasporic experience. Therefore, Ensinger suggests that the critic should see the positive and creative aspects of the existential position of Zhao’s fictional characters who are located between cultures. In other words, the critic should fathom the opportunities—not just alienation and nostalgic longing for the past—offered by such an in-between position.

Consisting of two major parts, the fourth chapter offers a close reading of Zhao’s fictional narrative Sai Jinhua, arguing that it demonstrates visions of female agency. In the first part, Ensinger surveys representations of courtesans in the history of Chinese literature in order to show that male literati had constructed images of courtesans in tune with their historically conditioned self-perception, especially in times of drastic political and social upheavals. The legend of Sai Jinhua, as Ensinger subsequently shows, is constructed from literary and historical narratives (including Sai’s own contribution through the interviews she granted to her biography writer Liu Bannong 劉半農) as well as rumors and speculations which emerged under various circumstances. The image of the courtesan as the harbinger and symbol of modernity at the turn of the twentieth century marks a radical change from the earlier image that longs for the past. With her unconscious new femininity, this courtesan—or the new image of the courtesan—orients towards the future.

The second part of the fourth chapter argues that Zhao’s literary construction of Sai Jinhua attempts to reinterpret the life of the historical figure from Zhao’s own diasporic perspective. It looks into “the possibilities of identification, whose negotiation justifies the figure’s agency and whose ensuing analysis implies the cultural and social positioning of a female and diasporic subjectivity, which underlies Zhao Shuxia’s own self-understanding” (p. 119). Adopting the perspective of Sai Jinhua in the story, Ensinger argues, Zhao creates bonds of solidarity with her protagonist in order to challenge male chauvinism and dominance in the earlier narratives of Sai. Zhao’s story shows a constant interplay between autonomy and heteronomy; the narrative from Sai’s perspective returns the male gaze and reveals the protagonist’s increasing awareness of her female subjectivity in relation to several men in her life and of her cultural identity in encounter with different cultures and peoples. Both observer and observed, she possesses the theatricality of the New Woman “as a self-conscious presenter of her images” (pp. 141-142). The most outstanding features in Zhao Shuxia’s construction of Sai are her initiative and agency in taking up the role of a cultural mediator, who helps the communication between China and foreign powers while considering the well-being of all parties. Sai Jinhua’s search for her own individuality is a process of identity negotiation involving her transgression of gender roles and professional expectation as a courtesan. Her mobility, apparently justified by her courtesan identity yet actually anchored in a transitional epoch at the threshold of modernity, allows her to occupy an in-between space between the Chinese and the West, male and female domains within Chinese society, and lastly, between her identity as a Chinese woman and a “monster” with bound feet outside China. Ensinger urges the reader to rethink the cultural-nationalist discourses often associated with the legend of Sai Jinhua. She argues, for example, that Sai’s patriotism is portrayed in Zhao’s narrative as saving lives—hence oriented to justice and humanity—rather than saving the nation, which would put her in alignment with the élites. Sai Jinhua also demonstrates a possibility of female emancipation beyond two (problematic) alternatives, which either strips the woman of her female features or overemphasizes her sexuality as a femme fatale. Sai in Zhao’s novel comes to terms with her female body and qualities and combines them with idealized masculine qualities of uprightness and the sense of justice.

The fifth chapter turns its attention from textual analysis to the relation between the text and the author whose writing is considered as a cultural practice. It argues that Zhao’s literary construction of Sai Jinhua underlies the author’s own grapple with her unstable position as a woman in diaspora. Citing Svetlana Boym’s discussion on the future and nostalgia, especially her concept of “reflective nostalgia,” Ensinger sees that Zhao’s story displays a “future-oriented nostalgia,” a sort of “creative rethinking of nostalgia” that is “a strategy of survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming” (p. 203). Zhao’s narrative, Ensinger further argues, is an act of feminist counter-memorialization, because it actively shapes cultural memory by dealing with a historical-literary legend and by rewriting it from contemporary perspectives and necessities. It destabilizes social, cultural, gender and moral categories in order to seek the future-oriented potentials of changes, new orientation and border disintegration. Therefore, Zhao’s writing from her liminal space between cultures, tradition and modernity, as well as social categories enables her to establish a new subjectivity and thereby offers an emancipatory perspective. The author, like her protagonist in the book, plays the role of a cultural mediator for future generations in diaspora. Through her literary construction of a Chinese courtesan in modern world history, Zhao reconciles her origin in the past with her current existence as a woman in diaspora.

This dissertation offers a close and careful textual analysis of Zhao Shuxia’s works in relation to the literary field that they stand in. It teases out the entangled relations both within and without the fictional narrative between the construction of a diasporic identity with positive outlooks and the search for feminine subjectivity and agency. Given the significance of Zhao in the landscape of Sinophone literature in terms of her literary production and institutional organization, Ensinger’s work is an important contribution to Sinophone literary history and criticism. In this dissertation, Ensinger also informs the reader that Zhao Shuxia donated her private library, her letters and other documents to the Asien-Orient-Institut (Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies) at the University of Zurich in 2001. This collection includes her published works, manuscripts of all her important novels, some essays and poems, and over 300 letters and numerous magazines (p. 3). Both the dissertation itself and the information of this valuable collection are of great interest for scholars in many fields—diaspora studies, gender studies, literary history, etc.—and therefore should be disseminated.

Rui Kunze
Department of Chinese Culture and Society
University of St. Gallen

Primary Sources

Chao, Shu-hsia. Traumspuren. trans. Heiner Klinge. Cologne: Kai Yeh Verlag, 1987.
Chao, Shu-hsia (Susie Chen). Unser Lied. trans. Michael Ruhland. Cologne: Kai Yeh Verlag, 1996.
Zhao, Shuxia. Zhao Shuxia zixuan ji 趙淑俠自選集. Taibei: Liming wenhua, 1981a.
Zhao, Shuxia. Sai Jinhua 賽金花. Hefei: Anhui wenyi, 1997.
Zhao, Shuxia Hucheng Ouzhou guoke 忽成歐洲過客. Taibei: Xiuwei zixun, 2009.

Dissertation Information

University of Zurich, 2012. 267 pp. Primary Advisor: Andrea Riemenschnitter.

Image: Chinese-Swiss author Zhao Shuxia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AZhao_Shuxia.jpg

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