A review of Imagining the Decolonial Spirit: Ecowomanist Literature and Criticism in the Chinese Diaspora, by Xiumei Pu.
Xiumei Pu’s dissertation consists of two main parts: in the first, she offers a thought-provoking re-reading of well-known novels by Jung Chang, Hong Ying, and Wang Ping; the second is her own work of fiction, “Let My Head Split like a Sunflower, My Tears Fall like Raindrops: Stories from Tianfu” (pp. 194-371). Pu’s dissertation, therefore, not only places texts by women writers of the Chinese diaspora in the novel theoretical framework of “womanist ecocriticism” for the first time, but by including her own story she also actively contributes to Chinese women’s literary diasporic discourse and turns it into a place of ecowomanist critique of modernization and unsustainable development.
In the first chapter, Pu offers a detailed overview of the crucial theories and concepts that inform her work, built largely on the theoretical backbone of postcolonial feminism and ecocriticism—particularly indigenous feminist literary criticism and the Chicana decolonial imaginary. Pu’s departure point is not solely academic interest, however. It is much more a genuine preoccupation over the effects of the great modernization project in China and elsewhere. Accordingly, Pu asks what kind of literary and critical praxis we need in the Anthropocene. While imagining ways out of the global ecological crisis, Pu reclaims concepts and voices that have been colonized and finally silenced by the hegemonic language of scientistic progress. Notions of spirituality, sacrum, ecology, and gender awareness play pivotal roles in her project of “decolonizing through storytelling” (p. 29). Until now, she argues, this ecowomanist dimension has been widely overlooked in the mainstream reception of diasporic female-authored literature. Consequently, the reading of novels she pursues in the following sections aims at tracing the lost eco-memory and bringing it to the fore.
Chapter 2 is dedicated to what is perhaps the best-known text from a Chinese-born female author, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. One cannot disagree with Pu when she says that this novel became the epitome of the horrors of Maoist China for the Western readership. Pu criticizes and leaves aside those previous readings, however, mainly developed along a contraposition of “democratic West” and “totalitarian East,” and concentrates instead on Chang’s appreciation for the beauty of nature. Subsequently, Pu convincingly argues that even if the only counter-narrative Chang offers to the Maoist one is, on the surface, that of an idealized Western democracy, a careful reading reveals an alternative resistance to Maoist ideology—through love of nature. She claims that Chang’s novel specifically sheds light on the exploitation of women, animals, and the natural environment in twentieth-century China. In what may be called a posthumanist reading, Pu aims at uncovering alliances between nature and the novel’s three generations of women. Their emotional closeness to gardens, mountains, and rivers contrasts sharply with Maoism’s militant rhetoric of conquering nature. Sent to the countryside for re-education, Chang found aesthetic pleasure in composing traditional landscape poetry. Consequently, in Wild Swans nature is depicted as enabling educated urban youth an escape from politics and propaganda.
In Chapter 3, Pu focuses on Hong Ying’s autobiographical novel Daughter of the River. In contrast to Chang’s elite perspective, the novel’s main protagonist belongs to the urban proletariat of Chongqing. This chapter best exemplifies Pu’s theoretical approach: “a place-oriented sensibility” in literary studies (p. 8). Her reading centers around the Yangtze River, in the immediate closeness of which the protagonists spend their formative years. In contrast to Chinese nationalist discourse, which glorifies the Yangtze as the cradle of civilization, Pu follows Hong’s narrative of the mundane life of the urban underclass in the riverbank slum, which remains untouched even after the Communists’ rise to power. She elaborates on the heroine’s affinity to the element of water. It is specifically through her attachment to the river that Little Six learns to understand herself. Furthermore, representations of water in the novel are closely related to the protagonist’s sexual awakening. Nevertheless, Pu’s astute analysis shows, even as the novel was primarily received as scandalous due to its bold descriptions of sexuality and feminine jouissance, it documents at the same time a spiritual awakening. Thus, it offers two counter-narratives to Maoist asceticism and atheism: that of sexuality and of spirituality. In addition, by blurring the boundary between the human and nonhuman worlds in her discussion of the novel, Pu stresses the inter-dependence of the human and nonhuman orders. In opposition to the dominant rhetoric of human mastery, she points at an alternative, non-anthropocentric narrative in Hong Ying’s novel.
This blurring of boundaries is also the main focus in Chapter 4, in which Pu discusses “Maverick,” a short story by Wang Ping. As Pu reads it, with this story Wang has created “a unique Chinese-American magical realism tale that breaks down boundaries of gender, nature, and spirituality” (p. 155). The main protagonist is a fish-woman. Thus, the divide between human and nonhuman, already questioned in the aforementioned novels, is here finally deconstructed. Pu traces the spiritual genealogy of the story, linking it to shamanism and, through further intertextual references, to texts belonging to mythological and vernacular traditions. As a consequence, Wang Ping’s story is at the intersection of various indigenous narratives that have been marginalized in the mainstream literary canon. Furthermore, Pu argues convincingly, the story opens a space in which definitions of masculinity and femininity are being renegotiated. Specifically, Pu argues that shamanism and lower-class status may be turned into a vantage point for re-imagining and projecting new “queer” gender configurations and subversively overwriting the existing gender regimes.
Pu traces the different trajectories of sexual and spiritual awakening in the three texts by women authors from the Chinese diaspora whose works are rooted in a shared trauma originating in the Cultural Revolution and which undermine the hegemonic narrative of the Maoist era. Their stories speak against the anthropocentric revolutionary rationale, in which women’s bodies and animal subjectivities were viewed as the ultimate Other. Furthermore, they write against the colonization, oppression, and subjugation of that Other. Pu’s dissertation does not, however, end with this conclusion. As mentioned above, the closing fifth chapter contains Pu’s own short fiction. With this text she “intends to tell untold stories of rural women” (p. 192), which, as she argues, has been left out in most fiction by other women authors.
Representing a transdisciplinary approach, Imagining the Decolonial Spirit will be edifying to scholars interested in the entanglements of contemporary Chinese literature with gender studies, and will appeal to those interested in new trends in ecocritical studies inspired by the “posthuman” turn. Significantly, Pu ends her dissertation by demonstrating that the project of “ecowomanism” is much more than a critical exploration of specific literary texts. Rather, it questions how literary texts intersect with the theoretical in a creative way. Even more, it is a project of literary activism, which emerges in answer to the global ecological crisis—in this way, Pu inquires into literature’s intersection with life itself. Consequently, her work offers not only a fresh approach to selected literary texts, but furthermore appeals to readers to take responsibility for the project of a more just, sustainable future.
Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies
University of Zurich
Chang, Jung. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
Wang, Ping. The Last Communist Virgin. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2007.
Hong Ying. Daughter of the River. Transl. Howard Goldblatt. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
University of Minnesota. 2013. 376 pp. Primary Advisor: Edén Torres.
Image: “Fly with Me,” by Shijun H. Munns, posted with permission from the artist.