Feminist Criticism in Chinese Studies


The Promise and Perils of Feminist Criticism in Chinese Studies

A few days ago, I was chatting with a colleague on the subject of reading Peacocks Flying Southeast  孔雀東南飛 (1929), a tragedy about love and marriage in a feudal family, written by a female playwright Yuan Changying  袁昌英 (1894-1973). “I guess I am not a good critical reader,” I said. “Why so?” my colleague asked. “I read with too much sympathy,” was my response. This seemingly small topic subsequently triggered a series of discussions on what constitutes ethical readership. Can there be a genuinely compassionate reading that does not exclude reason, a self-reflexive sympathy that embraces a critical stance and actively negotiates the axes of differences in gender, sexuality, and social class? As a feminist researcher with a scholarly interest in late imperial and modern Chinese women’s writings, I found myself preoccupied with the following questions: While working with historical and contemporary women authors who endeavor to deliver their inner feelings through sincere self-portrayal, can a researcher of such topics succeed in locating himself/herself in a socio-historical situation of sincerity? How do we re-assess the researcher’s role? Is it that of a competent agent maintaining an ethical understanding of their objects of study, or is the researcher one who stands in a responsible relationship with authors in the past?  Can an ethical researcher maintain a simultaneously critical and sympathetic stance as a reader?

Perhaps my queries are symptomatic of a feminist’s concern or anxiety about privileging reasoning in research. Daryl Koehn, in her book Rethinking Feminist Ethics, suggests that “All female ethics implicitly concede the privileged position of reason insofar as they argue for a certain mode of deliberation, citing reasons why agents must assess past, present, and future actions in terms of whether these actions accord with being a caring (trusting, empathetic, etc.) person. Arguments like theirs, which aim at persuasion, are the stuff of ethical discourse” (Koehn, p. 101). My personal experience with researching late imperial and early modern women’s chantefable narratives, or tanci  彈詞, constantly brings up the dilemma of the scholarly need for making an argumentative proposition from the materials, and the danger of imposing a hierarchy of theoretical presuppositions onto writings by women whose voices were inexorably mediated, manipulated, or allocated to a disadvantageous discursive position, and/or onto writings by women who did not even leave their names on their texts due to unknown reasons. It is a true challenge to enact a careful, responsible reading of these texts, even without assuming the role of empathetic reader. After many assiduous efforts of reaching out and conversing with these ancestral voices, I find what is at stake is a feminist researcher’s self-awareness and thoughtful consideration of gendered identity as a result of socio-historical location and process.

These above concerns shaped my critical stance in conducting research on late imperial and early modern tanci. Whereas tanci narratives portray crossdressers, female scholars, sojourners, and war heroines, these often imagined fictional characters illustrate multivalent forms of gendered agency which women, including the authors themselves, aspired to achieve but often did not have access to in their specific social and historical settings. Reading these passionate narratives by late imperial and early modern Chinese women about loss and anticipation, bereavement and joy, led me to study the intimate connection between the narrative form tanci and its emotional power, which is prominently delivered through women authors’ self-reflexive insertions in the beginning and closing lines of each juan or hui of their works. Whereas these inserted passages often reveal self-identified feminine voices and definitely strengthen authorial agency in tanci narratives, they also, more importantly, suggest the possible aesthetic, social, and political valences of Chinese women’s writings beyond the stricture of the tanci genre. Women’s emotions, as well as their emotion-sharing abilities as manifested in these tales, are indispensable mechanisms underlying narrative sympathy. Feeling along with these past authors reflects rather than undermines the reader’s awareness of moral reasoning. Critical self-reflexivity does not imply concomitant death of emotion.[1] Rather, the critic’s emotionality or ability to be emotional, is an elevated form of self experience which bears a “self-augmenting and self-attenuating” quality (Pahl, p. 549). With emotionality, readers are moved to the realm of difference, to formulate individual interpretations of and responses to a certain emotional text (Pahl, p. 547).

Recently, these concerns about critical reflexivity also guided me to interwar women’s self-reflective texts, namely, women’s autobiographies and semi-autobiographical writings. Reflexivity involves an interrogation of the practices that constitute one’s accounts of the world (often fictional) and its relation to the “ideology of representation” (Campbell, p. 163). In studying Ding Ling and Simone de Beauvoir’s interwar self-narratives, such as memoirs, self-accounts, and autobiographies, I was recurrently attracted by these authors’ ambivalent stances between preserving sincerity in self-portrayal, and their consciousness of keeping a critical, or even ironic, distance from their true lives. For Ding Ling, giving voice to the inner feelings of herself and her readers is what drives her in illustrating her personal experiences in her fictional works. The vicarious and emotionally associative relation between Ding the author and her characters, such as the courageous exile Zhenzhen, the genteel Mengke, and the schizophrenic Miss Sophie, renders a possible reading of her interwar fiction works in light of the ongoing bildungsroman of Ding Ling’s life. Beauvoir’s interwar biographies, however, articulated an ironic disidentification with her biological self and the epochal sentiment of a generation living in interwar Europe, subjected to the ever-present trauma after World War I and a feeling of impotence to address their present era. In both authors’ cases, feminist ethics involves a strategic disidentification with the self, and a re-identification with alternative subjective positions that grant more freedom and potency, whether such positions are displayed as their literary characters or as fictional authorial presences.

Whereas this personal reflection could not sufficiently address the multiple ethical issues that confront feminist scholars, my major proposition is to reassess the promise and perils of feminist criticism in women’s studies in a transnational setting. The return to ethics in literary studies, as Dorothy Hale puts it, is “not just the attempt to recuperate the agency of the individual reader or author for positive political action but also an attempt to theorize for our contemporary moment the positive social value of literature and literary study.” (Hale, p. 188) It is the task of feminists in the current millennium to contextualize and execute academic practices in a realm of care, compassion, and collective responsibility for people and environments of both past generations and future ages. Ethical readership, undeniably, encompasses both sympathetic understanding and the power to grant or withhold critical judgment and atonement. And in this context, reading with emotionality certainly opens a window to new prospects of agency, compassion, and power.

Li Guo
Assistant Professor of Chinese
Languages, Philosophy and Speech Communication
Utah State University

[1] A colleague of mine who specializes in English literature reminded me of Louise Rosenblatt’s resonant statement: “Always, therefore, a full understanding of literature requires both a consciousness of the reader’s own ‘angle of refraction’ and any information that can illuminate the assumptions implicit in the text” (Rosenblatt, p. 115).  Also see Langer’s discussion of a “stance within a stance” in his discussion of the four recursive stances that readers adopt in his 1990 article on student reading approaches (Langer, p. 252).

Works Cited

Kirsten Campbell, “The Promise of Feminist Reflexivities: Developing Donna Haraway’s Project for Feminist Science Studies,” Hypatia 19 (2004), pp. 162-182.
Dorothy J.  Hale,  “Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel,” Narrative 15 (2007), pp. 187-206.
Daryl Koehn. Rethinking Feminist Ethics. New York: Routledge, 1998.
J.A. Langer, “The Process of Understanding: Reading for Literary and Informative Purposes,” Research in the Teaching of English 24 (1990), pp. 229-260.
Katrin Pahl, “Emotionality: A Brief Introduction,” MLN 124 (2009), pp. 547-554.
Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration.  New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1995.


Image: A Preface to tanci work A Histoire of Heroic Women and Men (俠女群英史, 1905). The authors of this tanci used the pen names of Xiangzhou nüshi  湘州女史, Yong Lan  詠蘭,Youmei  友梅,Shuzhu  書竹. The identities of these authors could not be confirmed given the scant biographical information of them other than the lines of autobiographical assertions in the text. This particular preface was composed by their younger brother Mengjü  夢菊,who also used a pen name. The preface illustrates that Mengjü consistently helped his sisters edit and compile the work and shared a deep understanding of the women authors’ hardship in writing. Photograph by Li Guo.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

  1. Regarding the afore-mentioned project on Ding Ling and Beauvoir, I have articulated these thoughts of mine in my contribution to a collaborative chapter written with a colleague Leihua Weng. The reiteration here only offers a personal reflection on the process of writing about this topic. The collaborative book chapter is in the process of publication. For further information on this collaborative object, please contact both authors for information or details: li.guo@usu.edu; leihua.weng@gmail.com

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