The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism

By Tani E. Barlow

Reviewed by Megan M. Ferry
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2006)

Tani E. Barlow. A            The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism.. Durham: Duke University            Press, 2004. pp. 496. ISBN 0-8223-3281-7 Cloth - $99.95; ISBN 0-8223-3270-1            Paperback - $27.95.

Tani E. Barlow. A
The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism.
. Durham: Duke University
Press, 2004. pp. 496. ISBN 0-8223-3281-7 Cloth – $99.95; ISBN 0-8223-3270-1
Paperback – $27.95.

Several years ago, Shu-mei Shih provocatively asked, When does a “Chinese” woman become a “feminist”?[1] Her project sought to call into question the values and assumptions that Western discourse accords gender, ethnicity, and time/space distinctions when encountering the Other, variously reading the non-West as mimicking the West or presuming a nativist tradition. This approach sets up the universal and the particular as oppositional forces and becomes the strategy that Chinese American, Chinese, and non-Chinese women deploy when claiming to speak for women of China. The challenge Shih sets before her readers is to avoid reading the Other as an object of knowledge, and to approach it with the same kind of responsibility one accords the self. One’s stance must be transpositional as well as transvaluational, she argues, willingly researching with an open mind the multiplicities of reading and writing transnationally. It is in this light that Tani Barlow’s The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism ambitiously examines the subject of woman in twentieth century Chinese feminism. Elaborating the same critical questions as Shih, Barlow’s book seeks to avoid dichotomies by reading Chinese feminism as both a national and international phenomenon. Barlow aims to let Chinese theorists speak on their own terms and in their own time about the category woman by framing her topic in the temporal space of the future anterior (“what [women] will have been”). That is, she attempts to remove her own historical overview by highlighting what theorists thought women would become in the future. This somewhat cumbersome approach wants to privilege the primary texts over the historian’s interpretation. Her project limits its scope to mainland Chinese thinkers, defining feminists as those who work toward realizing women’s social equality and toward undoing the injustices served against women for being women.

Barlow focuses on the ways in which Chinese intellectual thinkers have coded and catalogued woman as a knowable subject of inquiry throughout the twentieth century. The role epistemologies play in codifying social existence does not represent a new path of inquiry for her. Rather, the present book is a culmination of many years of questioning and research, an articulation of ideas that have been savored for a very long time. The result is an intense, densely written book that reflects provocatively on the history of Chinese feminism.

The beginning two chapters offer a theoretical overview of her approach. In “History and Catachresis” (along with an appendix elaborating her finer points), Barlow explains that despite its persuasiveness, the term “woman,” is in itself unfixed and unknowable; all attempts to stabilize it or to get at its inherent truth fail because the term is anachronistic and, hence, historically catachrestic. In other words, borrowing from Spivak, Barlow insists that woman is a “concept-metaphor without an adequate referent,” a term that has been inaccurately or inappropriately named. For Barlow, this catachresis operates not only among the historical thinkers she examines in the book but also among contemporary sinologists who aim to inscribe woman into the annals of history. She challenges her readers to reconsider assumptions about how to approach writing a history of women. By deconstructing, if you will, the various terms for woman in Chinese,funünüxing, furen in Chapter 2, “Theorizing ‘Women,’” Barlow argues that there is no concrete historical referent behind these terms. What exists are terms that serve political agendas and that prescribe what a woman ought to be in a given historical context while maintaining distinctions between the sexes. What makes women’s difference, she notes, is modern scientific reasoning—with its colonialist and imperialist structures intact—rather than Confucian social norms inherited from the past.

At the foundation of Chinese progressive feminism, Barlow argues, lies a belief in women’s biological and social difference from men. The sexing of women’s bodies as a means both to locate their historical oppression and to forge a path for liberation works within a dominant paradigm that Barlow terms “eugenics feminism.” Chapters 3 through 7 bear out this thesis with examples of Chinese feminist thinkers throughout the twentieth century. In “Foundations of Progressive Chinese Feminism,” Barlow argues that the enlightenment roots of Chinese feminism are grounded in an internationalism that believes in sexual difference. Sexuality was a central focus of the “woman question,” and sexual activity and reproduction became inextricable from citizenship projects in the early half of the twentieth century. But national subjects cannot be formed, Barlow suggests, without a nod to the international realm in which national discourse operates. China adapted the progressivist notions of civility and hygiene to their own historical context. “There is no point prior to a geopolitical figuring of universal women in Chinese feminism” (71). This long chapter is filled with analyses of several fascinating articles on the subject of women, marriage, procreation, and sexual desire, which Barlow contextualizes within the frameworks of race, morality, aesthetics, and the construction of heterosexual norms. Central to her analysis are two texts from the 1930s, an anthology of the “woman question” essays compiled by Mei Sheng, and the writings of Gao Xian. Their attempts to give voice to women’s sexuality underscore the pivotal role women’s sexual life played in these thinkers’ desire to recuperate the true nature of humanity that male feudalist society had perverted. Thus proponents of enlightenment thought, these men projected a colonial modernity that tightly controlled women’s (and equally men’s) sexed identities as well as determined the political and social conditions of the time. In this chapter, Barlow reads the eugenicist undercurrents of these thinkers as a progressive force that allowed them to reevaluate Chinese history and to understand their contemporary milieu, as well as to conclude that harmony would exist in the future if women were free to choose their own marriage partners. As a result, women would act as social agents, gain personhood, and the success of the nation would be secured. Barlow’s reading differs from other scholars on Republican era feminism, who have argued that such thinking reflects a resilient cultural conservatism that waxed and waned in popularity since the inception of the Republic.

The texts Barlow chooses to discuss illustrate the important role scientific reasoning played in determining one’s social identity. That is, one’s biological sex as female corresponded to the social valuation and meaning of feminine identities. “The sexed body is what makes women what they are” (144). Hence, sexual difference meant that women’s social re-education (out of a patriarchal past and into a modern society) stood in contrast to their male counterparts. It also marked Chinese women with the familiar Western scientific and psychological conventions of “lack,” “incompleteness,” “immaturity,” a distinction that Barlow notes Chinese male and female feminists throughout the twentieth century accepted.

In subsequent chapters, Barlow examines three feminist intellectuals to chart the influence of biological essentialism in their writings. The writings throughout Ding Ling’s pre- and post-liberation career fluctuated between understanding sexed identities as determining one’s individual experience and looking beyond biology. Ding Ling resisted the belief that women’s emancipation could come about solely through the freedom to choose one’s marriage partner. Despite confronting narrow definitions of what it meant to be a woman, her deficient female heroines reflect her acceptance of women’s sexual difference. She could not imagine a successful woman because such a person did not exist for her. Barlow sees in Ding Ling a fractured writer who observed clinically the weakness of women, and who went so far as to critique and judge their failings, but who also identified with and succumbed to the very feminine weakness she diagnosed. In “Woman under Maoist Nationalism in the Thought of Ding Ling,” Barlow notes that the eugenicist strain in Maoist feminism focused on women as sexual social agents struggling for social standing, and concerned with how and when to release the anti-feudalist narrative of women’s oppression and recognize women’s full capabilities under Chinese Communist Party rule. Barlow attributes Ding Ling with having played a role in Maoist feminist discourse, which later feminists would read as a gentler, more humanist side of Maoism. Ding Ling locates the truth of women in their revolutionary transformation, a role she not only wrote about but also willingly played, even if she was at times critical of it. For Barlow, Ding Ling was caught between dichotomies: theory/praxis, family/state, emotion/will.

Post-Mao Chinese feminism gained ground, according to Barlow, with the writings and activism of Li Xiaojiang and the reemergence of humanist thinking. Barlow outlines Li’s critique of the failed Maoist project, which hurt women, especially in its denial of sexual difference and absence of women’s historical representation. According to Li, a market economy offered a chance for women to be truly known. Barlow does not suggest that Li’s thinking is exclusively eugenicist, but she does see it as carrying strong progressive feminist strains that view women as primarily sexual subjects. “Socialist Modernization and the Market Feminism of Li Xiaojiang,” deals almost exclusively with Li’s 1980s writings and does not include her more recent work. This choice appears to have been made in order to set up a contrast between Li’s approach to Chinese feminism and Dai Jinhua’s in the 1990s. Li’s feminist articulation rests in sexual science, whereas Dai’s can be located in the cultural studies paradigm now emerging in China. This difference in approach reflects the two different academic disciplines within which these intellectuals operate. “Dai Jinhua, Globalization and 1990s Poststructuralist Feminism” emphasizes the continuing progressive feminist strain in Chinese feminism, noting the eternal deferment of realizing a female subject in Chinese history. According to Dai, woman cannot be represented because the social conditions are not yet ripe to accommodate her. Women’s emancipation is still a future-oriented project, waiting until the moment they come to know themselves. Her work with co-author Meng Yue to create a female literary canon based on progressive development and enlightenment thought, as well as her belief in an écriture feminine chinoise, point to a path of female self-realization. In this chapter on Dai, Barlow elaborates Lacanian theory of the mirror stage in order to stress that Dai’s Lacanian analysis of Chinese culture carries, too, a belief in sexual difference, even if it does not specifically address women’s reproductive capacity, while participating in globalized eugenic sex theory.

Barlow’s book, to my knowledge, is the first to write an extended history of Chinese feminism. In so doing, she tries to avoid the anachronism that befalls one when tracing a single subject throughout history. She wants to let the voices of the future-looking thinkers she examines anticipate women’s future reality without imposing her own scholarly hindsight, reflecting a goal common to most historians. Barlow’s efforts to be objective tend to obscure her own stance. Her grammatical posture does allow her to avoid teleological assumptions about history and women in order to write a “discontinuous history” of the ways in which woman has operated as a category in Chinese feminist thought. Yet as the one who selects which intellectuals to include in this study, Barlow plays a central role in charting a progressive feminist canon. Her important study unites the various thinkers through their belief in sexual difference and their adherence to the eugenicist argument in progressive feminism. Absent are those feminist voices throughout the twentieth century who questioned the foundations of sexual difference itself. Barlow’s work, thus, should be read in conjunction with contemporary scholars exploring alternative viewpoints on gender and sexual difference, such as Li Yinhe, Harriet Evans, Tze-lan Deborah Sang, Rey Chow, and others whose work is just becoming available. It would have been helpful had Barlow contextualized her feminist project within the horrendous and controversial global history of eugenics thought throughout the century as this term carries significant weight for its readers, not just in terms of women’s sexuality but also in terms of race and justifications for mass murder and scientific experiment. One is left asking about the consequences for reading Chinese feminism in this light, both in terms of national and international politics. Barlow’s insightful and provocative book is sure to yield fruitful debate among scholars, contributing much to reading sex/gender, race, and feminism transnationally.

Megan M. Ferry
Union College


[1] Shu-mei Shih, “Towards an Ethics of Transnational Encounter, “When” does a “Chinese” Woman Become a “Feminist”? Differences 13, no. 2 (2002): 90-126. [ProjectMuse link].