Resisting Manchukuo: Chinese Women
Writers and the Japanese Occupation

By Norman Smith

Reviewed by Heng Hsing Liu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December 2007)

Norman Smith. Resisting Manchukuo: Chinese Women Writers    and the Japanese Occupation.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007. pp, 216. ISBN  9780774813358  (cloth).

Norman Smith. Resisting Manchukuo: Chinese Women Writers
and the Japanese Occupation
. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007. pp, 216. ISBN 9780774813358 (cloth).

Chinese-language literature in Manchuria (known then as Manchukuo 滿洲國) during the Japanese occupation (1931-1945) has proved perplexing to those working in the areas of colonialism, national identity, and modernism. In recent years, it has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, but the difficulty of locating original publications, which were rare to begin with and are now widely scattered, combined with negative views of the Japanese invasion and subsequent rule, have prevented both domestic and foreign scholars from a genuine restoration of the subject’s history and a creative, integrated interpretation of the works. The study of Chinese-language Manchukuo literature has thus been dominated by the following discourse of resistance: the contemporary sociopolitical environment faced by Chinese-language writers in Northeast China was extremely difficult; not only did they suffer economic deprivation, but their ambition to be spokesmen of the colonized natives was threatened by draconian literary regulations and severe censorship; young writers, especially those who chose to stay after the establishment of Manchukuo, resisted government-sponsored, conservative, Confucian wangdao 王道 (kingly way) ideas.

Although even the slightest disregard of government regulations and censorship was a matter of serious consequence, most, if not all, the writers actively rejected the Japanese literary policy of celebrating a bright, healthy, modern Manchukuo society. What is reflected and described in their literary work is undeniably the “dark side” of local people’s lives. In current research by scholars such as Sun Zhongtian, et al. and Prasenjit Duara,[1] these writers are regarded as enlightened, compassionate, and, above all, full of resistance.

This interpretation is certainly more convincing when compared to that of the Maoist era, when preeminent Manchukuo writers were labeled collaborators and traitors of the Chinese nation, and suffered long-term political persecution. Even so, one may reasonably question this discourse from several perspectives. First of all, since the sociopolitical aspirations of Manchukuo officials were a revival of Chinese traditional Confucian concepts, not the westernized, “imported” ideals of liberalism, individualism, or nationalism, why would these writers disapprove of ideals that derive from their own cultural roots? Second, under severe political suppression and surveillance, how could resistance works be tolerated by Manchukuo officials and how could their authors enjoy often significant success in their careers? Last but not least, if the writers’ resistance stance represented in their works, as well as in their personal lives, was resolute and unquestionable, why would they have suffered such virulent attacks from their compatriots after the downfall of Manchukuo?

Against this backdrop, Norman Smith’s book on Manchukuo women writers and their literary works stands out first of all for its excellent use of primary sources. Smith’s book, which makes extensive use of original publications, memoirs, and personal interviews with several important women writers, makes a significant contribution to the field of Manchukuo literary studies. The “resistance” angle is generally preserved and highlighted in interpretations throughout the book, which could be considered a stereotyped, even problematic, approach in post-colonial studies, yet Smith’s book deserves credit for its ingenious and systematic treatment of the subject.

In Chapter 2, “Foundations of Colonial Rule in Manchukuo and the ‘Woman Question’,” careful but eloquent contrast is made between Western influenced, anti-traditional views of ideal womanhood, and the backward, conservative women’s policy advocated and imposed by Manchukuo officials. The frustration felt over the bureaucratic control of literature is vividly rendered in detail in Chapter 3, “Manchukuo’s Chinese-language Literary World.” Chapters like these testify to the author’s meticulous documentation and earnest scholarship.

Readers interested in the literary works themselves will find the fifth and sixth chapters, “Disrupting the Patriarchal Foundations of Manchukuo” and “Contesting Colonial Society,” especially enlightening. Owing to the scarcity of available data, they are among a very few interpretations in which original texts of Manchukuo’s women writers are treated from multiple perspectives. Considering the ambiguity and complexity of gender issues produced in a colonial context, it is no easy task to explore and articulate the cultural as well as sociopolitical significance of these works. Relying mostly on May Fourth discourses of anti-traditionalism and women’s emancipation, Smith comes to the conclusion that, despite the fact that most women writers did not publicly violate the tenets of the Manchukuo cultural agenda, they refused to passively accept the patriarchal oppression of women and counseled a rejection of it (p.89). What the author praises in their works include “love affairs with partners of their choice, relationships that might properly (but not necessarily) be consummated by marriage and childbirth” (p.91), sexual freedom, and the “importance of women’s individual control over their own bodies” (p.105).

Smith demonstrates this point through, for example, Mei Niang’s 梅娘 story “Bang” (Seashell), in which the protagonist, Meili 梅麗, loses her virginity to her fiance, Qi. In the aftermath, she refuses to be self-accusatory, believing that sexuality is a natural part of a woman’s life, but she is anxious about being disdained by her boyfriend, her family, and the consequences of pregnancy.[2] Smith argues that “Meili’s engagement in premarital sex, an activity explicitly condemned by Manchukuo authorities, is sympathetically portrayed by Mei Niang as an instinctual act that young, unmarried women should engage in without remorse” (p.100). Despite the fact that most of these women writers in their personal love affairs, marriages, families, and occupational careers realized many essential elements of traditional culture, their writing must be interpreted according to the May Fourth cultural criticism (p.140). There are works in which traditional ideals are frankly advocated, such as Wu Ying’s 吳瑛 essay “Serving Husbands” (Zhangfu fushi), published under the author’s real name in 1940. Smith reasons that “the use of her own name in this particular instance suggests the necessity for prominent Chinese to demonstrate occasional deference to officially sanctioned ideals” (p.96). However, Smith also speculates about some “practical reasons” that enabled women writers to engage in critical discourses, such as how misogynistic Manchukuo officials viewed male writers as potential troublemakers but their female counterparts as harmless (p.141). Therefore, “by tolerating their writings, or viewing them as inconsequential, colonial officials effectively encouraged the women to flourish as cultural critics” (p.143).

That said, simplistic judgments and perplexing, contradictory interpretations prevent the book from rising far enough above present publications on the same subject. In his description of the lives and works of the studied women writers, for example, Smith constantly emphasizes their resistance to the patriarchal foundations of Manchukuo cultural policy, so as to pave the way for the author’s overall conclusion that “the sources of this study suggest that significant numbers of women in Manchukuo were alienated from officially sanctioned Japan-centric ideals and that these women self-identified in ways that stressed their essential Chineseness” (p.138).

The Manchukuo government’s established policy for Japanese economic exploitation did not enjoy popular support. To stabilize the colonial rule, however, the formation of cultural policy did not rigidly conform to Japan-centric ideas. That a broad survey of the Chinese dynasties that resulted from foreign conquest, a survey supported by Japanese military authority, was attempted during that period indicates the Japanese invaders were not ignorant of or indifferent to recruiting the support of Chinese intellectuals through pursuing the so-called “East Asian” cultural identity.[3] Furthermore, the highly controversial Chinese national consciousness that evolved in China from the late-Qing to the May-Fourth period, as argued by Joseph Levenson, was rooted in traditional culturalism.[4] Given these facts, one should at least exercise scholarly caution when making such definitive, often nationalist statements.

Recent scholarly research on modern Chinese literature has demonstrated the dilemma encountered by female writers in facing Chinese nationalism and foreign imperialism. Lydia Liu, for example, examines Xiao Hong’s novel Sheng si chang (Field of life and death), which has been interpreted as a “national allegory,” to reveal the author’s criticism of the traditional patriarchal system and nationalism.[5] Liu points out that both the patriarchal system and foreign imperialism functioned as friend and foe to these women’s writers. Smith obviously is informed by a sustained reflection on the scholarship, but he appears to be so obsessed with the anti-traditionalist and liberationist ideals as to define the relationship between Manchukuo women writers and Japanese colonial policy and the patriarchal tradition as an oppositional one, and furthermore argues that “for these women, at least, May Fourth-inspired cultural ideals proved stronger than Japan’s cultural, economic, or military might” (p.138-9). Setting aside the argument that the anti-traditionalist ideals asserted by May Fourth intellectuals were highly promblematic in terms of cultural essentialism,[6] the discourse that Chinese women were burdened with traditional culture and therefore needed emancipation itself has been convincingly exposed as exploitation not only of Chinese women but also their cultural traditions.[7]

I have other concerns. Despite the obvious conclusion that Smith invested considerable energy in collecting primary sources, there are several problematic, even mistaken, references to contemporary literary history and documents. Some have resulted from the author’s historically biased view that he appears to have inherited from Chinese nationalist scholars. For example, he asserts that writers of Chronicle of the Arts faction (Yiwenzhi pai 藝文志派), in which Gu Ding 古丁 was the most prominent figure, “frowned on overtly political work and produced literature that refrained from explicitly violating Manchukuo’s regulatory framework” (p.46). As a matter of fact, Gu Ding delivered severe attacks against Manchukuo’s literary policies as early as 1937.[8] This faction was indeed closer to Japanese leftwing intellectuals and therefore owned larger economic and publishing support than any other literary faction, but it was by no means the “chosen” group of Manchukuo cultural functionaries. Similarly, the author’s interpretation of the well-known literary assertion of xiangtu wenxue (native-soil literature) is that the movement was promoted by writers in the opposite camp, such as Liang Shanding 梁山丁 and Wang Qiuying 王秋螢, who were engaged in a quest for realism and social criticism (p.48). Here, however, he fails to indicate the fact that the first work recognized by Liang Shanding as native-soil literature was Yi Chi’s 疑遲 story “Shanding hua” (Shanding flower 山丁花). It is important to note that Yi Chi was among members of Chronicle of the Arts faction, and “Shanding Flower” was published in Mingming 明明, an influential journal published by Gu Ding’s faction.

Smith’s work also suffers from poor editing, which includes misspellings, even errors in names, policies, organizations, and book titles. Although these flaws do not necessarily affect the readers’ view of the author as an accomplished scholar, they are annoying.

Here I point out a few for the benefit of Smith’s readers:

Wang Qiuying’s Forgetting the Past (Qugu ji 去故集), Bottom of the River (Heliu de dicing 河流的底層), and Summary of Guidelines to Art and Literature (Yiwen zhidao yaogang 藝文指導要綱), are incorrectly given as Guiqu ji (Returning home), Heliu dicing, and Ganyao yiwen zhidao, respectively. Kazeta Eiki’s article “Wei Manzhuguo wenyi zhengce de zhankai” (The development of bogus Manchukuo’s literary rules and regulations 偽滿洲國文藝政策的展開) becomes “Wei Manzhuguo wenyi zhangye de fazhan.” A more serious problem is that the book contains wrong accounts of facts. The author, for instance, uses Kazeta’s article as his reference in asserting that after the Manchukuo Writers and Artists Association (Manzhu wenyijia xiehui 滿洲文藝家協會) was established, its branch members in Xinjing 新京 included Gu Ding, Jue Qing, Liang Shanding, Wu Lang, and in Fengtian 奉天, Wang Qiuying and Yuan Xi. Not only did Kazeta’s article not provide such information, these writers were in fact all branch members in Xinjing.

In sum, Resisting Manchukuo: Chinese Women Writers and the Japanese Occupation provides a supplementary, even revisionist account of the literary history of and works written in Manchukuo. It effectively represents the complicated contemporary sociopolitical situation as well as the ambiguous relationships among Manchukuo women writers, their Chinese cultural traditions, and Japanese colonial authority. Most important, it is among the first studies in English to deal with the thorny issue of Manchukuo literature, one of the crucial territories in modern Chinese literature, and therefore helps us to a better understanding of Chinese cultural and literary essences and their modern development. To be sure, it contains questionable judgments, and some of its arguments are dubious, but it is also important to note that the detailed documentation and abrogation of “traitor” discourse of the book constitutes a solid contribution to the field of Chinese postcolonial studies, and will stimulate reflections in many other scholarly disciplines.

Heng hsing Liu
National Chi Nan University


[1] Sun Zhongtian 孫中田, et al., Liaokao xia de miusi: Dongbei lunxian qu wenxue shigang 镣铐下的缪斯: 东北沦陷区文学史纲 (The shackled muse: historical outline of literature of northeast occupied territories) [Changchun, 1999); Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

[2] Mei Niang, “Bang,” in Mei Niang (Shanghai: Wenhui, 2002), pp.43-44.

[3] See John K. Fairbank, “Synarchy Under the Treaties,” in Chinese Thought and Institutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 204-231.

[4] See Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and its Modern Fate: A Trilogy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

[5] See Lydia Liu. “The Female Body and Nationalist Discourse: Manchuria in Xiao Hong’s Field of Life and Death,” in Angela Zito and Tani Barlow, eds., Body, Subject and Power in China (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 157-177.

[6] See Lin Yu-sheng, “Radical Iconoclasm in the May Fourth Period and the Future of Chinese Liberalism,” in Benjamin Schwartz, ed., Reflections on the May Fourth Movement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972).

[7] See Dorothy Ko, “Introduction,” in Teacher of the Inner Chambers—Women and culture in Seventeenth-Century China (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994), pp.1-26.

[8] See Gu Ding, “Xianhua wentan” (Gossip about literary circles) in Li Chunyan ed., Gu Ding zuopin xuan (Selected works of Gu Ding) (Shenyang: Chunfeng wenyi, 1995), p.9.