The Invention of a Discourse:
Women’s Poetry from Contemporary China

By Jeanne Hong Zhang

Reviewed by Paul Manfredi
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2006)

Zhang, Jeanne Hong. The Invention of a Discourse:  Women’s Poetry from Contemporary China. Leiden:              CNWS Publications, 2004. 304 pp. ISBN: 90-5789-096-8.

Zhang, Jeanne Hong. The Invention of a Discourse:
Women’s Poetry from Contemporary China
. Leiden:
CNWS Publications, 2004. 304 pp. ISBN: 90-5789-096-8.

Jeanne Hong Zhang’s work on women’s poetry in contemporary China is a remarkable success, and remarkable on many levels. For a relatively short work, it is comprehensive, situating the emergence of women’s poetry as a practice, as a discourse, and as problem in both a broad review of criticism and a thoroughly woven fabric of textual detail. It is also quite clear in its presentation of the widely disparate views of what constitutes women’s poetry in the minds of critics and authors. Finally, it is a timely work in English, setting a new standard for discussions of contemporary Chinese poetry, a standard whose features include convincing analysis, a wealth of resources in both languages, a bilingual index, original Chinese texts, competent translations of those texts into English, and even a nice selection of photographs to fill out the picture.

For some, perhaps, the heart of Zhang’s work will be the definition of women’s poetry. Of the various facets of this discussion succinctly reviewed in the opening pages of her work, two questions sharpen the focus most efficiently: can a man write “women’s poetry” and can a women’s-poetry poet find herself writing something other than women’s poetry? Zhang’s view, in her own articulation, is that this category is constituted by “female-authored poems that deal with gender-based themes, experience and psychology in a distinctive language usage” (p. 16). She attempts, in taking this position, to include authors whose works are deemed by some not sufficiently “feminist”—the definition of which in many respects is itself the point—without sacrificing too much clarity in terms of distinctiveness. By taking this middle-of-the-road position, Zhang diffuses the zero-sum game that seems to beset much of the discourse surrounding the question of female-authored literature. Nonetheless, more rigorous and more open-ended views are well reviewed in Zhang’s work, so that none cancels out the other. Taking for just a moment what may be called a meta-critical-view, I would point out that few other critical and aesthetic categories seem to generate so much concern. If it were incumbent on the critic to construct a category so unassailably sound that no counter-examples (e.g., men writing women’s poetry) could possibly damage its mere perfection, then few literary-historical analysis would be left standing. As a reader, I amentirely convinced by both the existence of this body of work, and its fundamental importance.

Zhang’s work begins appropriately with an historical review of the origin and evolution of feminist consciousness on the part of writers and critics in contemporary China. This critical groundwork, if missing anything, could have benefited from a bit more historical context in terms of a larger modernization question leading back into the May Fourth movement. Nonetheless, for the purposes of analyzing the contemporary context, it is appropriate to take mid- to late- twentieth-century feminist criticism—broadly schematized as French and Anglo-American—and writers like Sylvia Plath as principal architects of relevant theory and style. From this review, Zhang moves into greater depth by merging theoretical discussion with an “intertextual” reading strategy, and, in an important thematic chapter, tackles the essential question of a “shared women’s poetics.” This chapter is followed by what is arguably its direct extension: the fundamental relationship between poetry and the female body. These two chapters form the core of her work, establishing methodology and themes that come back in subsequent chapters. It is also in these chapters that Zhang blends more substantive description of the work of Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Susan Gubar, and Elaine Showalter, among others, with specific demonstration of their impact on Chinese critics and poets alike.

These chapters set the stage for four additional thematic chapters focusing on the “mirror,” “night,” “death,” and “flight,” which together constitute the main part of the analysis. Having established an intertextual method in the previous chapters, Zhang is able to travel at will among texts with surprising ease, dispensing with potentially diminishing dichotomies (East/West, Masculine/Feminine), and drawing into her discussion disparate but fundamentally linked themes and textual fragments. Tracking “night,” for instance, from Anne Sexton, Tang Yaping, Sylvia Plath to Li Shangyin, the author seamlessly connects body to text in the thematic (pregnancy, childbirth), and intertextual (dark waters, dark rooms, dark corridors, and tunnels) content of the poems, establishing a coalescence of associations with surprising density and force. The sum is greater than the parts, and the parts were certainly not wanting to begin with.

In the course of reading these chapters, we find extensive analysis of the poetry of Zhang Zhen, Zhai Yongming, Wang Xiaoni, Hai Nan, Tang Yaping, and Yi Lei, among others. What we do not find in this book is extensive biographical material on the lives of these authors. Zhang makes little effort to situate writers in terms of their education, their backgrounds, or their professional (though for most poets poetry is not a profession) lives beyond that of writing poetry. The Invention of a Discourse goes straight to the poetry itself, examining its textual connection to a field of women’s writing that extends across linguistic and national borders, incorporating recent historical circumstance as a textual phenomenon only—for example, the rash of suicides among Chinese poets of the 1990s materializes in Zhang’s chapter on death (“The Shrine of Death”) as a web of inter-related metaphors from graveyards to snow, scissors to paradoxical images of motherhood and life itself. When biographical details do intervene, for instance in mentioning that Wang Xiaoni has resided in Shenzhen since 1985 (p. 162), they are employed only in description of exile metaphors in her poetry. While some readers may find that this absence of biographical context detracts from the work, I find that it lends further credibility to the category of women’s writing. Zhang’s study is less of women who write poetry than of the inter-textual body of work that draws as directly from shared experience of interpretation of seminal texts as it does from shared experience of biologically-determined womanhood.

Questions about Zhang’s work can only be engaged on the broadest levels. I would, to begin with, take issue with the title; the word “invention” suggests more that contemporary women’s poetry was forged ex nihilo, rather than developed from its modern precedents. Indeed, as Zhang’s work amply demonstrates, authors of this category of writing stepped into a an aesthetic stream—in Zhang’s terminology “semantic” and “syntactic”—that extends back far and wide. Zhang’s concluding characterization that contemporary women’s poetry exists in dialogic relationship to the also socially-marginal Experimental Poetry is similarly flawed. The argument for the importance, even existence, of women’s poetry may be “as tricky as it is risky” (p. 16), but successfully argued, as it is in this text, should constitute more than a margin of the margin. As part of the re-configuration of literature and art growing out of the 1980s and into the present, women’s poetry takes up its discourse within a tradition of the oppression of women (or, at least, “trivialization” or “marginalization” vis à vis a male-dominated society) in China and in wider cultural scope—namely, the condition of women worldwide. The true possibilities of a “shared women’s poetics” lend both a buoyancy to this category, in its capacity to rise above some established nomenclature that configures critical views of recent Chinese poetry, and a gender-specific poignancy. These together serve to highlight the importance of a category of women’s writing and explain the heat generated in arguments over its delimiting features. As such, it has powerful heuristic value for not only establishing its own space, but for showing the way to interesting reconfigurations of literary history concerning poetry of the past few decades.

As the body of research and writing about contemporary poetry develops in the coming years, the question becomes to what degree we continue the discussion and analysis of specifically women’s poetry in China. The development of women’s poetry presented in The Invention of a Discourse suggests that a general evolution from confessional, body-centered poetry of the 1980s and 1990s ultimately gives way to a more language-based poetics (pp. 61-75) as we approach the present day. This analysis hardly seems objectionable, given that the critical understanding of post-Mao poetry identifies a similar path: younger poets responded to their Obscure predecessors with geographical or otherwise narrowly conceived theoretical identification. In time, these often rather subtle lines of delineation have given way to larger questions of method and style that usually lead back to language itself. If, as Zhang’s work suggests, we envelop the evolution of women’s poetry within a similar trajectory, we also serve to flatten out the gender distinction inherent in the category itself. In other words, as women’s-poetry authors move into a more language-based poetics, they share more in common with their male counterparts. In time, if a “gynocritical” (p. 55) view of women’s writing is no longer relevant in China, we will at least have in our possession an excellent and thoroughgoing analysis and history that has chronicled in some detail its recent success.

Paul Manfredi
Pacific Lutheran University