Can a Chinese Subaltern Speak?:
A Study on Writings About Female Aging in China

By Yuanhang Liu and Michael Seats

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.2  (Fall 2021), 98-126

Chinese aging women are significantly marginalized in both the social realm and the literary world due to their lack of cultural and social currency. They represent a vivid example of a “subaltern” group in post-socialist China in that they are largely excluded from the dominant production narrative. In such a context, this essay poses a Spivakian question: can a Chinese subaltern speak? To be more precise, can aging Chinese women express their experiences of subordination through literary discourses in postsocialist China?

In response to these questions, the essay conducts a survey of contemporary Chinese literature, focusing on literary works written by and for aging women as counter-discourses that articulate Chinese aging females’ subjectivities. With this point of departure, an intersectional feminist framework is adopted. Drawing on theories and praxis that are highly relevant to the understanding of women’s identities along the lines of gender, class, age, and history, this article first takes a historical approach in providing an overview of the development of the writing about female aging in Chinese literature, in an attempt to delineate the socioeconomic landscapes in China that are shaping and constraining this literary practice. Proceeding from a broad sketch of the social and cultural contexts in which aging women are placed, the article goes on to examine two representative works of this writing form—Shen Rong’s At Old Age (1991) and Yan Yan’s The Aunt’s Postmodern Life (2003)—both of which present new understandings of Chinese aging women’s experiences of subordinated social agency and thwarted self-efficacy.