Wang Hongqi, ed. Zhongguo nüxing zai duihua (Chinese Women in Dialogue). Beijing: Zhongguo shidai jingji chubanshe, 2003. 352pp. ISBN 7 – 80169 – 415 – 5 (paperback).

 

This publication is mainly a compilation of interviews that the author Wang Hongqi from the Capital Normal University (Beijing shoudu shifan daxue) conducted with celebrated women from the contemporary literary and arts scene in China and with scholars engaged in women’s studies. She also interviewed female researchers from other Asian countries while they were attending a 2002 conference on the question of the indigenization of women’s studies. Unfortunately, there is no further biographical information on the author Wang Hongqi herself available.

The book also presents the discussions of two different meetings of the Beijing Gender Reading Group (Beijing shehui xingbie dushu xiaozu) in 2002 and 2003. The first meeting focused on women’s habits and interactions with personal emotions in China, especially those related to childbirth. The other meeting revolved around patriarchal constructions of language in Chinese literature.

The transcriptions of the interviews and the major parts of the Reading Group discussions are presented to the reader in full length without any further introductory or concluding remarks. The only hints of Wang Hongqi’s motivation for writing this book are her introductory comments which express that this volume for her is the fulfillment of a long sought after desire. Yet, she does not give any further detailed explanation of her intentions nor on how she selected the interview partners and the interview methods she used. Wang Hongqi’s method of interviewing rather resembles casual conversation, as there did not seem to be a set procedure for interviewing. Nonetheless, the compilation is most valuable for providing an access to original voices in contemporary China’s literary and arts scene. It also reflects some of the zeitgeist in the debate on contemporary gender issues and women’s studies in China.

The book is divided into six chapters, each with two or three subdivisions: In the first two parts of the first chapter Wang Hongqi interviews Zhang Kangkang, one of the leading writers in China’s contemporary literary scene, who was awarded the Second Chinese Women’s Literature Award for her latest novel Zuo nü. The interview focuses on the connotations of the novel’s title as well as on how contemporary women’s problems in China and the transformation of women’s consciousness from the 1970s until today are reflected in many of her writings. The title, Zuo nü, in some of China’s dialects, is slightly derogatory and refers to women who are adamant not to follow their traditional role in society. Zhang Kangkang, however, subverts the meaning of this phrase. To her Zuo nü presents a group of uniquely creative women that are strong enough to give up and embrace a new life. She suggests that since the early 1990s, as China became more and more open, women began to play a much more significant role in society. Thus Zuo nü carries her perspectives on the existence and spiritual pursuits of Chinese women in this period.

In the third part of the first chapter Wang Hongqi talks with Xu Kun, author, critic, and member of the Department of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, about the images of the women she depicts in her novels and how her personal experiences of marriage and divorce are mirrored in her writings. In her novels she paints a picture of unconventional and independent Chinese women. She suggests that Chinese women are more liberated than women in developed countries, though she admits that there are still many problems relating to women’s place in Chinese society.

In the first part of the second chapter Wang Hongqi interviews Yu Hong, a famous contemporary artist, also teaching at the Department of Oil Paintings at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (Zhongyang meishu xueyuan). On the one hand Yu Hong allows an insight into her private family life, and how she tries to find a balance between being a mother, wife, and professional artist. On the other hand their talk touches upon the uniqueness of her recent exhibition, in which her paintings that portray herself or members of her family at different stages of their lives, are matched with pictures depicting the social context of the time the painting was done. That way, Yu Hong intends to link private to public spheres and people’s private lives to society. This part includes a variety of Yu Hong’s paintings of her daughter, her marriage with Liu Xiaodong, and a self-portrait during pregnancy.

In the second part of the second chapter Zi Huajun, famous dancer, and Senior Research Fellow with the China Arts Research Academy (Zhongguo yishu yanjiuyuan), Department of Dance, speaks about her personal aims and motivations, and her mother’s integral role in her personal development. She discusses how in her earlier years she tried to fulfill her mother’s high expectations on her by pursuing an outstanding dancing career, and in her later years by her activities relating to women’s issues and politics, e.g. as member of the Political Consultative Conference. Photographs of her dancing and some private photos complement this part.

The third chapter includes the discussions of a meeting of the Beijing Gender Reading Group (Beijing shehui xingbie dushu xiaozu) on August 3, 2002, in which Wang Hongqi also participated. The discussion revolves around two aspects: Firstly, the mostly female participants remember their humiliating experiences with hospital staff when giving birth. They criticize the way in which most doctors and nurses treated expectant mothers as machines, as they did not pay any attention to their emotions or emotional sufferings while giving birth, which left them humiliated. Secondly, participants discuss women’s habits and interactions with personal emotions in China. Overall, participants convey their wish for more opportunities to express their feelings to others, and for a much more natural and open interaction with personal emotions. This chapter includes various paintings and sculptures depicting female nudes that do overtly not correspond to the chapter’s content.

In the fourth chapter Wang Hongqi, Zhu Hong, Associated Researcher in the Department of Foreign Languages at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Professor at Boston University, and Li Ling, Associate Professor in the Department of Literature at the Capital Normal University in Beijing, engage in a comparison of Chinese and Western patriarchy. They start with a discussion of various traditional forms of patriarchy, and subsequently similarities between how Chinese and Western women writers deal with these societal structures through their texts. To them both Chinese and Western women use writing as a means to express their critical opinions about women’s place in a male-dominated society, e.g. Austen, Mansfield in the West and Zhang Kangkang, Xu Kun, Tie Ning in China. They also touch upon women’s exposure in the media, and Chinese women’s role as sexual and beauty commodities. Several paintings of naked women complement this chapter.

Chapter five includes the discussions of another meeting of the Beijing Gender Reading Group held in Beijing, February 22, 2003, on the issue of how to overcome the patriarchal construction of language in Chinese literature. The debate revolved around an article written by Sheng Ying of the Tianjin Writers Association (Tianjin zuojia xiehui), entitled “Female Criticism: The Male-dominated Discourse of Contemporary Male Authors” (Nüxing piping: dangdai Zhongguo nan zuojia de nanquan huayu), published in the Literature and Arts Criticism Periodical (Wenxue piping congkan) 5:2 (n.d.). The article put forward the idea that in order to establish feminist literature and arts criticism in China, one must read women’s creative writings, trace women’s literature tradition, and criticize the male-dominated discourse and patriarchal construction of language in literature. A few pictures of sculptures complement the chapter.

The sixth and last chapter refers to the “International Conference on the Indigenization of Teaching Women’s Studies – Asian Experiences,” October 18-21, 2002, held at the China Women’s College (Zhonghua nüzi xueyuan) in Beijing. The conference’s aim was to exchange ideas and practical experiences within the field of teaching women’s studies. Another major point of discussion presented in this chapter was the search for a balance between borrowings from foreign theories related to women and the application of locally developed theories. During the conference Wang Hongqi interviewed several of the attending experts from other Asian countries about their views on women’s issues in their countries. The chapter includes pictures of sculptures depicting couples and families.

 

(Carola Krüger, Berlin)