Dorothy Ko and Wang Zheng, eds. Translating
In a recent article by Kay Schaffer and Song Xianlin, a specifically ‘indigenous Chinese feminism’ is probed and situated in the varied sites of women’s activism, embracing rural women’s stories, new historical fiction, popular novels and blog sites as well as poststructuralist personalised writing. Translations into a Chinese feminist politics of difference are seen as both a product of, and a catalyst for, the local re/emergences of women’s familiar traditions and women intellectuals’ engagement in trans-national discourses.Translating Feminisms in China could be said to historicize what might be termed a body politics of difference. In their introduction, the two editors, Dorothy Ko and Wang Zheng, make it their argument that ‘… feminism is always already a global discourse, and the history of its local reception is a history of the politics of translation’ (p. 1). Contributors brought together for this volume provide illustrations for these processes of translation from different places and eras in a chronology of four distinct phases within the history of Chinese women, spanning the period from late-nineteenth century China to contemporary times.
The introduction by Ko and Wang presents, importantly, an overall assessment of the trajectory of the concept of nüquan (women’s rights or power) and an argument for its historicization, a discussion of the relationship between ‘media and feminist visions of modernity’ and of the ‘female body as a battlefield for contending discourses’ (p. 4). It is their contention that the conceptual and linguistic ‘messiness’ of feminist terminology in the Chinese language has to be understood, on the one hand, within the volatile events in world history through which the modern Chinese nation state shaped its claim to equal sovereignty and, on the other hand, within a diverse and changing map of women’s local histories of translation and indigenization. This volume constitutes an important addition to on-going debates on the translation and translatability of ‘feminisms’ across borders and will be certain to arouse interest also outside the area of Chinese Studies.
the contribution by Mizuyo Sudo
on ‘Concepts of Women’s Rights in Modern
China’, the theme of translation is squarely
placed within the cultural and political influence exerted by Japan
century Chinese intellectuals, in fact itself a
‘mediation’ of the impact of Western
modernity on Japan. Western ideas and concepts had been translated and
into Japanese language itself deeply enmeshed in Chinese cultural,
and linguistic heritage, and in turn re-translated into Chinese
It was a time when power and progress appeared to side with a rapidly
Carol Chin makes Chinese feminists the authors of translation in her article ‘Translating the New Woman: Chinese Feminists View the West, 1905-15.’ She explores the impact of an American-type ‘modernity’ on Chinese discourses on changing ‘Chinese women’ in order to strengthen a weakened nation state. It is the author’s argument that Chinese women would have walked their own path to modernity, without ‘Western’ influence; that whatever influence was received from America was ‘translated’ selectively by Chinese intellectuals, ever conscious of and in touch with their native self. ‘The Chinese could create their own modern identity (or identities), and even if the results resembled Western modernity in many respects, they would have arrived at them by their own process’ (p. 43). And again, she says ‘Although Chinese feminists looked to American women for inspiration, they were not attempting to translate American culture into the Chinese context, nor were they merely imitating the foreign models. Rather, they were engaged in appropriating images of American women in their quest to construct their own modernity’ (p. 43). Chin concludes in her discussion of the contemporary radical press and of its coverage of representations of modernity across the East/West divide as well as of the suffrage movement in the USA and in Europe that in relation to the situation of foreign women, ‘… the gap between their own situation and that of the American and British suffragists must have struck Chinese readers as wide indeed’ (p. 51). The final section seeks to ‘re-translate’ ‘Chinese feminist’ images from within the Western gaze – and Chin finds this gaze ‘shocked’ (at women’s ways of being modern and very much their own women), ‘surprised’ (at feminists in China moving forward and ahead of women in America and in Europe), and as impervious to American influence. There is no single, uniform representation of ‘the new Chinese woman’, Chin maintains. Women in early nineteenth century China were still in a flux, she says, but they also were in search of a modernity that grew out of their own tradition rather than out of an influence alien to their own ideals and aspirations.
Yung-chen Chiang continues the exploration of Western influence on the Chinese women’s movement with her chapter on ‘Womanhood, Motherhood and Biology: The Early Phases of the Ladies’ Journal, 1915-25.’ Foregoing a popular assumption among scholars that the emergence of nationalism constitutes a driving force of women’s history, Chiang builds on Tani Barlow’s thesis that global feminism found resonance and roots also in Chinese discourses of the time. A case study of The Ladies’ Journal (Funü zazhi) – which ran between 1915 to 1931 – culminates in her argument that taking into account perspectives given by gender discourses in Japanese and European (including Scandinavian) intellectual circles, ‘can offer insights on how nationalism, socialism and science mediate the transmission of global gender discourses in modern China, and how women in contrast to men interpreted and deployed these discourses to articulate their own concerns and subjectivities’ (p. 97). Chiang’s careful analysis shows the vibrancy of the intellectual debate, a sheer ‘cacophony’ of voices, with its varied contexts and viewpoints which foreshadowed so many of the debates in subsequent decades – whether embracing issues of sexual morality, motherhood, eugenics, or national ‘health’ debates and their implications for women’s control over their own body. But she also demonstrates that Chinese women intellectuals participated in these debates from within highly personalized concerns. On the whole, men dominated both debate and translation of salient intellectual currents. They settled ideological positions and translated core political ideas to shape the directions of the nation under the banner of progress and a science-propelled modernity. Ultimately, this would dilute the urgency of the ‘women’s question.’
discourse on jianmei
(robust beauty) provides Yunxiang Gao
with the opportunity to delve into contemporary preoccupations with
hair-style, body posture and physical mobility. Conflicting positions
modernity, pathways to national reform, perceptions of the
‘West’ and of
relative strength of the nation are explored in a nuanced analysis. In
on ‘Nationalist and Feminist Discourses on Jianmei
(Robust Beauty) during China’s “National
Crisis” in the 1930s’, Gao uses the
Shanghai weekly women’s journal Linglong
‘a multi-vocal space for women’ (p. 109) to
interrogate shifting connotations of
the concept of ‘robust beauty’ in relation to a
diverse female readership’s
questions, responses and observations on current fads and fashion.
different parts of urban society, these readers together with writers
editors presented a perfect screen for philosophical discourses,
missionizing and polemical propaganda that turned in particular
Kimberley Ens Manning revisits
one of the most formative periods in the historiography of Chinese
history, the period of political consolidation of the Communist Party
1950s. Under the title of ‘Making a Great Leap Forward? The
Politics of Women’s
Liberation in Maoist China’, Manning makes
‘different forms of agency’ during
the Great Leap Forward the focus of her critical attention. It is her
that the ‘origin and consequences of gendered struggles in
Also concerned with the late 1950s, Gao
Xiaoxian turns her attention to the
gendered division of labour in rural society with her chapter
Flower Contest”: Rural Women in 1950s
Jin Yihong’s study, entitled ‘Rethinking the “Iron Girls”: Gender and Labour during the Chinese Cultural Revolution’, continues with questions over the state’s mobilization of women workers, its implications for a gendered division of labour as well as for gender relations and, more directly, for women themselves. Symbolic of the liberation discourse during the Cultural Revolution, the role models known as Iron Girls came to exemplify the influential Maoist decree that ‘men and women are the same’. Indeed, its influence reaches into Chinese Communist Party rhetoric shaping current gender politics. The Iron Girls, as Jin’s study demonstrates, became a useful, ideologically effective propaganda tool for the Party to resolve tensions over labour deployment but also served other purposes, extending control by the work unit over women and family. The pressure to outdo each other made these Iron Girls teams highly competitive, demanding however of their members enormous suffering and sacrifice. In a perceptive analysis of women’s own evaluation of their role and the benefits reaped from such dedication, Jin notes women’s emphasis on obligation, duty and sacrifice over entitlement to rights. She brings out the difference between rural and urban Iron Girls, with the former taking on additional responsibilities and jobs, without being relieved at home from traditional domestic tasks. Moreover, a devaluation of traditional ‘female duties’ increased the pressure to perform in ideologically worthy roles. Whilst the opening up of new employment brought with it new excitement over increased social and physical mobility as well as joy over working within groups of like-minded women, as Jin’s accounts demonstrate so well, the physical costs and domestic tensions made these Iron Girls teams short-lived. As the name indicates, in the rural areas, only unmarried girls could enjoy the liberty of employment not granted to married women. This was otherwise in urban areas where childcare provisions and changing popular attitudes saw married women join the ranks of labouring classes. The study most effectively explores the party/state’s mobilization and use of the ideological banner of ‘liberation’ of women for its own purposes but also shows how, within patriarchal constraints particularly salient in rural milieus, women of the lower working classes found the space, albeit limited, to unsettle gender relations. The Cultural Revolution model of women’s liberation was infused with pain, dedication and hope – but, so Jin points out, even if the Iron Girls lost some of their ideological propaganda value, their part in the country’s iconography of female heroism endures.
concluding contribution ‘Who is a Feminist? Understanding the
Ambivalence towards Shanghai Baby,
“Body Wiring” and Feminism in
The editors have selected contributions from a wide range of positions and disciplines to create a stimulating ‘cacophony’ of voices, analyses and interpretations. They have also ensured that whether in internationally held debates or in a nationally constructed politics of difference we pay critical attention to those processes of translation which shape, align, dominate and problematize feminism/s locally and transnationally.
Schaffer, Kay and
Song Xianlin. “Unruly Spaces: Gender,
Women’s Writing and Indigenous Feminism in
 First published as Volume 18, No. 3 (2006) of Gender & History.