Hui Wu, ed. Once Iron Girls: Essays on Chinese Gender by Post-Mao Chinese Literary Women. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010. 154pp. ISBN 978-0-8391-3422-1 (paperback).

Once Iron Girls is a valuable collection of essays by literary women writing in Post-Mao China. In the volume, Hui Wu translates essays by some of the most influential female authors of the past decades, several of whom are known among Western readers for their fiction or poetry.

The essays are written by Bi Shumin, Fang Fang, Han Xiaohui, Hu Xin, Lu Xing’er, Shu Ting and Zhang Kangkang. Each author is represented with three or four essays that are preceded by a short introductory note providing the reader with necessary information about the respective author’s biography and the context of her particular texts. In her very informative and concise introduction to the volume, Hui maps the larger framework within which the essays are to be understood. This includes the context of women’s liberation in China and the fate of women in contemporary China whose “liberation” under Mao denied them femininity as well as the possibility of speaking about continuing gender inequality in their everyday lives. Fictional writing in the Post-Mao era empowered women to finally voice these inequalities as well as to cover new (and old) injustices and inequality brought about as side-effects of the economic reforms. Writing essays is not only a means to ponder these issues, but also represents a process of engendering, as this genre is considered predominantly male. The essays collected in this volume therefore represent the attempts of seven prolific authors to claim a place for women in the tradition of essay writing and to write about the problems that women face in contemporary China.

By avoiding oversimplified arguments, arguing for a promotion of both women’s rights and human rights in general, and by “de-victimizing” women, the pieces offer differentiated views of women’s issues. Given the essayistic nature of the texts, they provide readers with open questions or statements in which the authors ponder their feelings, experiences and hopes for the future rather than provide definite answers. For example, they ask: How can women’s liberation and gender equality be achieved when there is no basic human equality? Are there limits to an exclusively female standpoint (Zhang Kangkang)? How can a woman be true to herself? In her essay “I don’t want to be a woman”, for example, Han Xiaohui realizes how in telling her daughter to behave like a girl she repeats stereotypes based on traditional role models that she had to suffer from in her own childhood and youth. Han Xiaohui describes how she had been turned into “a good girl”, but realizes how difficult it is to be true to oneself and to be honest about this. Is there an alternative to escaping into the utopia promised by a children’s cartoon that mother and daughter watch? Similarly, Shu Ting refers to the “long historical shadow” of the Chaste Temples in Anhui that honored chaste exemplary women who were willing to make sacrifices for their male relatives or in-laws or their elders during the imperial era. Faced with a story of similar self-abandonment reported in the contemporary Chinese press – of an abandoned wife who is praised for sacrificing herself for her younger brothers-in-law – Shu Ting argues that the “woman had no reason to sacrifice and victimize herself.” How can one make a statement about the happiness of this woman? Should one not rather encourage her to seek a career of her own? To Shu, there is nothing wrong in “wasting” some time on family matters and raising a child – provided one does not abandon one’s own independence and self-respect. In a similar vein, Shu emphasizes how important it is for women to have a “room of one’s own” – in the physical and the mental realm, both of which obviously are hard to attain in contemporary China.

A number of essays focus on the meaning that authors ascribe to writing. Debating the role of writing and the role of the (female) author adds another dimension to the volume. What is women’s literature? Why does no one talk about male literature? Is literature written by women automatically women’s literature? What about literary texts focusing on women’s issues irrespective of their authors’ sex? In “We Need Two Worlds”, Zhang Kangkang emphasizes that it is not sufficient to criticize men for their wrongs. Instead, women writers have a duty to face women’s issues and to educate and improve both women writers and readers. It may seem slightly ironic that Zhang Kangkang on the one hand seems to cling to a view of the author as the avant-garde educating the masses, while on the other hand criticizes the Mao era as a “historic setback” during which “the female was virtually nonexistent”. Yet, to me this only proves the vitality of the discourse underway in China.

Therefore, I warmly recommend this volume to all interested in the Chinese literary essay, issues of authorship and the fate of women in contemporary China.

(Lena Henningsen, University of Freiburg)