Literature served as a weathervane for the changing winds of thought in the new period following China’s reform and opening up. Many authors blossomed in this era. Women became increasingly active in literature and gained notoriety during the 1980s.
Some represented the older generation of female writers, including Ru Zhijuan and Zong Pu. There were also younger ones, such as Wang Anyi, Zhang Jie, Shu Ting, Tie Ning and Zhang Kangkang. Hence, the works of these prominent female writers are indispensable texts for analyzing women’s literature in the 1980s.
Transcending gender construction
For much of the 1980s, literary critics did not consider works by female writers separately from the body of contemporary Chinese literature, but examining them as a distinct group may better serve the purposes of analysis from the perspective of gender.
Critics tended to analyze works of women based on the methods and features of their writing, which were hardly different from their male counterparts, while the gender of writers was not deliberately emphasized.
In other words, the contributions of female writers to the literary world were outstanding not because they explored gender themes but rather because they engaged in and led the literary trends of the time. This phenomenon of literary criticism was veiled for a long time.
The reform and opening-up as well as the emancipation of minds across China in the 1980s created fertile soil for gender awareness. In particular, the urge to grapple with the problems of humanity and the emphasis on the concept of the individual became the catalyst for the development of gender awareness.
Literary scholars then began to connect the gender identity of female writers with their literary creations, practicing literary criticism on the basis of feminist theories. Thus, the works of female writers began to be identified as women’s literature and were invested with an association with gender.
This perspective no doubt created new dimensions for interpreting the works of China’s female writers. For example, both The Ark by Zhang Jie and On the Same Horizon by Zhang Xinxin tell the painful stories of young people around 30 who idled their time away and achieved little in the previous decade. They aspired to gain footing in society through hard work in the new era.
When looked at from the perspective of gender, The Ark can be seen as the first work with clear gender awareness in the early years of the new period. The novel On the Same Horizon depicts the tensions between male and female gender roles as well as the instability of the social structure that results when women adopt traditionally masculine roles.
The awakening of female consciousness in the new period was based on the premise and in the context of human awakening. It is exactly against this backdrop that the literary creations of the women writers merged seamlessly into the trend of emancipation of ideas while being imbued with a gender perspective.
Interestingly, most female writers at that time emphasized themselves first as writers, then female writers. Take Zhang Jie for example. Zhang said: “Western feminism challenges the male. I disagree with this. I don’t think the world belongs to men, nor do I believe it belongs only to women. The world belongs to us all.”
Actually, in the first years of the new period, distinct and self-conscious gender awareness was not the first narrative choice for female writers. The works of female writers garnered more attention or were accepted and criticized more because of social issues reflected in them. The gender awareness of female writers was absorbed into the grand narrative, which advocated “realistic solicitude” from the very beginning.
However, it might also be the uniqueness of the Chinese context, which provides a transcendent and sublime design for the gender construction of women in the new period.
Self-identity, individual values
Without doubt, the works of female writers are called women’s literature not just because the women engaged in a string of literary trends in the new period. More importantly, female writers in their literary creation touch on the women’s self-awareness, self-awakening and self-construction as a gender group.
While it might not be appropriate to label these writers as advocates of women’s rights or feminists, referring to feminist theories on literary criticism and focusing on gender construction in the works of female writers will help to retroactively chart the course of woman’s gender identity in China starting in the late Qing Dynasty. It will also help us to measure the progress of Chinese women in terms of self-awakening and self-liberation in the past century, when their liberation synergized with the movement for national liberation.
Family and society are the two poles that determine the gender roles of women. The basic path for women’s liberation is escaping the constrictions imposed by family life, obtaining social status and realizing self-worth by engaging in social activities and reforms, and playing a role in civil society.
Female literature after the May Fourth Movement in 1919 began to explore gender identity and gender construction basically by examining the roles of women in family and society. Modern female writers including Bingxin, Lu Yin, Lin Shuhua and Ding Ling have all expressed different perspectives on the self-awareness and gender identity of the new woman based on their own personal experiences and feelings. All their works are valuable testimonies to the growth of new literature and the new woman.
With the arrival of the new period, as the “self” and “human being” were “rediscovered” while the dilemmas of emotion and life were experienced, the new generation of writers began to search for the lost or suspended “self” and rethink woman’s self-awareness and gender identity.
To some extent, it seems that women writers in the new period returned to the starting point of modern Chinese literature. What concerned the female writers from the era of the May Fourth Movement were the lives of the women who chose not to inhabit in their traditional old-fashioned families. The female writers in the new period care more about the future life of women who have multiple social identities.
The topics that were discussed by their predecessors in 1919—family construction, love and individual values—once again emerged in the works of female writers in the new period. This time, reflections on gender differences gradually slipped out from a minute crack in the grand narrative, projecting a unique picture.
In terms of family construction, in the early years of the new period, the female protagonists in the works of female writers usually struggled between their roles in family and society. And in later works, Wang Anyi and Chi Li relocated female characters to their traditional roles of managing family issues, exploring the possibility that women could realize individual values and achieve self-awareness by heading their households.
From their perspective, now that the social structure has changed as the result of women’s entry into civil society, it would be improper to advocate unilateral selflessness, sacrifice and dedication of women. Both men and women should grow in marriage and learn to cooperate as husband and wife.
The female writers in the early years of the new period all stressed purity when dealing with love in their works. In her trilogy of love stories, Wang Anyi explored the original force that sexuality grants life, which, to some extent, achieved an awareness and sublimation of the female subject.
The way in which an “individual” interacts with history changed in the literary creations after the mid-1980s. Particular in the New Realism novels, the protagonists were mostly townspeople and unimportant people. These new trends of literary creation indicate that, in addition to the grand narrative of nationality and state, another form of literature and another way of writing an “individual” also exists. These new trends demonstrate a return to self-expression from an earlier tendency to focus on depicting the times.
As a result, the importance of gender identity, individual psychological and physiological experience in particular, becomes more prominent.
The emergence and popularization of this trend barely has anything to do with gender identity, but Western feminist theories have found an opportunity in it. The private writing style of women’s literature that caters to the trend of self-expression provides concrete contexts and examples for feminist literary criticism. However, this kind of extreme writing of personal experience does not achieve what they expected. Embarrassingly, the serious works of female writers, after commercial packaging and hype, become commodities of mass consumption.
Getting overly obsessed with gender will compress the space for literature. In the 21st century, legions of women writers, including Yao Emei, Huang Yongmei and Lu Min, show a plurality of writing styles and themes, establishing a wide, strong and diverse narrative space for women’s literature.
Guo Bingru is from the Department of Chinese at the Sun Yat-sen University.