Rewriting women's literature again

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The country's leading female authors and critics wrangle over the current meaning of feminism in print.

Debate raged between established women writers and literary critics at the Chinese Women Literature Forum last month in Beijing. "I'm not against 'female literature'," says author Zhang Kangkang, celebrated for illuminative descriptions and erudite portrayals of women's emotions.

"I just can't accept being labeled as a producer of 'feminist literature'. That places roadblocks in the way of the development of the country's women writers."

Beijing Language and Culture University literary critic Li Ling says women writers have expanded their understandings of feminist literary criticism.

"Feminist works are never only about battling oppression from the opposite sex," Li says.

To this, Zhang adds, "But progress has been made and not solely by us writers. Critics, too, have broadened their horizons."

Amid myriad contentions at the forum, consensus emerged on one point: Fury against patriarchal dominance and discrimination has been dying down in the first decade of the new millennium.

Generally speaking, the country's women writers are taking a calmer and broader approach to literary creation.

Wang Hongqi, critic and director of the China Research Center on Women's Culture, the forum's organizer, says there have been many changes in recent years.

She explains most women writers disliked being pigeonholed according to their sex, believing it glossed over their talents.

"They still don't like it, but are accepting the gender label if it refers to their unique female perspective rather than playing to a feminist consciousness in examining the subjects in writing," she explains.

"Gender provides an advantage but is not a weapon."

The reform and opening up ushered in a series of transformations in women's writing on the mainland. Female writers surged in numbers in the 1980s. A slew of new heavy hitters emerged, names like Zong Pu, Zhang Jie, Tie Ning, Wang Anyi, Zhang Kangkang and Zhai Yongming.

Feminist writing roared into the scene in the late 1980s, and its inertia continued through the 1990s. Its emergence was largely triggered by the introduction of Western feminist theories, and the genre was pushed to extremes by "body writing" authors who depicted private, often sexual, experiences.

"Now, women pen a huge proportion of contemporary literature," Chinese Academy of Social Sciences literary critic Bai Ye says.

"Their influence makes them an undeniable force in the country's literary scene."

Bai's colleague, veteran critic Chen Juntao, agrees. Chen has monitored trends related to women writers for 20 years and believes most of their works after 2000 testify to an effort to establish harmony between the sexes.

Lin Bai's metamorphosis is a revealing microcosm of this, Chen says.

Born in 1958, Lin gained acclaim in the 1990s with the controversial novel One Woman's War (1994). The book featured the private and sensual exploration of a girl's secrets as she came of age. The novel marked the beginning of attempts to depict deeply personal female experiences.

In 2003, Lin made a remarkable step out of her previous worldview with the novel All in Full Bloom.

"For a long time, I've been shut out of the outside world," she writes. "Now, I hear the voices of others that bring me back into the bright new world."

Chen says Lin's works now concerned with a more open world, rural issues and society's bottom rungs. And Chen believes the development of writers of Lin's ilk has contributed to the latest reshaping of the literary scene. Moved by currents of global feminism, China is contemplating its past, and the traditional spirit of harmony is reemerging.

It's a period Wang Hongqi calls "an era of love". She believes Chinese women's status has by now improved to the point that they can tone down their fury and start thinking about love again.

"Social development has provided women with economic independence, while education has given them higher social statuses and more life skills. Many don't rely on marriage, or men, to survive," Wang says.

"Women have won what they fought for, which has liberated them to look at a wider horizon and even reconsider the opposite sex."

She points out that upright male characters rarely appeared in women's writing before 2000.

It was Tie Ning, now president of the China Writers' Association, who opened the door for positive depictions of men in women's writing with her description of a disabled father in the short story Escape (2003). Her novel Benhua Village (2006) depicts some men with low social statuses and high degrees of heroicness.

Wang believes women writers have come to shine brightest in three arenas. These are family and history, rural and folk issues, and personal growth.

Meng Fanhua, a Shenyang Normal University professor who is heralded as the most extensive reader among critics, notes the lack of feminist awareness among writers born after the 1980s.

"Because the urgent common social problems faced by both sexes come before concerns between the sexes, these issues are naturally addressed first," Meng says.

Women writers have proven extraordinarily apt at capturing the challenges women have been facing since the country began its transformation in 1979, such as those related to the environment and employment, Meng explains.

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