Women's Culture and Writing in the 1990s
1: Illusion and Breakout
While women's writing in the 1980s is like a sailing boat on which intellectuals of both sexes co-worked to row from the dark side to the golden side pushing forward a great revolution, women's writing in the 1990s is like a fight out of a city of mirrors woven with illusions and dead alleys.
In other word, large number of brilliant literary works by women in the 1980s brought forth a variety of writing styles by breaking through the unitary feminine style and Mulanian style (Mulan, a household name in China, was a girl dressed up as a boy and became a hero in war). Unfortunately, as a result of the natural superposition of women's marginal identity and that of intellectuals as a whole in those days, the potential women speech style was often taken advantage of and submerged by outstanding male writers.
Before the 1990s, in seeking the Mulanian writing style, or rather male or quasi male style, and trying to exert impact upon men's culture and writing rules, women writers let go the chance of becoming major broadcasters of women's culture and speech style. Also they consciously and unconsciously gave up the possibility of impacting or overthrowing the male chauvinism in culture by making use of their abundant experience. In the 1990s, however, writings by women were best characterized by women writers' consciousness of their own sex. But as was expected, once they came into the cultural world as an independent role, they were immediately confronted with rampart and resistance from men. What's worse is that they found themselves in a city of mirrors, which had long trapped them as members in the world of culture.
It's hardly possible to make a relief map of women's culture in the 1990s by investigating women's literature itself. The cultural status of females was sharply declined by cultural commercialization. Moreover, their practical social status was also worsened in the course of social transformation.
Dozens of years ago when The Second Sex and Secrets of Females were first published in China, ideas like "always the second sex" and "the nameless disease of the housewife in a suburban house" were beyond Chinese women's understanding. But now similar situations have been pushed before their eyes by progressiveness in all fields.
Firstly, just like the large-scale consumption of past taboos, awes, and ideologies in the early 1990s, the cultural market did treat serious literary works by female writers in a non-commercial way. But some writers desiring for publicity were still tailed as dollar makers. In fact, this is the "float bridge" phenomenon, or public consumption behavior of culture, in a cultural transforming process.
Secondly, women's writings were arranged in an angle of peeking, publicized by uncovering privacy or even employing quasi pornography.
Thirdly, serious literary works, women's works in particular, were effectively packed and tempted to turn to economically profitable type. The starter of this practice is no one but Zhang Yimo, the great film director in China, who bought five novels all entitled Empress Wu Zetian by six writers. The one by Xu Lan and Zhao Mei is featured by an extremely interesting package. Across the dark-blue front cover is a faintly naked body of a woman with head and legs unseen. The woman is wearing nothing but a very thin layer of gauze. Around her belly is winding a golden dragon made of small bits. On the upper part of the cover is a two-line ad: Zhang Yimo offers Gong Li (best-known actress in China) a new role in a great work; two hermit female writers co-work to explore secrets. On the back cover is a half-closed red door with as much pornographic implication as the front cover.
3: Emersion of the original picture
Following the steps of female writers in the 1980s, female writers in the 1990s started a campaign to split a structure they have managed to build. Through this campaign they attempted to pull up women's experience, which had long been submerged.
Passion and Love in Hong Kong and Permanent Hatred are the variation and extension of Wang Anyi's series Fighting in the Street and New Century. Though they are still games between sexes, the female writer endows the subtle and cruel games with a flowery language.
Remember the Musician is one of the most important works by Xu Lan. In the eyes of the heroine, Liang Xiao, is a fragmentary but horribly cruel view of massacres committed by Japanese army in Nanjing, China. It is not just a description of marauds of individuals but rather personalized presentation of historical disastrous scenes. The scene, most horrified, mournful and humiliating in the modern history, becomes something most durable, bloody and darkling in the 16-year-old girl's trance of eyes.
In the fine and concise series of Sound of Raindrops, the writer, Meng Hui, is obviously influenced by contemporary and modern European literature on one hand. On the other hand, she displays her fresh recognition of modern civilization and women's fate. She once expressively revealed her doubt about the practicability of feminism.
Tie Ning continues Meng Hui's effort in a comic style in her excellent work The Eighth Day of the Week. Zhu Xiaofen, the heroine in the story, very willingly and luckily escapes from the fetter of a dull unhappy marriage. However, what she has to face is not cold faces around her but countless ridiculous pity and sympathy for her. It is well taken for granted that if a middle-aged mother and her husband have to divorce, the mother is definitely a deserted victim, who is believed to call for public pity, sympathy and justice. As a result the jolly woman has to endure a seemingly endless hard week until she is seen filled with tears in her eyes. All those who show great concern about her fate finally feel relieved to see her tearing and more firmly believe that women are after all born weak. Another Qin Xianglian (a well-known character in a classical story who was deserted by her husband after his promotion) type of story is successfully made.
For Whom Is the Mulberry Smoking Rising by Jiang Zidan, the newly rising star in 1990s, is certainly one of the important writings by female writers in that period. Two other equally excellent novels by Jiang are The Right Hand and Last Music.
Last Music is concerned with a woman who will give up her life for the sake of love. She designs her death in a flashback type of drama, in which she leaves suspense and enough clues for readers. According to her designs, the last music of this weepy love story is also the climax when her repentant and heartbroken man turns up at her funeral. Unfortunately, she becomes a complete failure as her hero, whom she takes as the man responsible for her suicide, fails to appear. Even worse is that she is greeted with snickers for her old-fashioned love story. No one believes that anyone will die for love in a world of today. They would rather believe that she is acting rashly for her being wronged by her man for two expensive yellow-fin tunas. The scene of Wen Dafei's standing at the funeral with two fishes in hand creates a farce, which is certain to make a lot of fun. People's grief at the funeral finally gives way to their realization of the caprice and obstinacy of the woman, who unilaterally sticks to a male cultural mode about females. In a sense, Jiang Zidan is a writer good at both revealing hidden risks in the civilized world and the fragility of life and satirizing men's desires and their cultural mode. She makes an outline of women's fate inlaid in this practical mode.
Broken Clouds, a novelette, not only marks Chi Li's step on to a new stage of writing. It is also an important part of Chinese literature in 1990s. In this book, the writer tells in a calm leisurely tone a story of a woman who kills her husband. It is filled with cliff hangings and breathtaking plots. A family, a seemingly good example followed by many, lives happily in spite of some regrets. But the family, the representative of civilization, finally falls into pieces simply because it is established on a base composed of sands of lies. The decent and successful husband proves to be a poisoner and murderer while the virtuous and perfect wife proves to be a sexually promiscuous and incestuous woman. The virginal membrane her husband gets is only an age-old trick.
Under the secrets are crimes and tragedies (which were by no means considered to be crimes and tragedies in the past) driven by enmity between town people and countryside people and between people of different classes. If all people lived under the roof of the past, men could justifiably and undisturbedly ignore the weak social rules such as consciences and moralities. To women, however, it would be nothing but a disaster for which they had to pay by tearing up their whole bodies. So the end of Broken Clouds is the crime transfer. Instead of turning to justice of laws, the woman acts as men do by wiping out her man's body under the protection of civilization and lies and continues her life decently without paying any. Chi Li very calmly and easily goes on with her efforts and brings women's writing in 1990s on to a new stage with her unprecedented force and courage.
4: Across the city
The most important change in China in the 1990s was the rapid commercialization and urbanization. Xu Kun is one of the writers dealing with this topic. Starting from her maiden work, Xu Kun becomes a noticeable critic of modern culture in a free and smooth way.
In Who Passes You the Ball, Xu Kun reveals such things as money worship, extravagance and various Chinese-style farces in the process of soccer clubization for realizing the dream of fighting out of Asia. In Damned Soccer, the writer quips at the absurd demonstrating nature of soccer matches commonly seen among men's soccer teams. In her way of integrating joyfulness, seriousness and jocosity, Xu Kun represents fresh eyeshot in the world of women's literature.
Trip to White Night by Chi Zijian is a story of a city woman who is solitary and tired both physically and mentally. Her tour to the white night in the North Pole with her former husband is no doubt an attempt to fulfill a past promise or dream. This is not a pleasant trip, but rather a recurrence of old excruciating trifles and ceaseless betrayals. Instead of reaching the white night she dreams of, she experiences a summer time with a ghost. The man returning to her side is a ghost, an unreformed ghost. By this story, the writer seems to convey a message in women's works in the 1990s: stop looking for lofty men, stop living with ghosts and illusions.
5: Cities and land of sisters
Zhang Mei, a woman writer from Canton, painted with her pen a new picture of the city of women in the 1990s. Shao Jian, a well-known critic, describes her works as a Yamato- e characterized by its simplicity, disorder, gloom, stillness and aroma.
Like others, Zhang Mei also writes about the special alignment among women. But such an alignment is actually cooperation under unavoidable circumstances. As part of the whole literature in the 1990s, Zhang Mei's novel series bring back a picture of a new group of noble women rising from a new structure of classes. The convergence and permutation of the past privileged group and the new noble group produces a new connotation to the life of urban females. In the course of social progress, when women get their sex roles they certainly deserve, they encounter such a familiar languid and unavoidable downthrow.
Women, Games, Afternoon Tea by Zhang Mei is as fine as a folding screen which displays new ruled sexual games. In the dense atmosphere in Zhang's works, women's mirrors also make a Yamato-e of modern China.
Frequently compared with Chen Ran by critics, Lin Bai is largely mentioned for her works of personalization, autobiographic style and privacy revealment.
In the style of city life, women seek emotional survival among themselves. But it is the city itself that erodes and narrows their possible space of life and culture. In a way, Chen Ran's latest works represent a new trend of women's literature in the 1990s. In her Break, she throws up again the overstepping of the rules and order for sexes in the land of sisters.
With the prosperity of literature by women writers in the new period, women's writing in the 1990s achieved a more and more mature and massive pattern in the sense of sex consciousness and literary consciousness. But just like women's brambly fate in the society, it is destined to encounter brambles in its progressing course. It rises and falls. But each fall forecasts a new rise, which is often bound to construct broader cultural space for women.
This article is based on an article by Zai Jinhua in Chinese, translated and edited by Ye Qinfa and Jun Shan.