Themes and Goals
The purpose of this unit on ZHANG Mei’s short story “A Record” is to explore the relationship between contemporary urban Chinese women and their predecessors by focusing on issues of representation, gender, sexuality, and female autonomy. The unit presents materials and study questions about the construction of Chinese women’s subjectivity, the significance of women’s history, and the transnational circulation of representations of Chinese women. While offering background information on the practice of marriage resistance by women in China, this unit also helps us understand the complexities of gender and sexual politics. Such an analysis looks closely at the impact of gender and sexuality on contemporary women’s lives, intergenerational connections among women, and the production of knowledge which forms the basis of women’s literary and cultural histories.
In “A Record”, a young woman (the narrator) accompanies a male writer and a male film director on a day trip to Shunde County in Guangdong Province to interview some of the last surviving “self-wedded women” for a film the two men are developing. “Self-wedded” refers to a form of marriage resistance where women vowed in a ceremony to remain unmarried. Many self-wedded women lived together in communities in Southeastern China and were economically self-sufficient, often earning their living in the region’s silk industry. (See part D of the Instructor’s Introduction for more on self-wedded women and other marriage resistance practices.)
“A Record” is neither a sociological study nor an historical account about self-wedded women and their role in women’s history. Rather, the story presents the reader with questions about how these women are to be represented, remembered, and reintegrated into contemporary women’s narratives. The story allows students to consider the ways in which gender is constructed in China and elsewhere.
This unit will help students begin to think critically about gender, women’s history, and the dissemination of women’s images and narratives locally, nationally, and transnationally and to engage with such questions as: What ideal norms are imposed upon Chinese women, historically and currently? How does the story present the practices that inscribe gender and sexuality into women’s lives and onto their bodies? In what way do the narrator’s self-perceptions and those of the self-wedded women overlap and contradict each other? What might this story mean to contemporary Chinese women?
Audiences and Uses
This short story is suitable for inclusion in courses dealing with contemporary Chinese women, gender representation, globalization of women’s images, and Chinese women’s history. It is best suited to sophomore or junior level undergraduates and is suitable for students with little or no previous exposure to Chinese literature. The ideal audience would have some experience in critical literary analysis.
The short story could be useful in a wide variety of courses, including but not limited to:
This unit was originally designed to cover two 55-minute class sessions. The first session could be devoted to an introductory discussion of women in China using the Li, Ono, and possibly Gallagher readings. “A Record” would then be covered in the second session. Additional readings and a film recommendation are also provided if the instructor wishes to use this material in more class sessions.
A. Key Points
Students should come away from the study of this story having gained insight into the following issues:
B. “A Record” and Feminist Theory
Reading Chinese women’s literature can benefit from a feminist theoretical framework for discussions. The work of LI Yu-ning and Dorothy KO (see Instructor Readings) is helpful in presenting this framework. Distinctions need to be made between hardship and female oppression in women’s lives. LI Yu-ning writes that “hardship cannot be uncritically equated with oppression.” Use this quote to introduce students to the idea that we should not view all women in China as exclusively victims of a patriarchal society. This idea is as true for earlier historical periods as it is for contemporary China. One example is found in the sancong, the “three obediences” (or “Thrice Following” in Ko’s language) for women. According to the “three obediences,” a woman follows her father and elder brother in her youth; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband dies, she follows her son. This set of views deprived a woman of her legal and formal social identity, but as Ko points out, not her subjectivity. What Ko means by this is that the sancong presents itself as a universalizing view of women when in fact women from different economic backgrounds, classes, locales, and ages had varying degrees of autonomy and opportunity within the framework of this gender/sex system. To that end we must also consider women in their differences as well as their similarities. [Note: The instructor might want to refer to Mary GALLAGHER’s essay, “Women and Gender,” (see Student Readings) to underscore this point.]
Although Ko’s work is focused on the seventeenth century, her theoretical insights can help us to think in a new way about contemporary Chinese women by moving us away from a dichotomous model of an oppressive patriarchy and victimized women. Ko theorizes that there are three spheres of shifting, interconnecting and/or diverging realities with which women engage: 1) theory or the ideal norms, 2) practice, and 3) self-perceptions. Here are some ideas we might think about as we read contemporary Chinese fiction: How is each of these three spheres shaped by historical events? In turn, how do they shape historical events? How do they impact cultural and social shifts in perceptions/attitudes about women? How do the narrative strategies reflect and/or construct representations of Chinese women’s subjectivities in concert with or in contradiction to these three spheres?
C. Women in China and Women’s Writing
To help students negotiate the Chinese literary and social context of the assigned narratives, assign LI Ziyun’s essay “Women’s Consciousness and Women’s Writing” (see Student Readings) before assigning “The Record.” This article discusses women’s writings from the early years of the twentieth century to the late 1980s. The instructor may also want to read Lydia LIU’s essay, “Invention and Intervention: The Making of a Female Tradition in Modern Chinese Literature” (see Instructor Readings), as it helps to set up the discussion of feminist literary history as an important historical project.
Prior to reading ZHANG Mei’s short story, the instructor may want to refer to Gallagher’s essay “Women and Gender” (see Student Readings) to guide a discussion of women’s oppression in China (familial, societal, and cultural). Likewise, the article is useful to discuss how as readers we must avoid imposing our expectations that all Chinese women’s literature will of necessity be a literature of resistance. If when we read we see the narrative working out some form of resistance, then we must try to see what particular forms of power and domination are being resisted within the text. The optional video, Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women In China (see Student Readings), aids in this discussion of the complex representations of women’s hardship, domination, and survival in the face of adversity. This video, along with excerpts of nu shu poetry (found in the appendix to Silber’s essay, “From Daughter to Daughter-in-Law in the Women’s Script of Southern Hunan"; see Instructor Readings), brings to light some of the ways in which women’s writing was both acceptable within the sphere of marriage while also challenging the notion that women were inferior to men. This background information and analysis prepares students for the complex set of issues presented in ZHANG Mei’s “A Record.”
D. Marriage Resistance in China
To enhance students’ comprehension of “A Record” it would be helpful to give them additional information on the practices of marriage resistance. The phenomena of marriage resistance in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries challenges stereotypical perceptions of women’s role in Chinese society and attitudes towards marriage. Marjorie TOPLEY’s article, “Marriage Resistance in Rural Kwangtung” (see Instructor Readings) argues that such resistance was limited to a relatively small geographical area of the Canton delta where sericulture was the prominent industry. The silk industry was labor intensive, and female labor was thus necessary beyond the confines of the home. For this reason, Topley reports that bound feet and female infanticide were rare in this area. The silk industry enabled economic independence for some women and thus the option of resisting typical marriage practices. According to Topley, the decision to resist marriage was not necessarily a rebellious act on the part of women, but for financial reasons was often supported by the women’s family and community.
Topley identifies two primary patterns of marriage resistance. Some women opted to completely resist marriage and would take vows in a ceremony that they would remain unmarried, becoming self-wedded women (the term used in ZHANG Mei’s short story). These women often lived communally with others who had taken the same vows and were economically self-sufficient. They were often referred to as “women who dress their own hair” (zishunü) because of the rituals during their vow ceremony. Other women, known as “women who do not go down to the family” (buluojia), did marry, but they rejected patrilocal marriage and refused to live with their husbands after the marriage ceremony (Zhang refers to these women as “absentee wives”). The woman would often remain financially responsible for her husband’s family and would provide for the upkeep of his concubine. Topley also discusses lesbian relationships that developed among some women who participated in a marriage-like ceremony, after which the couple would cohabitate. These same-sex relationships and communities might be understood as both complicit in the region’s marriage politics and resistant to direct male control and organization. It is this complexity that drives ZHANG Mei’s story. The instructor might want to read Rubie S. WATSON’s essay (see Instructor Readings) for a more nuanced comparison of marriage resistance practices and their origins and motivations.
*** Most important
*** KO, Dorothy. “Introduction: Gender and the Politics of Chinese History.” In Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994. Pages 1-26.
*** LI, Yu-ning. “Historical Roots of Changes in Women’s Status in Modern China.” In Chinese Women Through Chinese Eyes, edited by LI Yu-ning. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1992. Pages 102-122.
** LIU, Lydia H. “Invention and Intervention: The Making of a Female Tradition in Modern Chinese Literature.” In Chinese Feminities/Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, edited by Susan BROWNELL and Jeffrey N. WASSERSTROM. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Pages 149-174.
** SIEBER, Patricia. “Introduction.” In Red Is Not the Only Color: Contemporary Chinese Fiction on Love and Sex between Women, Collected Stories, edited by Patricia SIEBER. Lanham, M.D.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Pages 1-35.
**SILBER, Cathy. “From Daughter to Daughter-in-Law in the Women’s Script of Southern Hunan.” In Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State, edited by Christina K. GILMARTIN, Gail HERSHATTER, et. al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994. Pages 47-68.
** TOPLEY, Marjorie. “Marriage Resistance in Rural Kwangtung.” in Women in Chinese Society , edited by Margery WOLF and Roxane WITKE. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975. Pages 67-88.
* WATSON, Rubie S. “Girls’ Houses and Working Women: Expressive Culture in the Pearl River Delta, 1900-41.” In Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude and Escape, edited by Maria JASCHOK and Suzanne MIERS. London: Zed Books Ltd, 1994. Pages 25-44.
*** Most important
*** ZHANG, Mei. “A Record.” Translated by Patricia SIEBER. In Red Is Not the Only Color: Contemporary Chinese Fiction on Love and Sex between Women, Collected Stories, edited by Patricia SIEBER. Lanham, M.D.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Pages 73-91.
*** LI, Ziyun. “Women’s Consciousness and Women’s Writing.” Translated by ZHU Hong. In Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State, edited by Christina GILMARTIN, Gail HERSHATTER, Lisa ROFEL and Tyrene WHITE. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994. Pages 299-317.
*** ONO, Kazuko. Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution, 1850-1950. Edited by Joshua A. FOGEL. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989. Pages 121-124.
** GALLAGHER, Mary. “Women and Gender.” In An Introduction to Chinese Culture through the Family, edited by Howard GISKIN and Bettye S. WALSH. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001. Pages 89-105.
* Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China. Directed by Yue-Qing YANG. Women Make Movies, 1999. Videocassette. Distributed by Women Make Movies. (http://www.wmm.com; Purchase price = $250, Rental = $75)
* ZHANG, Jie. “Love Must Not Be Forgotten.” Translated by Gladys YANG. In Love Must Not Be Forgotten. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1986. Pages 1-13. (Alternate version: Translated by William CRAWFORD. In Roses and Thorns: The Second Blooming of the Hundred Flowers in Chinese Fiction, 1979-80, edited by Perry LINK. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Pages 244-260.)
The following study questions can be used for in-class discussion or can form the basis of a 2-3 page writing assignment.
McLAREN, Anne. “Women’s Voices and Textuality: Chastity and Abduction in Chinese Nüshu Writing,” Modern China 22, no. 4 (1996): 382-416.
PAN, Lynn. “Some of the Women.” In Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora. New York: Kodansha International, 1994. Pages 191-204.
SIU, Helen F. “Where Were the Women? Rethinking Marriage Resistance and Regional Culture in South China,” Late Imperial China 11, no. 2 (December 1990): 32-62.
STOCKARD, Janice E. Daughters of the Canton Delta: Marriage Patterns and Economic Strategies in South China, 1860-1930. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.
ZHANG, Zhen. “The World Map of Haunting Dreams: Reading Post-1989 Chinese Women’s Diaspora Writings.” In Spaces of Their Own: Women’s Public Sphere in Transnational China, edited by Mayfair Mei-Hui YANG. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Pages 308-335.
——. “Mediating Time: The ‘Rice Bowl of Youth’ in Fin de Siecle Urban China.” In Globalization, edited by Arjun APPADURAI. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. Pages 131-154.