Ties That Cut

Ties That Cut.
Alter/Native Portrayals of Chinese Women.
Short version
by Paola Zamperini
work in progress, please do not quote without author’s permission
[email protected]
"Ties That Cut: Alter/Native Portrayals of Chinese Women in Western Women’s
By Paola Zamperini
This paper is concerned with the critical analysis of writing about Chinese women
that Western women composed in their role of “China-hands”, i.e., experts on
China. These sources, ranging in genre from memoirs to missionary reports, have
in common the racial and social identity of the authors (all were produced by white
Anglo-Saxon women), the content (images of Chinese women and their need for
Western modernity, in all its facets), their intended audience (white Anglo-Saxon
people, mostly women), and the period of time which they described and in which
they were produced (between the fall of the Qing dynasty and the Republican era).
These texts are marked by female writing practices which undeniably sustained
imperialism, colonialism, and the missionary enterprise, but whose focus and significance
also transcend these discourses. In other words, while revealing a textual universe in
which a vast array of rhetorical figures and discursive tropes were employed by Western
women to represent and know China for the benefit of Western audiences, they also show
the plurality of visions by which these women fashioned their distinctions and reinvented
themselves by writing about Chinese women. I delineate the specific characteristics of
women’s texts, in order to understand better the cultural legacy of these women’s
writings within the intellectual, fictional and political imagery of both Western and
Chinese people. Thus, in my conclusion, I also look at those images employed by
Chinese women to represent and know the Orient and the West. This effort might help in
understanding how Western women helped to create Orientalist images of China as well
as their contribution to orientalism. The books about Chinese women that Western
women of the Victorian era wrote were not just entertaining works written by eccentric
and remarkable characters, or just part of the missionary enterprise, but clarify and
illuminate the complex dynamics of transnational cultural interactions that were– and still
are– at work among China, the West, women, Woman, race, and gender.
1. Zhongguo guodu huazi, Xinhua chu ban she, Beijing, 1989.
This paper is concerned with the analysis of Western women’s writing about
Chinese women in the period of ‘high imperialism’ (roughly demarcated as the
mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century).1 I have chosen works that
have in common the racial and social identity of the authors (all were produced by
white Anglo-Saxon women), the content (images of Chinese women), their
intended audience (white Anglo-Saxon people, mostly women), and the period of
time which they described and in which they were produced. Within this
framework, I will be concentrating mainly on the role of Western women as
writers and on the texts they produced in their role of “China-hands”, i.e., experts
on China. Their texts are marked by female writing practices which undeniably
sustained imperialism and colonialism, but their focus and significance also
transcend these discourses. In other words, I want to bring attention to a textual
universe in which a vast array of rhetorical figures and discursive tropes were
employed by Western women to represent and know China for the benefit of
Western audiences, as well as to show the plurality of visions by which Western
women fashioned their distinctions and reinvented themselves by writing about
Chinese women. I wish also to delineate the specific characteristics of women’s
texts, in order to understand better the cultural legacy of these women’s writings
within the intellectual, fictional and political imagery of both Western and Chinese
people. Thus, in my conclusion, I look at the images employed by Chinese women
to represent and know the Orient and the West. This is an effort that might help the
Mills, Sara, Discourses of Difference. An Analysis of Women's Travel Writing and Colonialism,
Routledge, 1991; Morris, J., Pax Britannica. The Climax of an Empire, Penguin, 1979, 1.
scholars of post-colonial studies in understanding Western women’s contribution
to orientalism. What interests me here are instances of direct voicing of the
encounter between the western female and the oriental fe/male, as well as the
opposite movement, from the Chinese I/eye to the western.2 In the longer version
of my paper, I deal with four relatively little-known texts, three by Western
women (Intimate China, Portrait of a Chinese Lady, and Two Lilies from the
Empire of the Rising Sun) and one by a Chinese woman (The Changing Chinese
Woman). As I hope my readers will notice, the books about Chinese women that
Western women of the Victorian era wrote were not just entertaining works written
by eccentric and remarkable characters, or just part of the missionary enterprise.
The ramifications these works drive us to are many and complex and to follow all
of them is impossible in this space. I hope readers will take this as a starting point
for further debate, rather than any sort of final word.
Tell me more, she said. Writing China as Women.
“Tell me some more,” she asked, “some more stories like these--tales of
my own people.”
Tales of her own people!
“As they appear in the eyes of a foster-sister, eh?” I queried.3
Due to my ignorance, I know of no studies in which the texts about China written by Western men during
the high colonial period are studied and examined from the perspective of gender and the construction of
masculinity. For more general studies, especially of Western missionary writings about China, see Austin,
Alvyn, Saving China. Canadian Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1888-1957, University of Toronto
Press, c1986; Hayford, James, “Chinese and American Characteristics. Arthur Smith and His China Book”,
in Wilson Barnett, Suzanne, and Fairbank, John King, eds., Christianity in China. Early Protestant
Missionary Writings, Harvard University Press, 1985, 153-74; Hevia, James L., “Leaving a brand on
China: missionary discourse in the wake of the Boxer Movement,” Modern China, v. 18, n. 3 (July, 1992):
304; Taylor Huber, Mary, and Lutkehaus, Nancy C., eds., Gendered Missions. Women and Men in
Missionary Discourse and Practice, University of Michigan Press, c1999; Liu, Lydia, Translingual
Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937, Stanford University
Press, 1995, 45-76; Mackerras, Colin, Western Images of China, Centre for the Study of Australian-Asian
Relations, School of Modern Asian Studies, Griffith University, [1987]; Smith, Arthur Henderson, Chinese
Characteristics, North China Herald Office, 1890; Wilson Barnett, Suzanne, and Fairbank, John King, eds.,
Christianity in China. Early Protestant Missionary Writings, Harvard University Press, 1985.
Lady Hosie, Portrait of a Chinese Lady and Certain of Her Contemporaries, William Morrow and
“But China is a wise, wise old woman!” I replied gently. 4
I say that China is like a woman with a many-chambered heart, a woman
with many stories to tell, a woman who is beginning to speak to me. 5
The silence in which nineteenth and early twentieth century Western women’s
books about China have been shrouded can be explained by factors that transcend
the problematic intrinsic to sinology and Chinese studies, such as, for example, the
somewhat late inclusion of women’s work in the formation of orientalism. At the
same time, women’s writing about China has been disregarded due to an equally
widespread view that they simply constituted amateurish material, that, while
entertaining, was not worth of scholarship.6 But the numerical quantity of literary
texts on China alone authored by Western women over a span of a roughly a
century is enough to show that they were, on the contrary, quite actively engaged
in producing Orientalist discourses about China.7 Quite likely, part of the reason
Company, New York, 1930, 82.
Katherine Anne Porter, Mae Franking’s My Chinese Marriage. An Annotated Edition, originally published
in 1920, edited by Holly Franking, foreword by Joan Givner, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991, 23.
Checkoway, J., Little Sister: Searching for the Shadow World of Chinese Women, Viking, 1996, 102.
Elizabeth Croll herself presents in her Preface the production of her book as the result of a long-term
hobby. See Croll, E. J., Wise Daughters from Foreign Lands. European Women Writers in China,
Pandora, 1989, xi.
For a very preliminary reading, see Benn, Rachel R., Ping-Kua : a girl of Cathay, Woman's Foreign
Missionary Society, Methodist Episcopal Church, Boston, 1912; Bird, Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy), The
Yangtze valley and beyond; an account of journeys in China, chiefly in the province of Sze Chuan and
among the Man-tze, London, J. Murray, c1899; Conger, Sarah (Pike), Letters from China, with particular
reference to the empress dowager and the women of China, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1909; Cooper,
Elizabeth, My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1914; Fielde, Adele M.,
Pagoda Shadows. Studies from Life in China, T. Ogilvie Smith, London, 1887; Gillet Bridgman, Eliza J.,
Daughters of China; or Sketches of Domestic Life in the Celestial Empire, Robert Carter, New York, 1853;
Hibbert, Mrs. Eloise Talcott, Embroidered Gauze. Portraits of Famous Chinese Ladies, London, John Lane
[1938]; Hosie, Dorothea Soothill, Lady, Brave New China, [s.l. : s.n., 193?]; Hosie, Dorothea, The pool of
Ch’ien-Lung, Hodder and Stoughton ltd., Edinburgh, 1944; Hosie, Dorothea Soothill, Lady, Two
Gentlemen of China, London, Seeley, Service & Co., Limited, 1924; Nevius, Helen S. C., Our Life in
China, Robert Carter and Brothers, New York, 1869; Smedley, Agnes, Chinese destinies. Sketches of
Present day China, The Vanguard press, 1933; Smedley, Agnes, Portraits of Chinese Women in
Revolution, 1930, reprint of The Feminist Press, 1976; Thompson Seton, Grace, Chinese lanterns, New
why there is so much silence about the plurality of competing visions by which
Western men and women in China “fashioned their distinctions, conjured up their
‘whiteness,’ and reinvented themselves” is that “the task is unwieldy and not easily
carried out”.8
Another reason why these texts have proved hard to study exhaustively is the fact
that their sheer number is huge, spanning as it does from epistolaries to
biographies, from novels to memoirs and translations of Chinese works by and
about women. The scholars that have used these sources, possibly for consistency
and clarity’s sake, have selected one specific angle from which to look at this body
of works, for example, the missionary enterprise in China, or the education and
training of Chinese women doctors, and so on.9 But the truth of the matter is that,
like most contemporary books about Far Eastern countries, these texts, with few
exceptions, are not clearly definable by genre. Often we have a travelogue in the
form of an epistolary, or a missionary text that combines an epistolary, a
travelogue, an ethnographic tract and an historical survey of China. This is
precisely why I think we should look at these works from a larger perspective,
“zooming out”, as it were, to get a better sense of their significance as a body of
York, 1924; Williamson, Isabelle, Old Highways in China, American tract society, n. d.; Wimsatt,
Genevieve, The Bright Concubine and Lesser Luminaries; tales of fair and famous ladies of China, Boston,
J. W. Luce [c1928].
Cooper, Frederick, and Stoler, Ann Laura, eds., Tensions of Empire. Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois
World, University of California Press, 1997, 16.
See for example Croll, E. J., Wise Daughters from Foreign Lands; Hunter, Jane, The Gospel of Gentility.
American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-century China, Yale University Press, c1984; Lin, Sylvia Lichun, “The discursive formation of the "new" Chinese women, 1860-1930,” PhD dissertation, University of
California at Berkeley, 1998; Lodwick, Kathleen L., Educating the Women of Hainan. The Career of
Margaret Moninger in China, 1915-1942, University Press of Kentucky, 1995; Wang Xiuyun, “Youguan
xifang nuchuanjiaoshi yu zhongguo funude jige lishi wenti : cong wenxian tanqi”
有關西方女傳教士與中國婦女的幾個歷史問題:從文獻談起, in Jindai zhongguo funushi yanjiu
近代中國婦女史研究, June 2000, 237.
works in their own right, without subordinating them to a restrictive agenda (be it
historicizing or otherwise).
Clearly, there are important resonances between masculine and feminine
writings about China produced during the period of high colonialism, especially
in terms of subject positioning. Indeed, the equivalence between the nature of
femininity and that of the Orient “positions the Orientalist/Western colonial
subject as masculine: the other culture is always like the other sex.” Not only that,
both Western men and women writers of this period share an “obsession with
penetrating the invisible orient, the homes, the women, the close domestic
spaces.”10 With the very important difference that the western woman can enter
the cloistered homes of Chinese women while the western man can not.11 Thus,
we see that “Western woman, as the one who completes through her addition,
functions to constitute the fullness and coherence of the narratives of man. She
supplies him with what he lacks, i.e., the knowledge of the inside.”12 This implies,
of course, that the “essential picture of the Orient is already there” and marks
women’s texts as inessential, secondary, supplementary.
This unequal relationship between male and female-authored texts marks the
writing practices of “China-hands” of the period under study here. Women’s
writing and their involvement in colonialism was different from men’s, and their
work was informed by different discursive frameworks and pressures. For male
writers, the meeting between China and the West happened at the level of
Yegenoglu, Meyda, Colonial Fantasies. Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism, Cambridge
University Press, 1998, 73.
This fact played an important role in the increase d numbers of women missionaries and doctors for most
Protestant missionary enterprises. See Hunter, J., The Gospel of Gentility.
visual/geographical/intellectual knowledge and they quoted hard facts to show
China’s inferiority to Western powers.13 On the other hand, female writers used a
kinship terminology that supposedly nullified the barriers between them and their
Chinese “sisters,” to reinforce notions of the latter’s cultural and social inferiority.
This strategy of representation is echoed in the style and the genres women chose,
which were coded as intimate: for women the encounter with the Chinese
woman/Other happens (or is coded as happening) at the level of the body, within
the closed spaces of homes, schools, hotel rooms. Thus, it is no surprise that in
Western women’s texts, Chinese women were elevated to the ranks of
individuals, with their own story to tell, via the female interpreter-cultural
translator. Yet they “did not particularly challenge assumptions about the
superiority of the West and the inferiority of the East.”14 We can see that
women’s texts are actually quite challenging theoretically, as for all their
purporting to be simple intimate eye-accounts of irrelevant personal experiences,
they cause us to evoke complex sets of epistemological literary analysis.
In all these texts, the female body, both Chinese and Western, its utterances, its
thoughts, and its emissions figure preeminently, but in different degrees and with
different purposes. At times, Western women appropriate the voice of Chinese
women; in other cases, we witness a deeper level of appropriation, that of the
Yegenoglu, M., Colonial Fantasies, 76.
Men did write nostalgic memoirs about their golden life in Peking or Shanghai, but this type of writing is
a minority. Still, it will be interesting to eventually compare these texts with those produced by women.
See, for example, Acton, Harold M. M., Peonies and Ponies, 1941; Arlington, L. C. , In Search of Old
Peking, H. Vetch, Peking, 1935; Blofeld, John E. C., City of Lingering Splendor. A Frank Account of Old
Peking's Exotic Pleasures, Shambhala, 1989, c1961; Kates, George N., The Years that Were Fat. Peking,
1933-1940, New York, Harper; Miller, I. L., (Mr. Grinn), The Chinese Girl, Tientsin 1932.
Hatem, M., “Through Each Other’s Eyes. The Impact on the Colonial Encounter of the Images of
Egyptian, Levantine-Egyptian, and European Women, 1862-1920,” in Western Women and Imperialism,
religious and emotional dimension. Finally, in all these texts the bodies of Chinese
women become the site of Western women’s knowledge and exploration. Voice,
soul and body of the Chinese Woman, then, are the elements that have been
objectified and reinterpreted by the different authors.
Dimly in a Glass. The Chinese as I Have Seen Them.
For my part, I shall endeavour to make the reader see China and the Chinese as I
have seen them in their homes and at their dinner parties…And to make the
reader the more feel himself amongst the scenes and sights I describe, I mean to
adopt various styles, sometimes giving him the very words in which I at the time
dashed off my impressions, all palpitating with the strangeness and the
incongruity of Chinese life, at others giving him the result of subsequent serious
Since here there is no time to go into the details of the four texts I deal with in the
longer version of the paper, let me briefly talk about Intimate China by Alicia Bewicke
(1845-1926) better known as Mrs. Archibald Little.16 She arrived in China in 1887: the
wife of a well-known British merchant , she spoke fluently Chinese and for a long time
lived in Chongqing and traveled together with her husband in the interior. She left China
in 1906, after having founded the Natural Foot Society, and having written extensively
about China. It has been said of her that “in China no other European woman or
organization played such a public role in Chinese affairs or had such a fundamental effect
on the intimate and domestic lives of Chinese women.”17
Alicia Little, Intimate China. The Chinese as I have seen them. By Mrs Archibald Little, Author of A
Marriage in China, with 120 illustration [most taken by the author], London, Hutchinson and Co., 1899.
Alicia Little, Intimate China. The Chinese as I have seen them. By Mrs Archibald Little, Author of A
Marriage in China, with 120 illustration [most taken by the author], London, Hutchinson and Co., 1899.
Croll, E. J., “Like the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. Mrs Little and the Natural Foot Society,” in David
S.G. Goodman, ed., China and the West. Ideas and Activists, Manchester University Press, 1990, 54. For
more information about Alicia Little see also, Croll, E. J., Wise Daughters from a Foreign Land, and
Susanna Hoe, The Private Life of Old Hong Kong. Western Women in the British colony 1841-1941,
Oxford University press, 1990, Chapter 19.
But beginning with her is not meant as a tribute to her fame. Her writing is
interesting because it clearly illustrates the dynamics that characterize female writing
about China, beginning with the intimate scale on which Western female authors chose
for their works. She clearly refuses to constitute herself as a scientific and male authority,
invoking for herself the arena of the anecdotal and the amateurish:
It is the China of their childhood [i.e. Chinese people’s], with here an anecdote
and there a descriptive touch, which I hope the English reader see dimly as in a
glass in the following pages, which are not stored with facts and columns of
statistics. People who want more detailed information about China, I would
And here she lists treatises and books authored by men, her husband’s, of course,
included. Alicia Little knows her place within the hierarchy of Western patriarchal
society and occupies it willingly: a woman of her own times, she never takes a stand, in
her books or elsewhere, that could be called “feminist” or even “proto-feminist”. She
marks as marginal, imprecise, impressionistic (thus feminine) the content of her book and
her style:
For my part, I shall endeavour to make the reader see China and the Chinese as I
have seen them in their homes and at their dinner parties…And to make the reader
the more feel himself amongst the scenes and sights I describe, I mean to adopt
various styles, sometimes giving him the very words in which I at the time dashed
off my impressions, all palpitating with the strangeness and the incongruity of
Chinese life, at others giving him the result of subsequent serious reflections [the
italics are mine].19
The miniature and frivolous scale which she opts to write about her experiences,
the very personal angle she gives to the narrative, the emphasis on the act of seeing, more
Alicia Little, Intimate China, 3.
than on the act of writing; all these factors indeed seem at first to diminish the worth of
her literary enterprise. But Alicia Little also tells us that she is consciously choosing to
adopt such a narrative style and such a voice. Hence, seen from a different perspective,
by so clearly delineating the triviality and the amateurish quality of her own writing, she
claims for herself and her writing a great freedom. Because she does not lay a claim to
international fame and scientific authority, her book is imbued with a great sense of space
and independence. Being less constrained by an authoritative agenda aimed at building
encyclopedic knowledge about China, her work is perhaps a more objective and
exhaustive source of information than many male-authored texts composed in the same
In terms of contents, her main focus–and this is what interests us here– is Chinese women
and their bodies. Once more, in order to proceed along with her own (micro)scopic
exploration, she builds her authority through a rhetoric of empirical intimacy and direct
observation and explicitly refuses to occupy a position of scientific and academic
With regard to women, as with regard to everything else in China, I can but write
of them as I have found them. To establish the truth of any fact or any series of
facts needs an amount of research and study I have not been able to give; nor does
this book aim at being a storehouse of learning and a book of reference for all
time, but rather at giving a picture, for those who know nothing of them, of a
people among whom I have at least lived on somewhat intimate terms of the last
eleven years. At the same time, in writing about Chinese women I am burdened
by the reflection that possibly I am in some ways better able to express an opinion
about the men and the men about the women.20
Little, A., Intimate China, 4.
Little, A., Intimate China, 115.
Her gaze is quite penetrating and her assessments are simultaneously informed by
Western cultural expectations and marked by a male and female subject positioning:
I have never been able to find anything pretty about a Chinese woman except her
hands and arms, both of which are very prettily modeled. Doubtless her feet and
legs would be too, if left alone.21
To summarize her opinion, as it is interspersed throughout her book, Chinese
women are want of charm, wear too much make-up and look pretty only from a distance,
when in a group. From up close, they appear unattractive to the extreme. Their dresses,
hiding their bodies, do not show their figures to any advantage. To make things worse,
they have deformed feet and unhealthy, almost ghastly faces, on top of which they have
no manners at all. Clearly, she looks at and appraises Chinese women according to the
Western standards of bodily beauty and charm and in so doing, her appraising, almost
voyeuristic stance reinforces the equivalence between “the other culture” and the other
sex mentioned above. But simultaneously, “Western women’s desire to see the Oriental
women, like many of their male counterparts, starts and ends with the question of
themselves and their identity. Thus they too are guilty of ‘epistemological violence’.”22
When she looks at the unattractive body of a Chinese woman, Alicia Little is using the
bodily surface of the Other Woman as a mirror in which her own “prettiness,” charm,
elegance as well as her fashionable, well-fitted clothes are displayed to their best
advantage. This gaze is always textual, and her writing inscribes the body of the Chinese
woman as undesirable, inferior, and unhealthy. And yet, or precisely because of this, this
unattractive body, as we shall see shortly, proves to be a source of endless fascination for
Little, A., Intimate China, 125.
Yegenoglu, M., Colonial Fantasies, 93.
writers like Alicia as well as for their readers. To be fair, it is not only Chinese women
who fall short of Alicia Little’s beauty standards, as we can see when, in describing
literati’s dresses, she states that “in fact, the more a Chinaman’s person is covered up the
better, I always think. Because they are ugly!”23 But ugliness is not so much emphasized
in a description like the one below
And through it all, and up and down its flight of stairs, painfully hobbles the
Chinese girl-child, the most ungraceful figure of all girl-children,– poor little
mutilated one, with her long stick and dreadful dark lines under her sad eyes!
Whatever the men may be, certainly the little girls of China are brought up as
Spartans even never were, and those who survive show it by their powers of
The plight of Chinese women is summed in this pitiful figure of a little girl,
immensely tortured in her body but whose soul, should she survive such an ordeal, would
put to shame a Spartan soldier. This kind of representations had immense impact on
Western audiences and informed much of Western views of Chinese women. 25 Alicia
Little’s concern for the ‘little girls of China” is one of the main rhetorical stances that
Western women adopted when writing about Chinese women. Writing about foot-binding
and bound feet becomes synonymous with writing about the fate of China as a nation.
The little martyred body of Chinese women isChina’s feminized and tortured body. Not
only that, it is a body that is outside the time of the West and of modernity. Foot-binding,
with its long history, puts Chinese women’s bodies within a outdated chronological
framework that needs to be pushed forward to save them from further suffering and
Little, A., Intimate China, 214.
Little, A., Intimate China, 67.
The almost fetishistic fixation of the Western gaze on the hobbled feet is a very troubling legacy of this stance, as we
can see not only in works such as Howard Levy’s Chinese Footbinding. The History of a Curious Erotic Custom, New
York, Bell Publishing Company, 1966, but also in Kristeva, J., Des chinoises, des femmes, 1974, English translation
About Chinese Women, Marion Boyars, New York, 1986. See Ko, D., “Bondage in Time. Foot-binding and Fashion
humiliation. Here as elsewhere, Chinese women and modernity become two of the main
topics around which these women writers build their narrative.
Alicia Little includes a good deal of pictures and quite chilling accounts of cases
of gangrene, amputation and death due to foot-binding. It is not so difficult to imagine
how her audience would have reacted to such bone-chilling accounts, thus reinforcing the
idea of China as a heathen land forsaken by God. Though the author never sets a mission
for herself other than showing the Chinese as she has seen them, it is also quite easy to
understand how narratives like hers could have inspired young men and women to join
the various missionary enterprises to rescue these miserable children from a horrible
future. Not only that, books like Intimate China could be used to strengthen colonial and
imperialistic discourses about the moral, mental and social inferiority of the Chinese and
the necessity of Western presence in China.26
The theme of the salvation of the hapless Chinese women through the work of
their Western sisters–theme that runs through much of Western women’s narratives under
study here–is clearly displayed in the chapter on the Natural Foot Society, which was
founded by Alicia Little to stop foot-binding.27 In this sense, hers is a quite representative
work, in that it evokes a precise task and mission that Western women can carry out for
their Chinese sisters. The humble pride with which the author congratulates herself and
her fellow helpers does not prevent her from emphasizing the pivotal role played by
Western presence in rescuing Chinese women: “it seems almost as if we had already set
Theory,” in Fashion Theory. The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 1 Issue 1, March 1997, 8, and Wang Pin,
Aching for Beauty, for a different take on foot-binding and its history.
Little, A., Intimate China, especially 91 and ff. .
Indeed it had a big impact within Chinese society, and set the example for the local organizations that
followed it. See Croll, E. J., “Like the Chinese Goddess of Mercy.”
the women of China on their feet again.”28 Clearly, she had much more of a plan for
Chinese women and herself than showing them “through a glass dimly.” There is nothing
dim about the representations she presents her readers. Now that we have used Alicia
Little’s work to outline the main characteristics of the texts we are analyzing, let us see
what these Chinese women who stood on their feet looked like.
2. The Changing Chinese Woman. The Morphing Identity of the “Perfected
The second piece we shall examine is very short: it is the transcription of an
address delivered before the Peking American College Women’s club on
December 18th, 1926, by Hu Pingsa, entitled “The Changing Chinese Woman.” It
is not my intention to reconstruct here the history of the Chinese feminist
movement and to explore the complex growth of Chinese women alongside with
the political changes.29 I want to introduce this text because like the ones I have
analyzed above it was written in English, during the same historical period, equally
aimed at a foreign audience, but with the important difference that a Chinese
woman wrote it. It thus appears to be a case-study that can illustrate how the kind
of representations discussed so far were received and utilized by Chinese women.30
Little, A., Intimate China, 111.
For a very interesting recent study of Chinese women’s feminist movement, see Wang, Zheng,Women in
the Chinese Enlightenment. Oral and Textual Histories, University of California Press, 1999; see also Ono,
Kazuko, Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution, 1850-1950,edited by Joshua A. Fogel, Stanford
University Press, 1989.
Recently scholars have begun to do research on Chinese women’s texts written in English at the turn of
last century, and my considerations here want to be a small contribution in that direction. See, for example,
Wang Xiuyun, “Youguan xifang nuchuanjiaoshi yu zhongguo funude jige lishi wenti : cong wenxian
Unfortunately at this stage of my research, I have not yet been able to find any
detailed biographical information about the author of the text. She does not figure
anywhere as a prominent feminist, revolutionary, educator or a famous social
figure. Clearly she must have been prestigious enough to address her audience in a
public setting. Her speech seems to have been written and presented in two stages.
The first half dates to 1921, and possibly was delivered within the same venue,
albeit to a different group of Western women. The second half was written and
presented in 1926, and it is an interesting elaboration of her first speech, as we
shall see presently.
By virtue of her position as a speaker in a higher education institution to an
audience of foreign listeners, Hu Pingsa’s status and her social identity go without
saying. Indeed, we can see her as the modern Chinese woman depicted so precisely by
Dorothea Hosie: upper-class, fluent in English, Western-educated, standing firmly on her
natural feet. In this sense, her speech helps us to investigate the very interesting question
of how upper-class modern Chinese women used Western sources and tropes such as that
of the “elite women rescued from the darkness of a heathen religion” to obtain and
fashion new identities for themselves.31
Wang Xiuyun, in her study of Western-trained Chinese women doctors, argues
that this new category of Chinese women could be read on two levels: locally, they can
be seen as elite women who because of their high social status had access to Western
education and training (medical, linguistic, and religious). These very same women,
It is true that in most cases it was lower-class girls and women who had access first to foreign-style
schools and hospitals, which, being religious, would allow them free care and education, while their
poverty did not allow them access to Chinese institutions. However, it soon became a status symbol for
however, would be read, in Western society, as “little girls saved by the gospel”.
Furthermore, we see that these Chinese women had a very confused identity nationalitywise: in China they were mistaken for foreigners, because of their profession, their ability
to speak foreign languages, and , last but not least, because of their clothes, while in the
West, they were foreigners, but not necessarily immediately recognized as Chinese.32 We
see a similar problematic identity-shifting at play also in Hu Pingsa’s speech and thus one
could be tempted to ask whether Hu Pingsa could be marked as “the subaltern talking
back.” However, the use of such category is highly problematic and controversial. For all
its purposefulness, it evokes restrictive binaries that can somewhat silence the eloquence
of the text under study here.33
In any event, Hu Pingsa begins her text by evoking difference. Unlike Mrs. Ahok,
she does not ask the help of her western “sisters” by pointing out her bound feet.
Instead, addressing an audience of Western women and possibly Western educated
Chinese women, she reclaims uniqueness for the Chinese women. She maps out
Chinese women’s traditional domain, the household, and the fundamental role of
“inner helpers” Chinese women played in it, in a tone that clearly separates her and
other Chinese women from the West and her audience.
She underlines the importance of a cultural heritage which placed such
responsibilities on the shoulders of women who thus have acquired “ a strength of
character that meets difficulties smilingly and with ease, and a consciousness of
upper-class women to go abroad and receive a Western-style education, as well as to start play an
increasingly visible role in public life.
Wang Xiuyun, “Youguan xifang nuchuanjiaoshi yu zhongguo funude jige lishi wenti : cong wenxian
tanqi,” 247.
For the most recent positions in regard to subaltern studies and the debates around the enunciative powers
of the subaltern, see Beverley, John, Subalternity and Representation. Arguments in Cultural Theory, Duke
University Press, 1999.
duty unwavering even onto death.”34 Such a strong and yet wielding female has
now stepped into the new arena that a westernized modernity has created for her.
But Hu Pingsa cautions her audience that only the outer dress has changed, for
indeed “her inner life is only slightly modified, and she is not a whit greater than
the woman of yesterday.”35 A great ambivalence marks her speech, as she shifts
from deploring traditional Chinese women’s oppression to praising their strength
of character deriving from such sufferings, to recognizing the importance of
Western presence in China.
The positive changes in Chinese women’s lives have been brought about by
education, the possibilities of new professions, such as teaching, medicine, and
writing, as well as employment in factories, offices, and in the future even political
life. Hu Pingsa follows Alicia Little and Hosie’s opinion that Chinese men are
inferior creatures, and China’s destiny is made to coincide with women’s destiny.
It is up to Chinese women to rescue their nation. While some parts of Hu’s speech
sound very utopian and idealistic, especially from our contemporary perspective,
she is also very realistic about the fact that concubinage, the rigidity of traditional
Chinese family life, lazy and spoiled men, are only some of the obstacles that still
await this “Changing Chinese Woman.” This morphing creature’s Other is,
unavoidably, the Western Woman:
In the eagerness of presenting before my foreign reader a good, fair picture
of my country women I may give, unintentionally, a wrong effect that most
Hu Pingsa, “The Changing Chinese Woman, “ Peking Leader Press, Peking, 1926.
Hu Pingsa, “The Changing Chinese Woman,” 2.
of them are educated and have become just like the women of other modern
nations.[emphasis mine]36
In other words, Hu Pingsa equates modernity, education and the West. It is not
clear what was the aim of the meeting, perhaps Hu Pingsa was trying to raise funds
for the school, and in this sense she was doing what Mrs Chiang Kai-Shek did for
many years, traveling to States and projecting the idea of strong and yet needy
Chinese women who can learn so much from the West. But what it is interesting
for us, within the context of this essay, is to see how the messages, the
representations of Western women that we have looked at so far seeped through to
Chinese women and with a twist at that.
In the second half of her presentation, Hu Pingsa talks about Chinese women, who
have become soldiers, business managers, presidents of the Chinese Red Cross,
and so on, and offers us a glimpse into the way a Chinese woman saw the legacy
of Western women, and in this it allows us perhaps to hear a different voice:
Now, this curious combination of the old and the new –the intermingling of
Chinese thoughts and ideas with those from the West- has produced many
interesting characters among our women.37
After listing them, Hu Pingsa reclaims as native the powers that have allowed
Chinese woman to change and grow. As she explains, to her “the ability of our
Hu Pingsa, “The Changing Chinese Woman,” 6.
Hu Pingsa, “The Changing Chinese Woman,” 7.
women is more due to native powers than to training or education.”38 In other
words, these new women may have received Western training, but their soul has
remained and should continue to be Chinese, because in this difference is a source
of strength, not just of oppression. In this sense, if the colonial ideal was indeed to
produce balanced intermediaries between the native culture and the imperial one,
to turn out, in other words, “perfected natives, not imitation Europeans,” then Hu
Pingsa appears as such perfected native whose national, racial and social identity is
not lost in the encounter with the West. 39
She points out that “[i]n the heat of condemning the old system, the modern
women are apt to forget some of the good we gain from it.” In these statements we
see the complicated position of the “cute heathen sisters” Western women so loved
to write and read about but also that of the May Fourth modern Chinese subject
and the troubling and often alienating enterprise of building a new social, gender
and national identity, enterprise that was not the task of Chinese women alone.40
Modernity ties the Chinese woman to the West, to what is unavoidably configured
as the better way of life, but this very bond to a Western model of female
empowerment can also cut her away from her own cultural heritage. Holding on to
her Chineseness allows her independence that is predicated upon a difference that
allows her space for pride, and not just servile gratitude. But keeping these ties
without loosing one’s voice seems to be very hard indeed, as the fact that the
speech is delivered and written in English seems to point to.
Hu Pingsa, “The Changing Chinese Woman,” 9.
Cooper, Frederick, and Stoler, Ann Laura, eds., Tensions of Empire, 7.
3. Ties That Cut.
Women like Dorothea Hosie, Alicia Little, May Fagg, claim a native Chinese
identity for their voices and their narratives, with different degrees of success and
with different goals. The adoption of a “native” stance is very much like these two
pictures (illustration 1 and 2), taken at the end of the Qing dynasty. Here we see
one Chinese (albeit in a Manchu outfit) and one Western woman in two different
poses, before and after they have exchanged their outifts. It is a shifting and
temporary “going native” that reveals their actual racial and social standing much
more forcefully than if they had both kept their original attire. Indeed, it is not
enough to wear the dress of the “natives” to become one. In the same way,
looking at the same pictures and from the analysis of Hu Pingsa’s speech, we can
see that a change of clothes is not enough to “modernize” and “westernize” China
and its women. Who is “native” and who is alter/Other, then, in the end?
Ambivalence indeed permeates the pictures and texts we have analyzed here.
Projecting an image of “our Chinese sisters” as inferior, the Chinese woman is
marginalized, in the sense that the Western eyes have become the center of the
experience: the image of the Chinese woman has eventually become the “Other”
by which the Self can be defined. The “true subjects” emerging from all these
works are then Western women, who use the voices, the souls, the bodies of
Chinese women as a platform for self-presentation and self-display. They build an
identity for themselves by using the bodies of the women they claim to be related
Once more, the bibliography on the complex subject position of the modern Chinese self, male and
female, is almost endless. See, to begin with, Yeh, Wen-Hsin, The Alienated Academy . Culture and
to. These texts also clearly depict their authors’ intimate and national desires, their
role as expert “China-hands,” as well as that of cultural promoters of Western
colonial, imperialistic, and religious values.
The appropriation of the image of Chinese women then happens on many levels,
and creates sites of conflict and tension. The intimacy which characterizes the
experience of China for the Western authors is an important factor in
understanding their representation of Chinese women. Giving a precise identity to
the Chinese women they write about, the authors claim their right to translate their
speech and speak for them because of their own personal experience. By using
characters with real identities, the authors can build a believable narrative about
Chinese women where few representatives of such immense category (often
differentiated only by simple contrasts, such as rich-poor, young-old, bound
footed-natural-footed) are elected as the spokeswomen for the whole group. So
their attempt fails: stereotyping, albeit in a subtler way, the images of the women
they choose as heroines of their narrative, Western women contribute to the
creation and the reinforcement of the still existing notions that Chinese women are
demure, sensually pliant, strong-willed, strangely beautiful and disturbingly
Chinese and Western women alike seem to be the subjects of the narrative, except
that Chinese women are shrunk, infantilized, put in an inferior position. Indeed,
here, we can see how “to say someone is cute is to say someone is colonizable”.41
Through the apt usage of kinship terms, that label them as younger sisters,
Politics in Republican China. 1919-1937, Harvard University Press, 1990.
daughters, they are depicted as always in need of the consoling and liberating hand
of their Western siblings. Relying on sisterhood as a universal category, the
Western authors succeed in creating “a false sense of the commonality of
oppressions, interests, and struggles between and among women globally.”42 Yet,
“beyond sisterhood” there were “still racism, colonialism, and imperialism!”43
Women like Alicia Little, involved in the representation and the cultural
exploration of China and the colonized East44, functioned, with different degrees
of intensity and awareness, as cultural missionaries, maternal imperialists, and
only occasionally also as feminist allies to Chinese women.
At the same time, as we have seen in Hu Pingsa’s speech, the object of the gaze,
the Chinese woman, can gaze back, utilizing the same visual and linguistic tools of
the Western woman. But it is a problematic gaze, that evokes a textual unease both
for the writer and us, reading this exchange of glances, and this returned gaze at
once reassures and disturbs the Western eye. Is the “modern Chinese Woman”
evoked by Hu Pingsa the perfected native that was purported to be the goal of
colonial and semi-colonial enterprise? Or is she once more a veiled figure of the
unknown Other seen “through a glass dimly”? And where do we stand, as scholars
of Asian studies? Who are we looking at and through what glass, and how dimly?
Clearly, these books are not just about feminine ways to fashion gender identities.
They clarify and illuminate the complex dynamics of transnational and translingual
Wang Xiuyun, “Youguan xifang nuchuanjiaoshi yu zhongguo funude jige lishi wenti : cong wenxian
tanqi”, footnote 27, 247.
Mohanty, C.T., “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse”, in Third World
Women and the Politics of Feminism, Indiana University Press, 1991, 68.
Ramusack, B. N., “Cultural Missionaries, Maternal Imperialists, Feminist Allies. British Women
Activists in India, 1865-1945,” in Western Women and Imperialism, 119-135.
cultural interactions that were and still are at work among China, the West, women, race
and gender. This topic needs to be analyzed more extensively than I have done here, and
not only for scholarship’s sake: it is an urgent task, because, even if the Victorian and
colonial eras have passed, their legacies live on and continue to affect Western readings
of Chinese women in particular and of China in general. Like Rey Chow’s reading of
Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor shows, woman and Chinese modernity are two
fundamental categories to understand the complex reality of Sino-western interactions
and exchanges.45 These two categories are also two main tropes, as we have seen, in the
female-authored Western texts we have discussed here. From this perspective,
deconstructing their meanings and the impact that they have held throughout time for
both Western and eventually Chinese audiences, as well as mapping out the reading
practices they have engendered cross-culturally, becomes highly relevant –and not just
for scholars interested in issues previously under-examined in writings by women in the
Victorian era.
At the end of the twentieth century, for example, the aspiring writer Julie
Checkoway follows into Lady Hosie and Miss Fagg’s footsteps, when, in her
search for her own identity, she uses Chinese women as the stepping stone towards
the erection of her own Self. One wonders about the legacy of this “hybrid genre”
also in the ways it could have inspired Chinese American women writers in
composing their own narratives (kinship terminology, intimate portrayals of self
and family, East/ West/ race/ nation/ mother/ daughter contrasts and so on). In
reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, just to mention a very representative work
Chow, R., Woman and Chinese Modernity. The Politics of Reading Between West and East, University
of Minnesota Press, 1991.
of this trend, one cannot help being struck by the resonances existing between
Tan’s book and the representations of the brutalized but resilient Chinese woman
who finds freedom and peace in the West written a century earlier.46
Western sinologists in general and western feminist scholars in particular
are also clearly still struggling with the semi-colonial legacy and modernity and
with the binaries they instituted in creating the identities of Chinese and Asian
women, so in this sense these earlier works can be of invaluable help also to
understand better our present predicaments and differences.47 Julia Kristeva’s
About Chinese Women shows how Chinese women can still become the fantasized,
feminine, and primitive Other created by the Western woman’s desire to escape
Western patriarchal paradigms of power and oppression.48
So we see that the narrative ties that bound Chinese and Western women were
strong enough to leave a fascinating and yet troubling legacy both for Western and
Chinese women alike, ties that could also cut through the new and old identities
they fashioned in very traumatic ways. This remains true also today, and it is up to
us to keep the ties with the complexity and the depth but without the unease and
the epistemological violence they, as we have seen, so often involved.
Tan, Amy, The Joy Luck Club, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989.
See also Bulbeck, Chilla, Re-orienting Western Feminisms. Women's Diversity in a Postcolonial World,
Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Kristeva, J., Des chinoises; Lowe, L., Critical Terrains, especially 136-152; Spivak, G.C., “French
Feminism in an International Frame,” in In Other Worlds.
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