Emory Report

May 1, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 31

Cai studies Chinese women in fiction, film

By Cathy Byrd

Film and literature have long been important media for social and political statements, making their investigation essential to most cultural studies. For Rong Cai, the subject of study is Chinese women, and she introduces Emory students to "Chinese Women in Film and Fiction" by examining works that self-consciously address matters of gender.

Cai consults both female and male novelists, poets, essayists, filmmakers and journalists for her subject matter. Through a wide range of 20th century productions, students encounter diverse perspectives brought to bear on the identity of modern Chinese women.

"I want to offer students an opportunity to consider the complex ways in which Chinese intellectuals expressed the experience of gender at a moment when the category of woman itself was in the process of being radically rewritten," said Cai. "I show students the multiple connotations that 'woman' has accrued in modern Chinese cultural discussions."

Gender discourse in China can be roughly divided into three categories: the traditional discourse derived from patriarchal Confucianism; the modern, liberal position influenced by Western ideas; and the communist definition of gender relations. Even though Chinese women play multiple roles as mother, wife and daughter, in traditional Chinese culture the predominant female virtues are chastity and obedience.

To provide background for the course, Cai clarified the advent of women's liberation in China. "As Chinese intellectuals realized the need for China to modernize after repeated defeat by foreign powers in the latter half of the 19th century, women's liberation became an important issue," she said.

"A recurring topic was the critique of sexual relations and the status of women. The intellectuals--both male and female--viewed women as symbolic of China's lack of power, authority and prestige as a modern nation-state. They argued that if China was to be strong, it must change its women's social roles. They attacked the family as a virtual prison for women and called on women to participate in labor and politics."

During the semester, students watched film screenings of Farewell, My Concubine; Raise the Red Lantern; Ju Dou; Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker; and Women From the Lake of Scented Souls. The films deal with public and private issues for Chinese women such as oppressive feudal traditions, social restrictions, imposed gender roles and an awakening sexual identity.

The class also read Virgin Widows by Gu Hua, a contemporary male novelist. The book examines the experiences of two young widows, one who lived in the late 19th century, the other in the time of post-Mao reforms. Despite the years separating the two, tragedy results in both their lives from persistent traditional expectations of female chastity. The widows' stories expose the incongruity between the official Chinese discourse on women's liberation and the reality of the women's lives.

Cai's research interest is in 20th century Chinese literature with emphasis on post-Mao fiction (1977-present). Currently she's developing a paper on the representation of "China and the Western Other" in a contemporary novel by Mo Yan. The 1995 book, Fengru feitun ("Full Breasts and Fat Buttocks"), focuses on an adulterous affair between a married Chinese woman and a foreign missionary, and their bastard son.

"In my discussion, I examine how the masculinist, nationalist urge to conquer and dismiss the foreign 'other' is valorized in the novel by the Chinese male's repossession of the symbolic female body," Cai said.

Cai grew up in China and came to the United States for graduate studies in 1987. After earning her doctorate in Chinese and comparative literature from Washington University in St. Louis in 1995, she taught at Colby College and Illinois State University.

Cai joined Emory's Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures department last summer. As a Chinese woman and an academic, she sees herself as a beneficiary of a century of struggle by Chinese women to achieve gender equality. "Their heroic efforts made it possible for many women like me to pursue education and intellectual fulfillment--a pursuit traditionally and specifically defined within a male sphere in Chinese culture."

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