Books

Women writers in 1940s Shanghai who were not Eileen Chang

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Xiaojie Ji, published by People's Literature Publishing House.

Shanghai in the mid-1940s saw Eileen Chang writing film scripts and publishing some of her most influential fiction in the city's literary journals. Su Qing, whose Ten Years of Marriage reached its 18th printing by 1948, was lashing out at complaints that she was a stingy pornographer.

But they weren't the only writers whose work was read by trendy young folk. Wansui, Wanxiang, Violet, and other magazines were home to now-forgotten names like Tang Xuehua, Shi Jimei, and Yu Zhaoming.

These writers, together with Xing Heli, Zheng Jia'ai, Yang Yifu, Lian Yuanxiu, and Cheng Yuzhen, were quite popular in 1940s Shanghai, and some of their fiction has now been collected in the new anthology Xiaojie Ji (小姐集, "Miss collection"). There's certainly a ready market for this—the release of Ang Lee's adaptation of Eileen Chang's Lust, Caution brought that story back into print. Eileen Chang fever shows no signs of abating, and she's likely to pull other trendy Shanghai novelists along with her.

One question this collection hopes to answer is why these writers need to be pulled along, anyway. Why have they been overlooked for so long? Literary critic Fu Yanxia addressed this issue in a blog post that applauded the skill of the writers and their often epigrammatic prose while ultimately finding them no match for Eileen Chang:

The literary forces of history are vast, and the waves of time start washing things away right here and right now. Much of history is accumulated in bits and pieces and relies on the interchange between human conduct and words on the page. Circumstance and fortune are frequently concealed within the neglect of time. Why did Eileen Chang become the symbol of that era, and why were the "Miss writers" swallowed up? Perhaps writers today, apart from their focus on talent and the perfection of literature itself, ought to learn a lesson from this. Perhaps this is evidence that the external value of Xiaojie Ji is greater than its internal value as literature.

Chen Zishan, advisor to the compiler Wang Yu, contributed a foreword that spoke of the literary scene in Shanghai at the time. The Shenzhen Economic Daily reprinted the piece; here's a partial translation:

History is not always fair

by Chen Zishan / foreword to Xiaojie Ji

History is not always fair; at least, at a particular level it isn't.

From the late 1930s to the late 1940s, a group of young women writers were active on the literary stage in Shanghai. The richness of their fiction and essays demonstrated that, after the May Fourth Movement and the 1930s, a new generation of women writers was experimenting with new literature. Regrettably, their literary efforts, both successful and unsuccessful, for a long time failed to gain recognition among historians of modern Chinese literature. In my own limited reading, I am only aware of Wu Fuhui's Shanghai School Fiction in the Urban Whirlpool (Hunan Education Publishing House, 1995), which discusses Shi Jimei, and Chen Qingsheng's Growth Rings: Shanghai Literature in the Second Half of the 1940s (Shanghai People's Press, 2002), which discusses Shi Jimei, Tang Xuehua, Zheng Jia'ai, and Yu Zhaoming. No others.

Over the past two decades, the academy has encouraged "rewriting literary history"; Eileen Chang and Su Qing, women writers who had long been absent from the history of literature in the 1940s, returned to light, gaining attention not only from literary historians but from the general book reading public as well. The number of books written about them can be measured in stacks. Eileen Chang has practically become a symbol of "fashion," someone widely known among the white-collar class. But where are the young women writers of the era of Chang and Su? Will they remain unknown and undiscovered? Is it unnecessary to study their lives and their works, do they hold out no value for literary history?

This anthology, Xiaojie Ji, provides an excellent answer.
...
Actually, this group of "Miss writers" (小姐作家) did indeed have quite a large readership at the time. Let's take a brief look back. In January, 1946, the monthly journal Shanghai Culture (上海文化) asked its readers in a survey "which writer do you admire the most?" The survey was conducted among high school and college students as well as professional and intellectual youth, for a total of 683 respondents. "Miss writer" Shi Jimei followed Ba Jin, Zheng Zhenduo, and Mao Dun to rank fourth. Such a result might seem strange to readers today, but Shi Jimei won favor with readers, particularly women, with her unique stories of campus life. This is an uncontestable fact.

By comparison, one year later, Zhao Qingge, a woman who had considerable reputation on the Shanghai literary stage, edited Untitled: An Anthology of Modern Women's Fiction (Shanghai Chenguang Press, 1947), a volume that contained the works of women writers who had made their names in the May Fourth period and the 1930s. These included Bing Xin, Yuan Changying, Feng Yuanjun, Su Xuelin, Xie Bingying, Lu Xiaoman, Lu Jingqing, Chen Ying, Feng Zi, Luo Hong, Wang Ying, and Zhao Qingge herself. The "Dongwu series," the "Miss writers," and Eileen Chang and Su Qing were not part of Zhao Qingge's judgment. This no doubt had to do with Zhao Qingge's connections on the literary scene and her own tastes in literature. However, it also reminds us that while Shanghai's literature at the time still had quite a diverse makeup, the "Dongwu series" and "Miss writers" had already begun to be ignored. And because of complicated reasons of history, the "Miss writers" were forgotten by literary history for so many years. In this regard, the efforts that Xiaojie Ji takes to restore the true face of history is commendable.

I have said more than once that an anthology ultimately rests on the vision and predilections of the compiler. But this is not our main concern. More important for us is that at last we can read the representative works of this group of "Miss writers" who immersed themselves in literature in Shanghai in the 1940s. We can finally get a taste of the literary aspirations of a type of woman writer different from Eileen Chang and Su Qing. History is fair, after all.


The SED article includes Tao Lanying's portraits of Tang Xuehua and Shi Jimei. An article in The Economic Observer provides short biographical details for the rest of the authors in the anthology.

In conjunction with the book's release, one story has been put online: Disciple of God, a short piece in which Xing Heli turns a cynical eye on religion and money.

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There are currently 1 Comments for Women writers in 1940s Shanghai who were not Eileen Chang.

Comments on Women writers in 1940s Shanghai who were not Eileen Chang

Very interesting article specially for non chinese readers;reading the essays by Eileen Chang "Written on water", i was wondering who was Su Qing quoted several times in this book...This article provides information about the environment at the time...many thanks.

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