Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity between the Wars

July 12, 2012

This book's title reflects an original and bold move, namely to focus on the location of Katrina Gulliver's subjects (modern women in China and Japan) rather than their national, cultural and/or linguistic background. Her selection of case studies is partly consistent with this approach, as she discusses four Anglo-Saxon women who spent a significant portion of their lives in East Asia, a Chinese woman educated in the US, and a Japanese woman living and writing in Japan. While influenced by the racial and cultural stereotyping typical of Orientalism, all these women engaged such stereotypes critically and offered original views of gender and modernity.

Nobel prizewinning author Pearl Buck, born and raised in southern China by her missionary parents, carefully constructed her self-image as a bilingual and bicultural woman, and used it as a basis for a critique of both Chinese and US gender conventions. With the authority supposedly conferred by her years living there, Buck wrote disparagingly of Chinese culture, attacking what she perceived as misguidedly idealised views of the country by Western authors. At the same time, she condemned the lack of gender equality in the US and hailed Chinese rural society as a better alternative.

Stella Benson, an English novelist who moved to China in her late twenties and remained there until her death at 41, also expressed ambivalent views about the notion of the "modern woman". A self-declared feminist, Benson was supportive of Western activists' patronising attempts to "educate" their Chinese sisters in women's rights, yet was also critical of modernity and its impact on gender relations.

Sophia Chen Zen was one of the first Chinese women to study at a foreign tertiary institution, enrolling at Vassar College in 1915 with a scholarship offered by the so-called Boxer Indemnity Program. In her short stories she describes her experience as a foreign student at a US university. The texts, ostensibly for a Chinese audience, were published in English, thus inviting multiple cultural and linguistic identifications by readers.

Caroline Bache McMahon, a US journalist who spent 14 years in Japan between the 1920s and 1930s, also had ambivalent feelings about her expatriate status. While she attempted to dispel Western stereotypes about Japan as a land of beauty and tradition, she replaced them with others about its citizens' quirky habits and behaviours. Lilian May Miller had an equally complex relationship with Japanese culture. A practitioner and staunch defender of traditional woodblock printing against modernisation, Miller performed as a Japanese traditional woman by dressing up in kimonos at her exhibitions, thus "approaching hybridity from the opposite side to Sophia Chen Zen", Gulliver observes.

Uno Chiyo, the last case study, did not live overseas or engage in any other kind of cross-cultural performance. Indeed, her inclusion seems rather tokenising, an impression reinforced by the chapter's exclusive reliance on English-language biographical sources, mainly Rebecca Copeland's excellent The Sound of the Wind: The Life and Works of Uno Chiyo (1992).

Even more problematic in this section is Gulliver's choice of historical and sociological sources. The chapter references as many as 10 times a magazine article from The New Yorker, and fails to cite major scholarly publications on modern Japanese women such as the works of Miriam Silverberg and Barbara Sato. Similarly, to provide background information on views of female clothing in Japan at the time, Gulliver relies exclusively on articles from English-language magazines from 1918 and 1923, with only one reference to a scholarly work, Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake by Edward Seidensticker (misspelled as Seidenstricker in text, footnotes and bibliography).

This reflects a broader problem: the book contains few references to English-language historical research on Japan and China, and lacks any mention of Chinese- and Japanese-language scholarship, without explaining the reasons for this choice. In this respect, the greatest disappointment is the absence of any case study of a bilingual and/or bicultural Chinese-Japanese woman, or of any reference to China-Japan relations, which arguably exerted a significant influence on gender roles in both countries. It is to be hoped that this book will encourage others to do more thorough research on this fascinating topic.

Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity between the Wars

By Katrina Gulliver. I.B. Tauris, 224pp, £56.00. ISBN 9781848859395. Published 21 February 2012.

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