Bing Xin(1900-1999)stands as a unique and important figure among the many Chinese women writers of the twentieth century.Her early involvement in the May Fourth Movement,which began in 1919,has placed her among the generation of writers that challenged tradition and advocated the reappraisal of Chinese culture.Like many May Fourth authors,Bing Xin assumed the task of“revealing the problems of society to the reader”in her literary works.Her so-called“issue stories”(wenti xiaoshuo),dealing with social injustice,family conflicts and feminism,caused considerable debate among the critics of her time.Her unique style,dubbed the“Bing Xin Style”(Bing Xin ti),combines poetic expression that is prominent in the classical Chinese lyric with narrative realism in a lucid and provocative synthesis.

Hu Shih's commentary on Bing Xin's works has been cited by Charlotte Boynton:“Most writers in Baihua were searching for a style suitable to the new form,and many of them were crude;some were vulgar.Miss Icy Heart(Bing Xin),he understood,had been given a good grounding in the great Chinese poets.She had brought to the new medium a delicacy and refinement which made her writing fresh and direct”(cited in Bing Xin 1989:93).On the other hand,her treatment of protagonists in many short stories has sometimes been criticized for supporting a“pessimistic”and even“self-indulgent”outlook.This common assessment needs to be qualified in view of the writer's historical commitments.

As some critics have suggested,the element of“lyric”in modern Chinese literature has its origin in classical poetry.This quality contributed in important ways to the modern epoch in Chinese writing.And yet,modern Chinese literature is always more than an expression of the author's private feelings and sensitivities.Bing Xin's writing follows the dominant ethos of May Fourth literature when it exemplifies the progressive writer's interest in influencing,and in some cases articulating,the attitudes of the engaged reader,rather than in expressing private attitudes.Her feminist commitments,which need to be presented to the Western reader as unique to this particular writer,as well as her political commitments to Chinese nationalism,especially during the period leading up to the War of Resistance against Japan,were crucial to the reception of her writings in her own time and placed an indelible stamp on the form and content of her fiction.

The first story in About Women initially appeared in Weekly Review,Volume 8,in Chongqing on January 5,1941.From that moment until the end of the year,Bing Xin had published eight more pieces in this journal.Later on,Bing Xin wrote seven additional stories,and the entire collection of sixteen stories was published by the Tiandi Publishing House in September,1943.The second edition was published by the Kaiming Bookstore in February 1945.In August 1980,the third edition was published by the Ningxia People's Press.The fourth edition was issued in December 1992 by the Kaiming Press in Beijing.The People's Literature Publishing House in 1993 published a new collection,About Women and Men,which includes all sixteen pieces as well as several new ones.A glance at the editorial history of About Women suggests the consistent popularity of this evolving work.

There are three compelling reasons for returning to Bing Xin's work today,particularly to her remarkable collection,About Women.First,Bing Xin was a talented writer whose use of narrative voice constitutes a subtle challenge to conventions of gender construction that have been important to most traditional and much modern literature.As a woman writer,Bing Xin contributes to the modernist tradition in her precise and ironic style,which enables her to challenge male authority.Second,Bing Xin enables the contemporary reader,but especially the woman reader,to envision a broader political struggle that lies beyond the horizon of gender disputes.Hence,without ceasing to be a feminist,Bing Xin offers us a view of Chinese modernity that reflects the social and political realities of twentieth-century China.Finally,Bing Xin is a Chinese writer who offers her own interpretation of feminism that is neither a clear expression of her modernist style nor reducible to her historical commitments.Let us examine each of these reasons for reading Bing Xin today in more detail.


About Women demonstrates that Bing Xin's feminism can be considered in terms of her use of narrative voice as an ironic ploy.The sophisticated male narrator that disguises the gender of the author functions subtly to undermine male authority and its appearance of total mastery.In the preface to the second edition,written in 1945,Bing Xin expressed the opinion that“gentlemen”would be more likely to read her book than women.At the same time,she also maintained that the“inspiration”for this collection came from her female friends,who sometimes even provided suggestions for the characters themselves(1980:iv).Perhaps Bing Xin intended to reach her male readers by describing various women,and decided on the title“About Women”in order to create the impression that she had not assembled a purely literary work.The sixteen stories which form the collection as a whole offer different images of women.The first two stories are especially important in terms of the issues raised as well as the viewpoint on women in general.

The first essay raises the question of whether a man or a woman is more qualified to talk about the problems of modern women.In“Women Deserve My Utmost Respect and Consideration,”the narrator reinforces Bing Xin's opening remarks by asserting his own male authority,just as he contends that the entire collection was inspired by female acquaintances(1980:1).Since the only woman in his life is his mother,the narrator has never sustained a serious relationship with female schoolmates or colleagues.As a successful man who expresses an interest in marriage,however,he makes us wonder why he is still single at nearly forty years of age.The narrator argues that if a man wants to talk about the ideal qualities of a woman,he should first try to discover such qualities in himself.At the end of this story,Bing Xin alludes to the dilemma of the career woman who is caught between her career and housework,her role in society and her role at home.

The second essay,“My Standards for Choosing a Wife,”exhibits the standards that a man commonly imposes on the woman of his choice.The male narrator lists as many as twenty-six qualities that he believes are important when judging a woman(1982:5-8).These qualities range from age,looks and clothes to hobbies and personal interests.It is obvious that the narrator is caught up in a conventional game that belies a stereotypical masculine point of view.The Chinese reader would not know for sure that the author of this essay is a woman,but ambiguity with respect to gender would create enough suspicion to cast a shadow on the male narrator's urbane attitudes.The ironic tone of this story reaches its climax when a friend challenges the narrator's better judgment.The narrator then states that it might be possible for him to bargain for what he wants,thus revealing the utterly contrived nature of his preferences:

“…instead of making presumptuous demands I am just bargaining on the capital I already own.Even though this doesn't mean‘casting jade to attract jade,’what I'm doing is at least‘casting a brick to attract another brick.’There is nothing wrong with setting any number of standards.However,while I do object to some details as far as tastes and habits are concerned,I generally prefer to accept things as they are rather than become excessively preoccupied with my wife's appearance,disposition and aptitude for earning a living.”[2](Bing Xin,1980:8)

Instead of directly presenting images of women,the first two essays set the tone for the whole collection.Problems about women are introduced through what is considered to be the“ideal”type of wife by the male narrator.The problem of the woman's vocation is presented in terms of a conflict between the role of wife and that of a more completely social being.This conflict is dramatized when idealizations are carried to such an extreme that they lose credibility.The character who emerges in the stories on the basis of the narrative voice must ultimately confront the truth of women in various circumstances.Hence,while the voice of the male narrator plays an important role in traditional Chinese literature,Bing Xin's use of this voice becomes particularly ironic when it suggests the speaker's limitations,and,in this way,questions received ideas about masculinity.Instead of reproducing the author's standpoint in a direct manner,this voice introduces irony into the representation of everyday life and encourages the reader to view male/female relationships innew ways.

Bing Xin's stories,therefore,cannot be interpreted from the stand-point of a purely omniscient narrator.The narrative voice that she most commonly employs is easier to interpret as symbolic and ambiguous than would have been the case if the role of the voice were restricted to the limitations that tradition might impose on it.Moreover,within the broader framework of About Women,Bing Xin's use of the male narrator combines objective narration with destabilization of gender in literary representation.The social world that emerges as a consequence of this special use is clearly depicted,but the kinds of voices that can be heard in this world are practically limitless.The convention of the sophisticated male narrator might seem to restrict the potential range of voices,or even to subordinate them to some hierarchical conception of an allegedly appropriate tone of authority.At the same time,Bing Xin prevents this restriction from occurring and therefore produces what Julia Kristeva,strongly influenced by Lacan and Bakhtin,has called polyphony in connection with the modern novel(1980:159-200).Bing Xin's fiction is polyphonic in multiplying a variety of female voices in a manner that does not involve personal identification with a single female character.


Bing Xin's reputation as a Chinese writer is largely based on her ability to represent the condition of ordinary women in enduring narratives that are socially complex and emotionally convincing.As a May Fourth participant who came to write in an increasingly political atmosphere,however,she was often compelled to relate her own version of feminism to the pressing demands of Chinese nationalism.Bing Xin rejected the suggestion that she was producing a specifically“women's literature,”since this term in Chinese applies more readily to literary works that are intended for women alone.During the War of Resistance against Japan,she would not have been able to advocate a variety of feminism that ignored the concerns of men and women alike.The social situation for Chinese women during the 1940s was largely unfavorable to feminist modes of address.In her work as a writer,Bing Xin reveals that women faced numerous obstacles both in society and at home.Most women were compelled to place marriage and family before their careers and their work was rarely viewed as important or politically necessary.Bing Xin's response to this situation was not to abandon her feminist position but to integrate it into a nationalist stance that created a new role for women in solidarity with others.

About Women contains many characters whose nobility and pathos are directly related to the author's belief that national unity can be projected among men and women in diverse circumstances.The early stories in this collection employ the male persona ironically,whereas the latter stories depict the hardships of everyday life and greatly reduce the reader's aesthetic detachment.From this broad standpoint,Bing Xin's use of voice not only challenges male/female gender construction,but also immerses the reader in a process of decentering that occurs in the space of history.Like many of her Western counterparts,such as Joyce and Faulkner,Conrad and Woolf,Bing Xin ultimately employs her modernist breakthroughs to express a more comprehensive view of a specific moment in historical time.In a manner that evokes a literary pattern that would be familiar to Western readers,Bing Xin employs a sophisticated male narrator who functions in an aesthetic mode and thus destabilizes a text that cannot be fully understood apart from history.The conflict between gender and historical objectivity is what prevents the reader from accepting the narrator's point of view as unambiguous.

In destabilizing narrative and carrying the reader beyond the confusions inherent in the so-called point of view,About Women succeeds as fiction just as it bespeaks an underlying commitment to social change.This means that the world of Bing Xin is only superficially the world of a male observer who adopts an ironic stance on women in general.The false standards of normativity that the narrator offers at the outset of this work are not simply degrading to women;they also parody formalistic approaches to literature.Thus,Bing Xin moves beyond formalism in creating a stereotypical male persona,and in showing the reader how actual men and women constitute the historical struggle of their time.

The patient reader of About Women is therefore drawn into a world in which the voice of the narrator becomes increasingly marginal to various actions that possess diverse meanings.Relations between women of unequal social standing emerge as crucially important once the defense of China becomes an urgent concern.Nonetheless,Bing Xin's espousal of nationalism only occasionally assumes propagandistic overtones.The movement beyond aesthetic formalism that occurs in her early works is a literary event,rather than a strictly political one.The ironic use of humor and the satiric deflation of vanity and pretense continue to provide her stories with a literary texture,even when the theme of national unity acquires decisive importance.

Hence,Bing Xin's inability to separate feminism from politics is ultimately an affair of literature,since it enables the reader to gain access to a turbulent period on the basis of written texts that challenge the conventions of gender as well as the tendency of many modern writers to oppose the autonomy of literature to the possibility of personal commitment.The lessons of Bing Xin will not be forgotten in a time when feminists the world over have become aware of the need to contribute their skills and capacities to the attainment of broader political goals that are central to the survival of the human community as a whole.


What lies at the core of Bing Xin's feminism?This question is not related in obvious ways to either the author's modernist style or to her political commitments.Her literary modernism does not prepare us for the semiotic approach that she employs in her portrayal of Chinese women.By adopting the sophisticated male narrator as a foil that cannot fully conceal her own perspective on the world,Bing Xin demonstrates how the male/female opposition only possesses relative significance in an open economy of signs.In truth,Bing Xin's special form of feminism is inseparable from a pre-modernist concern for human qualities that are often misleadingly labeled as traditionalist.While occasionally demonstrating the“hard-edge”style that Western readers easily identify with High Modernism,her fiction can also be read as an exploration of gender that opens up many questions that cannot be resolved within the framework of contemporary feminism.

An enduring aspect of Bing Xin's feminism is elaborated in“My Mother,”the third story in the collection.This story might be interpreted autobiographically as an account of the author's own mother,but it also can be read to argue that certain personal qualities,sometimes considered to be feminine,are consistent with a form of autonomy that may or may not be overtly political.In this story,the mother is not only“open-minded”but also a woman who believes in the social importance of the family.The male narrator is in this case the son who portrays his own mother in a convincing way:

“Open-minded,she was consistently and impartially accepting of everything proper to modern times.She loved the‘family’ardently in the belief that a perfect family is the source of all happiness and strength.She hoped that I would soon marry because she wanted to see me settle down as soon as possible,both physically and mentally,in the warmth and happiness of a family.”[3](Bing Xin,1980:11)

This mother also took a keen interest in political affairs:“Mother became interested in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 soon after it began.She read books and newspapers,refusing to allow herself to be left behind the times”(1980:13).Bing Xin's conception of independence has been questioned by feminists who believe that a woman should adopt overt strategies to obtain power and that the responsibilities of a wife and mother can only interfere with this political project.

Simone de Beauvoir has argued that a realistic conception of the woman,rather than an implicitly mythic one,lies at the heart of some of the best modern literature(1980:253-263).The woman that Bing Xin evokes in the Epilogue to her collection of short stories is compounded of traits that are largely familiar:“She is neither the goddess as described by the poet,nor the devil in the eyes of the man disappointed in love.”From this standpoint,a woman should possess“feeling and rationality”but would also be“more sensitive,quicker in response and livelier in action”(1982:111).Bing Xin's work in fiction both confirms the author's deeply held convictions on what women can become and provides hope for a more humane tomorrow.



[1] I would like to thank Amsterdam University Press for allowing me to reuse material for this Introduction that first appeared as,“In and Out of Home:Bing Xin Recontextualized,”in Asian Literary Voices:From Marginal to Mainstream,edited by Philip F.Williams(Amsterdam University Press,2010),63-70.

[2] This passage is a typical example of Bing Xin's ironic use of narrative voice.All translations from the text are my own.

[3] In my translation of this passage,I have tried to communicate the combination of emotional sensitivity and personal dignity that Bing Xin associated with her own mother.

Works Cited

Bing Xin(1982),About Women.Yinchuan:Ningxia People's Press.

—(1989),“Selections from Spring Water,”trans.Grace Boynton,Renditions,Autumn 32:93.

De Beauvoir,Simone(1980),The Second Sex.New York:Vintage Press.

Kristeva,Julia(1980),“The Novel as Polylogue,”Desire in Language.New York:Columbia University Press.159-209.