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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Historian and Asian Studies professor Paul Ropp and student Molly Thompson examined issues of gender as expressed in Chinese literature of the 18th and 20th centuries.

Meet the researchers: Sexuality and politics in China

Interview with Molly Thompson
Molly Thompson '02 has just completed a double major in history and psychology with a concentration in Asian Studies. She's entering the 5th year free Master's degree program in History to continue pursuing her interest in China. In a recent interview, she talked about her senior thesis research on gender issues in post-Cultural Revolution Chinese fiction.

How did you become interested in Asian Studies?

I took a freshman seminar with Professor Ropp called Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism: Intellectual History of China (History 233). That got me really interested in Asian Studies. I also took Chinese Women in Literature and Society (History 282) and Chinese Civilization (History 181), both with Professor Ropp. I started learning Chinese my sophomore year. I really enjoyed it and took it for two years.

I'm also a psychology major. I worked with Professor Valsiner on studying mechanisms of bi-culturalism in Chinese-Americans. I've done self-initiated study in both history and psychology. I stuck with Professors Ropp and Valsiner because they were such excellent teachers and they really pushed me to pursue my own interests.

What is your senior thesis about, and how did you came to choose it?

I'm looking at gender issues in post-Cultural Revolution fiction in China. I used literature in translation, because my Chinese is not yet good enough to read the original. I was really interested in Chinese women's literature after taking my class freshman year. In other classes since then I've found ways to do research on Chinese women for independent research papers and things like that. I've always sort of maintained that interest, and once I had the option to do an honors thesis I decided to delve into it. I started reading for my senior thesis last summer. I had no real topic in mind for a while. I read recent criticism in Chinese literature and read about different trends in Chinese culture--the reforms, and the opening to the West. I decided to focus on gender issues in both women's and men's literature. I did two authors of each gender-authors who are very popular in China.

So this is popular fiction?

Yes, but in China fiction doesn't really serve the same purpose that it does in our culture. It's more directed at being a social critique and demonstrating in a fictional manner the ills the authors see going on in the society around them. And it's also a form of political protest.

The Cultural Revolution was in the 1960s and 70s, ending in 1976 with the death of Mao Tse-Tung and the fall of the Gang of Four. The only kind of writing that was published in China from the Communist Revolution in 1949 to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 were either propaganda pieces or socialist-realist fiction, which also served a political purpose, that of making Communism look wonderful.

So this writing was all government approved?

Yes, and writers were basically paid to write what the government told them to write. If you wrote anything that could be interpreted by the government as criticism then you risked imprisonment.

After the Cultural Revolution, people could start writing creatively, because the government controls were lifted. So people could write about what they went through during the Cultural Revolution and what they saw going on around them afterwards. They also wrote about the new problems that were popping up as the result of modernization-the project after the Cultural Revolution was "The Four Modernizations". That put a totally different spin on Chinese society and culture. Suddenly Chinese society felt the need to catch up with the West.

Was there any government supervision of this post-Cultural Revolution writing?

Yes. They lifted the literary controls, but there was such an outpouring of literature and critique of the government, that the government reenacted some controls.

One of the authors that I studied, Zhang Xianliang, had been imprisoned for about 25 years for a poem ("Song of the Wind") that he had written in the 1950s. He started to write again in the early 1980s and was very popular. But in 1993 he was imprisoned again for three years because of his effort to commemorate the 1989 Tienamen Square riots.

There's a lot of literature produced in China that the government won't publish, but there are publishers in Hong Kong and Taiwan who will. There are ways for Chinese writers to get their work published.

So within The People's Republic, all publishing is still controlled by the government. Did these four authors have their work published by the government publishing houses, or did they have to go elsewhere?

After the Cultural Revolution, there was a proliferation of journals and magazines, and that's primarily where these authors had their work published. They published a lot of short stories. Typically, novels in China are published in serialized format in a magazine, and sometimes, but not always, published later as a book.

One of the writers, Zhang Jie, is a member of the Communist Party. She makes a lot of protests in her work, but not to the extent they're seen as too critical. She's very careful, and she's very pro-Communist Party.

What are some of the gender themes that you focused on?

The themes were different for men and women. The men tended to focus on the desexualization of the population, something that happened to both men and women during the Cultural Revolution. Women didn't wear make-up, they didn't grow their hair long, they didn't wear skirts. Everyone wore the same clothes. You'd have to be close-up to tell men and women apart. Especially for the men, that was very damaging, psychologically. And for women, too. There are some exceptions to that, but not necessarily in the women writers that I looked at.

When you said it was damaging to the men psychologically, was it because they wanted women to appear more "feminine" or because they felt it was negatively impacting their identity as men?

Both. Mao's society was very puritanical. Men felt they had lost the part of them that was a sexual being. They felt impotent and emasculated. In one of the books, the male character struggled with impotence after his imprisonment. He used his problem with impotence--both sexual and creative--as a critique of government oppression. His creative impotence as a writer paralleled his sexual impotence.

Male writers were very concerned about this issue, and they started writing novels that were almost pornographic in comparison to the accepted Chinese standard. They were considered shocking because of their descriptions of sexuality.

It sounds like these male writers were using literature to put sexuality back in their lives.

Exactly. On the other hand, the women's main theme centered around freedom to choose a partner for love. In traditional Chinese society, marriages were arranged. Then, during the Communist Revolution, women felt the need to marry someone who came from a politically correct social class, or who was a leader in the Communist Party.

Did the Communist Party mandate this?

Not necessarily. But women realized that if they chose a partner who was politically suspect, they risked subjecting themselves to imprisonment, death, or public embarrassment. "Correct" marriages were encouraged in the socialist-realist literature of the time-this was the path you were supposed to follow. And if you did, the Party might be more willing to keep you and your spouse together in the same place, rather than splitting couples up to go to work in different parts of China.

One of the female writers that I studied, Wang Anyi, was in her early 30s when she started publishing in the early 1980s. She had grown up during the Cultural Revolution and had never received an education past the primary/middle school level because intellectuals were considered suspect by the government during the Cultural Revolution and schools were shut down. She wrote about the younger generation wanting to marry. There was still a lot of pressure to marry who your parents wanted-a lot of remnants of traditional society, especially in the countryside.

Wang Anyi is from Shanghai, and she was horrified when she was sent to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. The cities were far more modern than the countryside. The countryside never felt many of the social reforms. She wasn't allowed to live by herself or do a lot of things because she was a woman. She writes about a town that has retained all aspects of traditional culture-child brides, widows who still could not remarry, older people were still cared for by their children. There's one old man who has no children, and he's pitied by the entire village. In her book there's a widow who decides to marry a peddler with whom she falls in love. They're beaten by neighbors until the peddler gets a paper from the Party leader saying that it is legal for widows to marry.

Are these books readily available to Western readers?

Yes. The more popular writers are translated into English. But you need to find a good translation. I did have some problems with translations. The Asian critics that I was using were doing their own translations into English, which were sometimes different from the translations by Westerners. (Click here to see an example.)

Did you do any biographical research on the authors, and where did you go to find that information?

I used primarily anthologies of contemporary literature or modern Chinese literature by Western scholars. I also found some information on the web, but you have to be careful with material you find on the web. There was a considerable amount of disagreement within the biographical material. A Chinese-American published a book of interviews with modern Chinese writers that was very helpful.

Can you comment on the advantages and disadvantages of doing research as an undergraduate?

It depends on what you want out of your education. The issue for me was that, no matter what class I took, no professor was going to cover the topics that I was really interested in to the extent that I wanted to learn about them. If you find topics that you're interested in, it's up to you to research them on your own. There are always opportunities for you to do that. You can always do some kind of research project and get credit for it.

Professor Ropp and Professor Valsiner were both very helpful in directing me to sources. They know their fields. I don't think I've ever encountered at Clark a professor that didn't know their material really well and that was not up to date on recent developments in his or her field. They're not so focused on their own research that they lose sight of broader interests. If you show that you're interested in doing research and learning about things on your own, then they are very interested in helping you. They'll open all kinds of doors for you.


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