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Xiao, Family Revolution - Marital Strife in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Visual Culture (February 12, 2014)

This review by Ping Zhu was first published on H-Asia and is published here under Creative Commons license.
August 27, 2015

Hui Faye Xiao Family Revolution: Marital Strife in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Visual Culture.  Seattle  University of Washington Press, 2014.  224 pp.  $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-99349-2; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-99350-8.

Hui Faye Xiao's Family Revolution: Marital Strife in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Visual Culture is the first full-length study of divorce in literary and media representations in postsocialist China. The book consists of an introduction, five main chapters focusing on selected literary, television, or cinematic representations of divorce in contemporary China respectively, followed by a short conclusion as the sixth chapter. In addition, there are two appendices, "Television dramas about divorce (1990-2010)", and "Feature films about divorce (2000-2010)," that cover nearly a hundred titles and can serve as valuable indexes for future researchers on this topic.

Divorce is the organizing principle of Xiao's book, as it is viewed not only as a private practice of the heterosexual conjugal relationship, but also as "a central trope of national crisis, social change, gender transformation, and individual revitalization at transitional moments in modern Chinese history (p. 4). In the introduction, the author provides a contextualized history of divorce in modern China, dating from the May Fourth period to the socialist period. While the May Fourth movement's exaltation of free love and marriage is frequently cited by Xiao as an antecedent of Chinese Enlightenment that bears a lot of resemblance to the neoliberal discourses of the post-Mao era, the socialist period's conjugal and gender relationships, as suggested by Xiao's reading, are often seen as the "deplorable" reason for the ensuing "family revolution" in the postsocialist period. The desire to break from the socialist tradition and merge with the global middle-class culture, Xiao suggests, led to the reconfiguration of the domestic in contemporary China.

Through the lens of divorce narratives in literature and visual culture, the book produces an in-depth cultural study of the "family revolution" in the People's Republic of China between 1980 and 2010. This was a society characterized by skyrocketing divorce rates, which seemingly promise "more individual agency and a greater degree of freedom" (p. 182). But Xiao's astute analysis of the literary or visual cultural representations of divorce suggests otherwise, propelling her to put forth the central question of her book:
"exactly how free is free marriage/divorce when a life situation is contingent on a person's position in a 'free' market economy, an economy that is already embedded in the unequal division of labor along regional, gender, class, age, and ethnic lines?" (p. 183). Divorce culture, as her skillful reading shows, reveals postsocialist subjects' eager desire to move forward to a utopic future, but it always fails to deliver in reality.

This somber view of the divorce-pioneered "family revolution" in an increasingly modernized post-Mao China is foreshadowed by Walter Benjamin's remark on the public and the private in capitalist modernity, which Xiao quotes in the introduction of the book: "The private individual, who in the office has to deal with reality, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions" (p. 18).[1] This quote, it can be said, summarizes the gist of Xiao's arguments.

The Benjaminian notion of the illusory "domestic interior" is a recurring motif in Xiao's book; and although she does used the word "illusion" explicitly (as did Benjamin) to critique the neoliberal discourse on human "interiority" that flourished in postsocialist China, Xiao consistently shows through her analysis that the Chinese divorce culture has done very little to alter unequal regional, gender, class, age, and ethnic relationships. In fact, the illusion of the domestic interior only serves to reproduce unequal gender relations, as it ultimately belongs to the heterosexual institution, which lays the foundation for all gender inequities and oppression.

Xiao is particularly attuned to the unequal gender relationships of the divorce narratives throughout her book. In a way, all of her discussions are either structured or informed by this tenor of feminist criticism. Chapter 1, for example, reads two literary works from the early 1980s, Chen Kexiong and Ma Ning's  "Return, Cries the Cuckoo" (Dujuan tigui, 1980) and its sequel, "Flying Afar" (Feixiang yuanfang, 1981). The divorce narratives in these two stories, as Xiao argues, unapologetically split woman into either "Miss Nature" in the countryside or "Miss Science" in the city, only serving to justify the male protagonist's "humanistic" decision to return to the countryside or move to the city. The same splitting mechanism is revealed in Xiao's reading of Wu Ruozeng's novel Divorce (Liyi, 1986) and Su Tong's novella "A Divorce Handbook" (Lihun zhinan, 1991) in chapter 2. Both male writers resort to a misogynist rhetoric, and, as a result, woman is polarized again between revolutionary ideology and trivializing marketization. In this context, divorce becomes the male protagonist's means of escaping from a feminized past or a feminized present. In all these literary works discussed in chapters 1 and 2, images of women register the complex psychology of urban-based male intellectuals who struggle with their crisis of interiority.

Chapter 3 turns to the literary works by female writers, where Xiao produces a powerful critique of the entrenched gender imaginations in Zhang Jie's "The Ark" (Fangzhou,1982) and Chi Li's "Good Morning, Miss" (xiaojie ni zao, 1998). Both works concern a deeply marginalized social group--divorced middle-aged women. These women are the products of the Mao era, bearing the generational mark of the masculinization of women. These strong women, however, fail to find fulfillment in the bond of sisterhood after divorce, but rather are still subject to patriarchal surveillance. Here, Xiao presents one of her most insightful arguments: while these divorced women seek to challenge gender norms, they have inadvertently feminized the domestic following an essentialist feminine model. This argument extends to the next chapter on the female screenwriter Wang Hailing's mega-hit TV serial Chinese-style Divorce (Zhongguo shi lihun, 2004). Wang's TV drama intends to redraw the boundary between the public and the private by casting the middle-class family as a feminine space of harmony and romance. This unabashed appropriation of gender is certainly reminiscent of Benjamin's remark on the illusion of "domestic interior." Marketization and neoliberal discourses, therefore, are not the natural allies of women they are conventionally presumed to be.

Chapter 5 inspects the cinematic representations of divorce in the new millennium, which Xiao dubs a "cinema of divorce." She discerns two tendencies in this new film genre: the first is nostalgia, which "suggests an implied critique of China's metamorphosis into an authoritarian capitalist society" (p. 144); the second is its engagement with border-crossing women and their "feminized risk-management endeavor" (p. 176). Xiao points out that as China is merging with the global "risk society,"[2] the insecure and hollowed-out domestic interior in films such as The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (Yima de houxiandai shenghuo, 2006) and Tuya's Marriage (Tuya de hunshi, 2006) shows how women are turned into risk subjects in China's new capitalist economy.

Xiao views her central subject, divorce, as "an individual practice, a social institution, a representational strategy, and a pedagogic project of future-oriented developmentalism" (p. 5). One possible missing aspect that I would like to learn about the Chinese divorce culture is the genealogy of "divorce" as a linguistic sign. The use of the Chinese words pili and lihun (both meaning "divorce" in modern times) can be at least dated back to Book of Odes (Shijing, 1046-771 BC) and Book of Jin (Jinshu, 648 AD) respectively, but it was not until the Republican Era (1912-49) that the legal notion of divorce was imported to China from the West. The first Chinese legal code on modern monogamous marriage was issued by the KMT government in 1931, but the practice of polygamy still continued in the following decade, which made a divorce unnecessary in most cases. What further complicates the situation is that the May Fourth generation was so iconoclastic that they preferred co-habiting (tongju), and sometimes celibacy (dushen), to marriage. The legal concept of divorce, for example, appears to be not applicable to Lu Xun's story "Regrets for the Past" (Shangshi, 1924); but shall we view Lu's story as a canonical text of divorce narrative in modern China as well? Acknowledging this complex genealogy of "divorce" in modern China might help illuminate the constructiveness and ambiguity of linguistic signs such as divorce and marriage, which constantly vacillate between ethical, affective, economical, and legal terms and can hardly cohere.

This is related to my second comment: Xiao's book focuses on the representations of divorce as a legally sanctioned act. The author's purview, therefore, does not include the social groups that are marginalized by the concept of "divorce," for example, wives who tolerate their husbands' extramarital relationships (bao ernai), or "open marriage" couples; neither does it include the social groups that are rendered invisible by the concept of divorce, for example, homosexuals or celibates. But these excluded social groups are also a part of contemporary China's "family revolution," so in my opinion, addressing them at some point would complement the discussion of divorce in this already impressive book.

All in all, Family Revolution is a well-researched book with a coherent structure, theoretically informed arguments, and intriguing close reading, making it a wonderful addition to the scholarship on postsocialist Chinese culture and/or Chinese women's and gender studies.


[1]. Quoting Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 20.

[2]. "Risk society" is a term coined by Ulrich Beck in
Risikogesellschaft: Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne [Risk
Society: Towards a New Modernity] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1986) and developed by Anthony Giddens in a series of his writings in the 1990s. Xiao borrows this term in her discussion of the cinema of divorce.

Citation: Ping Zhu. Review of Xiao, Hui Faye, Family Revolution:
Marital Strife in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Visual Culture
. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. August, 2015.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.




June 5, 2018 - 7:00pm
Los Angeles, California

Please join the USC U.S.-China Institute, the East Asian Studies Center, and the USC School of Cinematic Arts for a screening of the 1993 Chinese film Woman Sesame Oil Maker (香魂女). It tells the story of a woman in a small village who buys a peasant wife for his mentally disabled son after her sesame oil business becomes unexpectedly successful. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the director, Xie Fei (谢飞).