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Abstract

This dissertation explores how life was narrated in socialist China. The popularization of the Communist practice of self-criticism (jiantao) since the early 1940s as a tool to transform people into new socialist beings contributed to establishing normative models of life writing. This dissertation asks what it meant to inhabit the norm and challenges the idea that self-criticism was solely a tool of indoctrination and surveillance that politicized and standardized representations of human life experience. I argue that self-criticism offered a space of self-fashioning where experiences of pain—bodily and otherwise—are differently grappled with and channeled. By examining how revolutionary women writers creatively re-purposed self-criticism in their personal writings—diaries, memoirs, and self-critical essays—this project shows the limits as well as the autobiographical possibilities of this widely maligned practice. This study seeks a more nuanced approach to the coercive practice of self-criticism and its relation to life writings through the lens of gender and the lived body. The surfacing of the female body in the personal writings of Ding Ling (Chapter One), Yang Mo (Chapter Two), and Wei Junyi (Chapter Three) defies the hierarchical relation between mind and body that self-criticism seems to purport, and complicates the vision that national concerns pertaining to the construction of a communist society suppressed a feminist discourse. The presence of the lived female body exposes the tension between these women’s personal politics and the Party’s revolutionary agenda, underscoring the fluid boundary between the political and the personal in socialist China. In their writings, these women—all committed to a political project—variously articulate their material experience as women living in the years of campaigns and reforms, as well as their desires and ambitions to assert the value of their labor as writers. Literature occupies an important space in their self-critical instantiations. Self-criticism offers these women an opportunity to voice the enduring gender inequalities dominating the social structures and the arena of literary production in socialist China. The possibilities self-criticism provided these women to express their gendered concerns and life experience urge us to treat self-criticism as a genre of life writing in and of itself and a mode of self-analysis that engenders a dialogue among these women’s various writings—non-fictional and otherwise. Pain is one of the themes that keep coming back in the texts this dissertation examines. These texts show how pain is not a homogenous experience, but is plural and contingent to the social positioning of the body and its materiality. Self-criticism, in these texts, turns into a strategy to cope with pain at the same time as it inflicts it. By attending to the lived body in practices of self-criticism, this dissertation brings to the fore multifarious experiences of, and responses to, pain that complicate the relation between self-criticism and suffering: suffering emerges from the conflicting encounter between the female self and collective male expectations (Chapter One); from the painful interaction between physical disability and mind (Chapter Two); and from the unresolved question of individual and collective responsibility articulated in post-Mao testimony (Chapter Three).

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