China and Inner Asia
Duke Kunshan University, China (People's Republic)
Zaisheng yuan (Destiny of Rebirth) is a tanci fiction written by the female writer Chen Duansheng (1751–1796) that tells a story about the adventures of a cross-dressed female protagonist. In the early modern Jiangnan region, tanci fiction as a genre was rich in volume, rhymed in language, and dominated by female writers and female readers. This paper investigates Zaisheng yuan’s representations of the specific sensory experience of pain and its role in shaping female identity. Pain, both physical and psychological, serves as a framework for women to interpret the possibilities and constraints of their existence. In contrast to the male literary tradition which portrays the female body as a static spectacle, Zaisheng yuan demonstrates that women’s bound feet do have feelings and their physical pain is an on-going experience. By sharing the pain caused by the female-exclusive practice of footbinding, female characters support each other and identify themselves with the gentry women community. However, the story also shows that in one of the most intimate female relationships, the mother-daughter relationship, a proper transfer of the feeling of pain is not guaranteed. Instead, it is always the unawareness or ignorance of the pain that leads to a break-up of the female bond, leaving mothers and daughters with great frustration and reconsiderations about their family responsibilities. With the polarized situations of empathy that define female pain as both seen and unseen, Zaisheng yuan problematizes the formation of a holistic female identity and foregrounds the significance of generational and individual differences.