Skip to main content
No Access

On the Decipherment of Modern China and Spurned Lovers: Zhai Yongming’s Most Tactful Phrases

Long regarded as the contemporary Chinese feminist poet par excellence—giving not only voice to Chinese women but feminine sonic mysteriousness to the poetic landscape—Zhai Yongming has, in her latest work, apotheosized Chinese women’s poetry into the only thing through which relations between Chinese linguistics, historiography, media, and constructions of national and global essence become fully apprehensible. This essay is divided into two parts. Part one investigates Zhai’s vision of the relationship between twenty-first-century Chinese feminist poetics and the knowability of modern China—not its knowability from a feminist standpoint but its knowability at all. I examine her use of the tropes of feminist recognition to deconstruct a postsinological world—one in which the politics of representing and studying “China” everywhere circulate and proliferate, one in which what Zhai terms the “DNA of the Chinese language” morphs alongside gender and global technologies, and one in which ancient and contemporary Chinese histories are broadcasted through transnationally constituted mediascapes. The second part of this essay, focusing on two Sapphic figures whom Zhai hails from the Tang dynasty, unpacks Zhai’s ambitious nomination of female poetic virtuosity as the terminus a quo of the next phase of China’s poetic revival. I examine how Zhai trades in co-optable historical female personages so as to confront the reader with poetic virtuosity, a confrontation that collapses reading (for) female scandal and reading (for) linguistic revival. For Zhai, I will argue, the political potential of decipherment locked into feminist poetics is ultimately a question of art: not only “how is transnationally constituted China knowable?” but “how can knowing it be pleasurable in ways for which we are already primed?” Focusing on the feedback between Zhai’s theories of language and culture and her radicalization of feminism’s epistemological values, this essay shows the subtle link between twenty-first-century global “sinological” work from the Chinese literary world and the ongoing project of feminist recovery and revivification.