Reconstructing Western Female Subjectivity:
Between Orientalism and Feminism in
Julia Kristeva's About Chinese Women


Su-lin Yu

National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan

Copyright © 2002 by Su-lin Yu, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. In colonial discourse, Western female subjects, especially liberal feminists, have enjoyed a dominant relationship with Third-World women. They understand themselves as beneficiaries of a structure of systemic differences that place them as superior in the West/East divide of colonialism (as, for instance, the relative privilege felt by the European woman traveller in the Orient). In contrast to the image of Third-World women as victims, the Western woman assumes the image of a sovereign, autonomous subject. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty demonstrates, Western women represent themselves "as educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and [having] the freedom to make their own decisions" (200). They are the ones who claim the privilege of articulating and representing on behalf of their "unfortunate sisters." Likewise, Leela Gandhi points out that Western women are the ones who presume to embody ideological and political plenitude in contrast to the cultural lack of Third-World women. In her relationship with Chinese women, however, Kristeva calls into question the unity and autonomy of a Western female subject. Kristeva's About Chinese Women was inspired by her trip to China in 1974. Her central concerns in this text include the Chinese-family system, materiality, language, and the relation of these to Western cultural and conceptual practices. Kristeva's representation of Chinese culture and women, however, was not well received by her readers. [1] In spite of the critical controversy surrounding the accuracy and credibility of Kristeva’s representation of Chinese culture and women, I propose to take this cross-cultural text seriously, not only because it contains her early thoughts on femininity, maternity, and alterity, themes to be further developed as her major discourses, but also because it reveals the possibilities of a psychoanalytic model for reviewing Western female subjectivity in relation to Third-World women.

  2. Kristeva's journey to China took place in a specific cultural, social, and historical context. In the 1970s, western feminists sought to define a unified female subject from a psychoanalytic perspective. Following Freud and Lacan, they focused on the drama of sexual difference as the only scenario where "men" become the difference that matters. In such a scenario, the cultural and racial differences existing between female subjects have been bypassed or ignored in the construction of a Western female subject. Aware of the limitation of contemporary psychoanalytic theory, Kristeva, in About Chinese Women, shows how the cultural other represented by Third-World women is necessary to the Western female subject's constitution. She invokes an Oriental other with which she enacts a specifically cross-cultural, rather than cross-gendered, identification to challenge the Freudian and Lacanian paradigms of Western female subjectivity. She suggests that a Western woman's recognition of her self as a speaking subject was possible in her identification with an other sexually the same yet culturally different. Kristeva's rhetoric of identification, however, is complicated by an Orientalist fantasy and desire that structure her relationship with Chinese women.

  3. In About Chinese Women, Kristeva first explains how the patriarchal monotheism of Judaism triumphed over the matriarchal, fertility-based early religions, and reduced Western women to the "silent other" of the symbolic. The patrilinear monotheistic tradition, according to Kristeva, produces an unbalanced relationship between men and women: "No other civilization [. . .] seems to have made the principle of sexual difference so crystal clear: between the two sexes there is a cleavage, an abyss, which is marked by their different relationships to the Law (religious and political) and which is the very condition of their alliance. Monotheistic unity is sustained by a radical separation of the sexes: indeed, this separation is its prerequisite" (19). Within such a tradition, a woman functions merely as the one who propagates the human race. While man possesses social subjectivity, access to language, and legal and historical presence, woman, Kristeva observes, is excluded from knowledge and from power. She is constituted by the tradition as the other, who is mute and powerless.

  4. Then, in a psychoanalytic framework, Kristeva explains the oppression of Western women in relation to the repressed other, the mother. Following Freud and Lacan, Kristeva delineates a child's inevitable journey from the preoedipal phase to the Oedipal phase in order to become a speaking subject in the Western symbolic order. In contrast to Freud and Lacan, however, Kristeva emphasizes the importance of the preoedipal mother in the psycho-sexual development of a little child. As she claims,
    The child is bound to the mother's body without that body being, as yet, "another." Rather, the mother's body exists with the child's in a sort of natural/social continuum. This phase is dominated by the oral and anal impulses (incorporation and aggressive rejection): hence the pleasure is auto-erotic as well as inseparable from the body of the mother. (28)
    Although Kristeva does not use terms such as "semiotic" or "chora" to define the preoedipal mother in the book, she clearly positions the mother in the semiotic. As she asserts in Revolution in Poetic Language, published in the same year as About Chinese Women, the semiotic is linked to the preoedipal processes, and therefore is maternally oriented. Apparently, she posits that the semiotic order, distinct from the symbolic order dominated by the father, belongs to the terrain of the preoedipal mother. "The oral and anal drives [ . . . ] are [both] oriented [to] and structured around the mother's body," she maintains. "The mother's body is therefore what mediates the symbolic law organizing social relations and becomes the ordering principle of the semiotic chora" (Revolution 27). Unfortunately, the role and the function of the preoedipal mother have been misrecognized. In Christianity, motherhood, she notes, is a conspicuous sign of jouissance, the pleasure associated with the female body that must be repressed. "[T]he vagina and the jouissance of the mother are disregarded," she points out, and they are "immediately replaced by that which puts the mother on the side of the socio-symbolic community: childbearing, procreation in the name of the father" (26). Consequently, the mother's body is repressed and her jouissance is denied.

  5. The oppressive condition of the mother, Kristeva stresses, leaves two undesirable options available for Western women: father-identification and mother-identification. If a woman identifies with the mother, she ensures her exclusion from and marginality in relation to the patriarchal order. If, however, she identifies with the father -- makes herself in his image -- then she ends up supporting the same patriarchal order that excludes and marginalizes her as a woman. For Kristeva, mother-identification results in a failure to enter the symbolic order, a path that ends in psychosis or suicide. For example, on the one hand, she sees Virginia Woolf's suicide as the tragic result of following "the call of the mother." On the other hand, father-identification "will censor the pre-oedipal phase and wipe out the last trace of dependence on the body of the mother" (29). The father-identified woman has to submit to the laws of the Father. Such a woman is exemplified by the figure of Electra, who has her mother, Clytemnestra, killed in order to avenge her father. Electra's act is an expression of her hatred of the jouissance of a mother forbidden by the law of the father. As a result of her act, she perpetuates the patriarchal social and symbolic order. As she maintains that the options for identity prescribed by the patriarchal symbolic system specific to Western monotheism are inescapable for Western women, Kristeva admits the powerlessness of women in the West: "A woman is caught there, and can't do too much about it" (37).

  6. In spite of her pessimistic view of women's dilemma in the Western symbolic, Kristeva still believes in the possibility of transcending or modifying the rule of symbolic law. She posits that cultural practices outside the Western social order can challenge the Western structure of domination. Although she seems to share Lacan's view that a woman's position is prescribed by the Law of the Father, and holds that symbolic mediation is required in the passage from nature to culture, she contends that the implacable Symbolic structure described by Lacan is specific to Western monotheistic culture. While Lacan seems to suggest that there is only one Symbolic order, she believes that not all cultures are based on the same symbolic system. It is this belief that leads to Kristeva's desire for an alternative mode of signification. As early as Revolution in Poetic Language, Michael Payne points out, "Kristeva seemed ready, before her visit to China, to think of the East as a cultural space where the rhythmically unsettling dynamics of the semiotic chora had not been rendered static by the rigors of capitalistic society; thus, she thought it a place where the full energy of the signifying process could be realized" (179). In the beginning of About Chinese Women, Kristeva further explains her intellectual interests in China and Chinese women. First, she hopes to use China as another horizon and perspective for the European intellectuals who are thwarted in their political revolution. Second, and more important, as a Western woman Kristeva recognizes her cultural lack and is concerned with her own subjectivity, as she acknowledges: "These themes, these names: were they chosen by chance, according to mood or desire? Of course; and my own subjectivity is only too obvious" (42). Consequently, it is from concern with her own subjectivity that she took her "first hesitant step" toward China.

  7. Indeed, it is Kristeva's concern with her own subjectivity that she engages in her writing on Chinese women. While she examines her position as a Western woman, she recognizes her own lack in contrast to the plenitude she posits in Chinese women. She states, "Who is speaking, then, before the stare of the peasants at Huxian? Whoever on this side is fed up with being a ‘dead woman’" (15). She regards herself as a dead woman, because her body is denied and her voice is silenced in the monotheistic traditions of sexual differentiation. Her lack causes her desire to identify with Chinese women, who, Kristeva believes, possess jouissance. As she indicates, Chinese women "liberate themselves from their husbands and fathers under the portrait of Mao, and leave their children, their calligraphy, their exploits in the field of production, science, or the current ideological campaign, as the sole evidence of their jouissance" (16; emphasis mine).

  8. Her desire to identify with the Oriental other is subsequently revealed in her first encounter with Chinese women. While she feels alienated from the Chinese women at Huxian square, Kristeva tries to establish a connection with them. She claims that she "recognized [her] own pioneer komsomol childhood in the little red guards, and [that she owes her] cheekbones to some Asian ancestor" (12). For Kristeva, these Chinese women become a collective mirror through which she perceives herself. As Kelly Oliver asserts, "she sees herself in those little red guards and those high cheekbones of the silent women of China because it was only herself for whom she was looking" (135). Obviously, her desire for the Oriental other is narcissistic. Kristeva's narcissistic orientation tells us that she is unable to concede to the Western symbolic that represses her femininity. Therefore, she is psychologically involved in the Imaginary.

  9. In order to consolidate her sense of subjectivity, Kristeva structures an imaginary identification with the image of Chinese women. According to Jacques Lacan, imaginary identification first takes place in the mirror stage where the child sees in the mirror image an ideal of bodily unity and assumes identity with it. "The mirror stage," as Lacan explains, "is a drama whose inner dynamic moves rapidly from insufficiency to anticipation [. . . ,] from an image of a fragmented body to a form of its totality" (4). In other words, in this stage the infant assumes a sense of bodily unity cognized in the specular image, the ideal ego. Furthermore, Lacan does not regard the mirror stage simply as a moment in the life of the infant, but sees it as also representing a permanent structure of subjectivity. "This form would have to be called the Ideal-I [or Ideal Ego]," says Lacan, and "it will be the source of secondary identifications" (2). Following Lacan's notion of imaginary identification, Kristeva emphasizes the imaginary relation between the daughter and the mother, the first significant other. It is apparent in her account of the Chinese woman that Kristeva represents Chinese women as her imaginary (m)other that embodies wholeness and plenitude. It is through her imaginary identification with Chinese women that Kristeva attempts to achieve a desired subject status.

  10. To reclaim a feminine jouissance that has been denied to her in the Western phallocentric economy, Kristeva envisions an idealized Chinese maternal order where feminine jouissance is preeminent. Using her research on Chinese myths, history, philosophy, and religion, Kristeva represents an imaginary matrilinear-matrilocal society in pre-Confucian China. She notes that in that period the mother and the balanced sexual relationship maintain the logic and the cohesion of ancient Chinese society. According to Kristeva, the "mother" is not the biological mother, but rather the "most respected woman in the community" (48). The mother organizes the family groups in each region and controls every exchange. Since this mother plays a preeminent role in the society, she enjoys "incontestable" jouissance. In addition, following the Chinese myth on the sexual act, Kristeva believes that Chinese women, who are thought to have an inexhaustible yin essence, are able to enjoy orgasm, whereas the Chinese man, "the delicate artisan of this jouissance," is supposed to withhold his own orgasm in order to achieve health and longevity. Kristeva further imagines social reasons for such practices: "polygamy required a certain order in the relationships among the various wives, and demanded that they be satisfied at least at regular intervals so that peace reigned in the harem; obviously, the one available male had to spare his strength" (62). Kristeva claims, "Whatever the reason, though, the psychosomatic result of this kind of jouissance, is that the woman does not consider herself as ‘inferior,’ ‘devalued,’ and desirable only at that price -- which is the case in sexual economies dominated by the phallus" (62).

  11. In Pre-Confucian times, Kristeva notes, Chinese women enjoyed a more harmonious relationship with men than do contemporary Western women. In the Western symbolic, according to Kristeva, because sexual difference depends on the subject's relation to the Phallus, women are dominated by men. Kristeva assumes the sexual-psychological relationship between men and women in China, however, is completely different from that in the Western symbolic. She points out that the opposition between feminine and masculine does not exist in China: "Such an economy, based on the jouissance of the woman without sacrificing that of the man, proceeds from the idea that the sexual relationship is not a relationship of identification, absorption of the one by the other, negation of the differences" (63). Believing in the Tao in the I Ching where Yin, the feminine principle, and Yang, the masculine principle, are constantly complementary, Kristeva goes on to explain,
    But this feminine jouissance, that could become the support of the mystery, the ultimate source of God, the Absolute, does not do so in China; for it is constantly counterbalanced by the other, the yang, which certainly takes for itself and gives of itself, but not every time. The yang represents the limit of jouissance, the prohibition that may be ephemeral, may be overridden--but is nonetheless present. It is precisely this difference, this otherness, which is brought back into balance after the act of love; and precisely because the two terms are well separated, without possibility of confusion. (63)
    Apparently because of her desire for a balanced sexual relationship that is an impossibility in the West, Kristeva posits that the boundary between men and women is permeable in China.

  12. Kristeva's desire for a positive feminine power leads her to see traces of feminine power even in Confucian society where the order of the Father replaces the order of the Mother. She observes that the feminine power still persists in Chinese patriarchical society because "the mother [ . . .] is in the shadows" (78). Although women are oppressed and excluded by patriarchal laws, they are not completely bound by "Confucian hypocrisy." As Kristeva indicates,
    Thus, in their own society, they give free rein to the impassioned violence that gnaws at the apparent interior harmony of the patriarchal class. Their arguments, shouts, even fistfights -- let alone their plots and conspiracies -- are celebrated in fiction, and by many observers. They reveal what lies under the floorboards of Confucianism; but, more importantly, they reveal the wretchedness of the female condition, and that accumulation of unused impulses, capable of channelling themselves into merciless aggression and into intrigues of astonishing complexity. (77-78)
    Significantly she sees the Chinese woman as an ideal ego with a feminist subversive consciousness. As Lisa Lowe points out, "Kristeva argues that the Chinese woman is at once within familial and social relations and yet beyond those relations, and that her hysterias, suicides, and pregnancies are statements of her power, and examples of the ways in which the Chinese woman under Confucianism protests her subjection and subverts paternal authority" (157).

  13. To further demonstrate the Chinese woman's potential power under Confucianism, Kristeva turns to "foot binding," one of the most important customs assigned to Chinese women in the feudal symbolic society. In her analysis of foot binding, Kristeva stands in contrast to Freud. Whereas Freud observed that foot binding is a symbol of the castration of woman, Kristeva argues that foot binding reveals the Chinese patriarch's suspicion that women's power remains hidden in their bodies. She raises an interesting question: "Does feudal patriarchal society suspect that woman possesses -- if not a penile power -- a social and symbolic power that remains with her from the early matrilineal tradition?" (83). Consequently, in her gaze and desire, Kristeva regards the elderly women crippled from foot binding as "wounded Amazons" and turns the bodies of modern Chinese women into objects of fantasy:
    [O]ne can watch these relaxed feminine bodies floating lightly along the streets of Peking, among the tufts of willow moss. One can glimpse the quick, hot, laughing glances, or the clever, furtive smiles of these girls, walking arm-in-arm through the park. Or one can listen to these women's voices, which don't stick in the throat, but rather vibrate, rhythmic and melodious, with the whole body, down to the tiniest cell, free of guilt or provocation. An empty center, around which the society of men revolves without ever speaking of it. So [ . . . ] one can think what one pleases, before these people. Beginning with oneself. (65)
    In psychoanalytic terms, it is clear that when in the realm of fantasy Kristeva unconsciously places the body of the Chinese woman in the field of vision, she turns her look into a masculine gaze. In other words, she looks at Chinese women the way a man looks. [2] Like the male of the typical male gaze, Kristeva, in her fantasy, attempts to fill her lack and achieve a sense of wholeness in the bodies, looks, and voices of Chinese women.

  14. Likewise, Kristeva holds rather idealistic images of Chinese women revolutionaries. She constructs the identity of the emerging secular modern Chinese woman as autonomous, active, and sovereign rather than passive and non-participating. As she observes a Chinese feminist movement in relation to national liberation and socialist ideology, she glorifies the Chinese woman's revolutionary power. During the National Revolution (to overthrow Manchurian feudalism), the participation of Chinese women in the national cause was highly valued, for the nationalist revolutionaries recognized that no reform movement would be possible in China unless it took women into account. As Kristeva puts it, "to combat feudalism is first of all to combat the Confucian family and morality" (100). She provides several accounts of Chinese women's participation in war and revolution, and she demonstrates how they support the Republic and strive for equal rights for men and women. Consequently, the feudal world empire is transformed into a nation-state that emphasizes the emancipation of women as an indispensable precondition for the nation's modernization.

  15. After the establishment of the Republic, the socialist revolution in China, Kristeva argues, brought a fundamental revolution in the patriarchal family and in the roles of women. As an Eastern European who is interested in socialism, Kristeva asserts that "[t]he proletarian liberation will consequently have to be a liberation from patriarchal structures as well; therefore, a liberation from paternal power" (118). She views Mao Tse-tung as a supporter of the suffragettes who is openly concerned with the feminist movement and sees in it a radical means of transforming society. Therefore, she concludes that the communist party is in favor of the "emancipation" of women. As Kristeva claims, the Chinese socialist revolution is an "anti-patriarchal revolt. And a revolution against the father meant a women's revolution" (128). She notes that as women communists continue to advocate the improvement of women's status, Chinese women assume more equal status and power. They are culturally superior to Western women: "the Western housewife, contrary to the Chinese, remains the ‘household proletariat,’ so long as the law [ . . .] fails to provide, in the marriage contract or elsewhere, compensation for housework" (133). Thus, the romanticized image of the Chinese woman is deliberately set in contrast to the oppressive condition of woman in Western societies.

  16. Furthermore, Kristeva observes that the symbolic authority and function of Chinese women are restored in the family because of the family reform. For instance, since the Marriage Law was established in April 1934, the patriarchal family has been abolished. Under this law, women assume equal status in the family. The law also takes the labor of the housewife into account. Chinese women, whose marriages once were arranged by parents, now have the right to marry, and their choice is free. In addition, not only may a woman retain her maiden name after marriage, but also her children have the right to take her name rather than her husband's. Thus, the law is proposed as a means of protecting Chinese women against the abuses of patriarchal mores. It permits women to break their indenture to the patriarchal feudal family. As Kristeva observes, "The Chinese feudal family was, as we have seen, a kinship unit built around the dominant symbolic function of the father; it was an economic unit as well. Thus, it is understandable that a single blow, The Marriage Law, would suffice to get rid of both the old economy and the old ideology" (128). Consequently, she concludes that this law gives more freedom and protection to women than Western legislation does.

  17. Kristeva not only admires Chinese women who are able to assume a position of leadership in the family but also praises how the family reform in China offers "[a] supremacy without historical precedent" (138). According to Kristeva, Chinese women are able to liberate themselves from the patriarchal structure and paternal power because of the matriarchal heritage. She points out that "Confucian patriarchy, more than monotheistic patriarchy, has been haunted by the mother, by her sexuality, and by her function as the inversion of power" (131). Thus, like the semiotic, the repressed Chinese matriarch returns as a disruption within the symbolic. Elizabeth Grosz explains the revolutionary power of the semiotic as such: "Its subversive, dispersing energies transgress the boundaries or tolerable limits of the symbolic.[ . . .] Sooner or later, depending on the extent of the threat it poses, the semiotic is recodified, reconstituted into a new symbolic system" (154). Kristeva implies that as the daughter of the Chinese matriarch the modern Chinese woman seems to have no problems in her identification with the mother. In her eyes, such women are the revolutionary subjects that are able to allow the jouissance of semiotic motility to disrupt the strict symbolic order.

  18. Kristeva's identification with the Chinese woman reaches its climatic moment when she is recognized by the countergaze of the Chinese woman. In the context of colonialism, Fanon has emphasized how the visual field instigates racial difference. [3] Different from Fanon, who focuses on the imperialist's gaze, Kristeva reveals the psychological effect of the other's countergaze. In her observation of Chinese women, Kristeva is constantly aware of their returning look. Being among the first foreigners to visit the village of Huxian, Kristeva is conscious of how the gaze of Chinese women queries her very "strangeness." For Kristeva, that the Chinese women return her gaze immediately exoticizes her and triggers a crisis of her identity as a sovereign imperialist. She cannot enjoy the pleasure of seeing, thereby controlling the other; instead, she is subjected to the gaze that forces her to recognize her limitation in bridging the cultural difference: "It is not my goal -- and it is perhaps useless to try -- to discover all those things which, in modern Chinese culture and society, determine the indefinable stare of the peasants of Huxian" (13). Although the countergaze exposes the instability of her Western imperialist position, it provokes her desire and anxiety to be recognized by the other. Kristeva reveals her persistent desire towards the end: "And myself, an eternal stranger, frozen in my thwarted desire to be recognized as one of them, happy when they lost themselves in contemplation of my face and when only my bell-bottomed trousers made the old peasant woman at the Great Wall cry out ‘aiguo ren!’ (foreign woman)" (157). In her imaginary relationship with Chinese women, she is pleased to be eventually recognized by them in the moment of cross-cultural interpellation.

  19. Plainly, Kristeva constructs a maternal imaginary that reveals her Orientalist fantasy. Her representation of China does not correspond to its historical reality. At the beginning of writing about Chinese matrilocal society, she calls attention to its hypothetical and fictive qualities. She admits that the matriarchal society is "hypothetical" (45). [4] In other words, in her investigation of China, Kristeva is fundamentally concerned neither with Chinese social realities nor with whether her representation of Chinese women bears a resemblance to actual women in China. Instead, Kristeva seeks to consolidate her subjectivity by an imaginary identification with Chinese women. In her Orientalist fantasy she clearly idealizes Chinese women.

  20. Kristeva's idealization of the Oriental woman is an example of the manner in which the involvement of First World intellectuals in the Third World actually functions self-interestedly as a process of self-constitution. According to Gayatri Spivak, Kristeva's curiosity, like that of others, in the face of her objects of study "is about her identity rather than theirs":

    This too might be a characteristic of the group of thinkers to whom I have, most generally, attached her. In spite of their occasional interest in touching the other of the West, of metaphysics, of capitalism, their repeated question is obsessively self-centered: if we are not what official history and philosophy say we are, who then are we (not), who are we (not). (137)

    For Kristeva, the Chinese woman is neither what she distinguishes herself from nor the absolute other she cannot understand, but the necessary possibility that makes her subjectivity possible. Accordingly, if Fanon proposes that the white man "monopolizes otherness to secure an illusion of unfettered access to subjectivity" (21), Kristeva posits that the Western woman identifies with the Oriental other in order to gain entry to a fictive sense of self.

  21. Kristeva’s representation of Chinese women has been substantially criticized for its Orientalism and ethnocentrism. Spivak, for instance, not only challenges Kristeva's epistemic and cultural privilege in her investigation of Chinese women as a first-world feminist's intervention on behalf of Third-World women, but also contends that she relies on systems of binary opposition between East and West. In Spivak's view, Kristeva reproduces stereotypes familiar from Orientalist discourse about the immemorial and unchanging nature of Chinese women so that the "classical East is studied with primitivistic reverence" (160). She further complains about Kristeva's generalized view of history -- passing references to whole millenia -- and her unsophisticated literary analysis of certain Chinese texts. Kristeva's work, according to Spivak, proceeds without regard for archival evidence, relying instead on translated anthologies and Western theses, so that speculation is assumed as historical fact. For instance, Kristeva's treatment of the role of Chinese family structure is presented as derived principally from a single literary-critical academic article. Objecting to her generalization and lack of textual analysis, Spivak claims that Kristeva's work can be at best understood as a case of "colonialist benevolence" (161).

  22. Following Spivak's criticism of Kristeva's project, Rey Chow observes that Kristeva's idealization of Chinese culture in terms of "femininity" should be understood as a critique of Western discourse. Yet, this critique is complicated by the fact that China is seen to be different, primitive, and feminine. Chow argues that, for Kristeva, "China exists as an ‘other,’ feminized space to the West, a space where utopianism and eroticism come into play for various purposes of ‘critique.’ Kristeva's book about Chinese women shows us how the alluring tactic of ‘feminizing’ another culture in the attempt to criticize Western discourse actually repeats the mechanisms of the discourse and hence cannot be an alternative to it" (32). Therefore, she contends that "what is claimed to be ‘unique’ to China is simply understood as the ‘negative’ or ‘repressed’ side of Western discourse" (7). To both Spivak and Chow, then, Kristeva supports the binary opposition between East and West that Edward Said describes in his characterization of Orientalism as a concept influenced by "the male conception of the world in which the East is defined as a sexually feminine space" (208).

  23. Different from Spivak and Chow, Lisa Lowe and Tomo Hattori resituate Kristeva's work as a text that constitutes a subversive challenge to the unity of Orientalist discourse. They argue that although Kristeva retains an allegiance to Orientalist discourse, she challenges certain Orientalist codes in her depiction of Chinese culture and women. Lowe notes that Kristeva not only idealizes the figure of the Chinese mother, but also orientalizes her. She persuasively demonstrates, "Kristeva's revalorization of the pre-Oedipal as an absolute state of otherness with regard to the paternalistic symbolic and its systems of signification is figured in an idealized Other -- the mother -- located outside the hierarchical, Oedipalized overdetermination of Western psychoanalysis. But Kristeva does more than idealize this Mother; she ‘orientalizes’ her" (154). Still, Lowe argues, "Julia Kristeva's Des Chinoises occupies a peculiarly paradoxical position within the French orientalist tradition. [ . . .] Kristeva's text is at once both strikingly different from the earlier French colonial orientalism and yet disturbingly reminiscent of its postures and rhetoric. The principle manner in which Kristeva's 'China' differs from the orientalist texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is that its various deployments of orientalist tropes are meant to represent breaks with colonialist ideology" (150; emphasis mine).

  24. Similarly, although noting that Kristeva reproduces a "psychoanalytic colonialism" of a symbolic west over a semiotic China, Hattori asserts that Kristeva's representation of China and Chinese culture contradicts the most common theme of the Orientalist discourse. For Hattori, Kristeva's Orientalism in About Chinese Women is "positive." In other words, it valorizes Chinese culture as superior to that of the West and holds Chinese women and the maternal basis of their language above the patriarchal, masculine cultural and philosophical models of the European intellectual tradition. She further claims, "The gendering of Kristeva's orientalism is qualitatively different from Said's concept of Orientalism. China is neither feminized nor subordinated to the superior masculine procedures of the West but is rather valorized for preserving its ancestral female culture" (123).

  25. Kristeva's relationship to Orientalism, however, does not have to be either simply supportive or oppositional. It could just as well be partial and fragmented. In constrast to Said's conceptualization of the essentially unified nature of imperial subjectivity and colonial discourse, Homi Bhabha suggests that Orientalism as a discourse, based on representation, is an incohesive one because it always already contains conflictual positions, and is driven not by a unified and intentional power but by the splits and ambivalence of the colonial subjects. He utilizes a Lacanian explanation of subjectivity to take us back to the moment of enunciation to emphasize the role of the enunciating agent and to bypass Said's reliance on the concept of the exceptional individual author (as the only one who can function outside of the constraints of Orientalism) and reveals Orientalism as an always incohesive discourse that always already contains conflictual positions (Lewis 41). Kristeva's position demonstrates the anxiety and ambivalence of an imperial subject, for she is doubly othered in France by the specificity of her gender and ethnicity.

  26. As an ethnic other who tries to establish her position as an intellectual in France, Kristeva unavoidably participates in her contemporary Orientalist discourse. In 1966, Kristeva had arrived at Paris with her intellectual ambitions. Soon she became associated with the extremely male-dominated Tel Quel group that published her articles and supported her scholarly project. In May 1968, when the students' revolt and workers' strike were thwarted in France, the left intellectuals of the Tel Quel group turned to China as a utopian site of revolution. The group's interest in China culminated in their three-week-long visit in April and May of 1974. Kristeva joined the journey to China as the only woman in the group. They attempted there to search for solutions to Western political and cultural problems. As Toril Moi observes, "For the Tel Quel group, China seemed to offer a radical perspective compatible with their own theoretical artistic endeavors" (6). Lowe further claims, "viewing Kristeva's Des chinoises in the context of the journal Tel quel, to which Kristeva contributed and in which she played a crucial role, the French construction of China in the 1970s was central to a counterideological politics; China was constituted as an object of desire within particular veins of the discourses of semiotics, feminism, psychoanalysis" (150).

  27. To further maintain her position in French intellectual circles, Kristeva appropriates Chinese language within her own linguistic and feminist psychoanalytic framework by investing Chinese language with characteristics of the feminine preoedipal. In the case of Chinese language, Kristeva suggests that because tonal speech depends on "the psycho-corporeal imprint of the mother," it preserves a "pre-Oedipal, pre-syntactic, pre-symbolic register." She claims, moreover, that the logic of imagistic writing presupposes a speaking, writing subject who retains such features of the "pre-Oedipal phase" as its "dependency on the maternal," its "absence of clear-cut divisions between the order of things and the order of symbols," and the "predominance [in it] of the unconscious impulses" (56). She then concludes that Chinese writing, though integrated into the later logic-symbolic writing system, has "maintained the memory of matrilinear prehistory (collective and individual) in its architectonic of image, gesture, and sound" (57). As a foreigner in Paris, Kristeva has inevitably lost her Bulgarian mother/tongue. This loss of her mother tongue keeps haunting her and eventually enables her to establish her theory of the semiotic. As Oliver observes, "her supposition of the semiotic element in language could be related to her experience as a foreigner in France. Like the fetishist, she becomes fixated on part of her loss, the loss of her maternal language. Like the fetishist, with her theory of the semiotic Kristeva both admits and denies the loss of maternal language" (137). While Oliver's observation is valid, I would like to add that Kristeva's obsession with the loss of her mother tongue also drives her to seek a maternal basis in every language. As she writes, "I am seeking within the blackness of dreams in Bulgarian, French, Russian, Chinese tones, invocations, lifting up the dismembered, sleeping body. Territory of the mother" (136).

  28. As an ethnic other in France, Kristeva also seems to believe that she can understand the other, relate to an other because she is an other. In her first encounter with Chinese women at Huxian, although under their gaze, she says, "I feel like [. . .] an other," Kristeva does not see her otherness as an obstacle in understanding Chinese women but as a privileged position from which to establish a cross-cultural identification. As she emphasizes, "so nothing [was] disorienting there; even less so for me, who recognized my own pioneer komsomol childhood in the little red guards, and who owed my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor" (12). Jane Gallop correctly points out that Kristeva, as a Bulgarian living in Paris, is in a privileged position of permanent exile, one living in the eccentricity of a self repeated in geographical and written wanderings through the texts of the other. The absolute otherness conferred on the group of Westerners at Huxian is immediately annulled by an otherness of Kristeva's own that is effectively a recognition of sameness. Gallop concludes that Kristeva so positions herself within the text that "she alone might be able to bridge the abyss of otherness, to contact and report the heterogeneous, and this is in a book precisely about the dangers of using oneself as a measure for the other" (119).

  29. In additon to racial differences, questions of gender should not be ignored in Orientalist discourse. Recent scholars have become increasingly interested in the intersection of imperialism and feminism. [5] Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel offer analysis of both complicity and resistance by Western women to the cultural values dominant during an imperialist era. In agreement with Lowe's analysis that Orientalism must be regarded as multivocal and heterogeneous, a formation made up of dissimilar and non-equivalent instances, Lewis further looks for evidence of counterhegemonic voices that may contest and to varying extent transform the power relations of hegemonic discourse. She focuses on "this contradiction between the opportunities to enunciate an ‘against the grain’ vision of imperialism thrown up by the gendered ambiguities of women's positioning within imperial discourse and the ability of dominant ideological formations to (partially but never totally) recoup their transgressive representations" (3). She further claims that
    women's differential, gendered access to the positionalities of imperial discourse produced a gaze on the Orient and the Orientalized "other" that registered difference less pejoratively and less absolutely than was implied by Said's original formulation. That is, the positionings within Orientalism open to women cultural producers were always contingent on the other shifting relational terms that structured the presumed superiority of the Western Orientalist. (4)

  30. In Kristeva's case, her gendered position is the cause of her Orientalist desire and fantasy in her identification with Chinese women. As the feminized other in the Western symbolic, she is defined as nothing but a void, a lack in relation to men. Therefore, she seeks to empower herself by a fantastic identification with Chinese women. Kristeva, however, recognizes her own limitation in her representation of Chinese women, for her position within the framework of the Western symbolic language is inescapable. After her deliberate examination of Chinese women, Kristeva ironically announces the failure of her writing and enumerates what she should have written. She said that she wishes she had been able to write the faces, the bodies, the voices, the laughter of Chinese women and their families. Kristeva's frustrated desire indicates her own notion of the impossibility of writing as a woman. For Kristeva, the relation of Western women to writing is problematic. They have two alternatives: they can write with symbolic language or they will become hysterical subjects, bound to the body and its rhythms. The former makes woman complicit with the Law and requires that she identify with the phallic position, while the latter forces woman to remain an outlaw outside of politics and history. As she maintains,
    We cannot gain access to the temporal scene, i.e. to political affairs, except by identifying with the values considered to be masculine (dominance, superego, the endorsed communicative word that institutes stable social exchange) [ . . . W]e have been able to serve or overthrow the socio-historic order by playing supermen. [ . . . ] Others, more bound to the mothers, more tuned in as well to their unconscious impulses, refuse this role and hold themselves back, sullen, neither speaking nor writing, in a permanent state of expectation punctuated now and then by some kind of outburst: a cry, a refusal, an "hysterical symptom". (37)
    In other words, Kristeva suggests that in order to enter language a woman must deny her identification with the mother. If she tries to bring the maternal into the Symbolic, a woman risks death or psychosis. (41)

  31. As a woman writer, Kristeva seems to have no choice but to accept her position as already inserted into a symbolic order from which there is no escape. Indeed, Kristeva herself realizes that in order to be heard in the scene of Western politics and history, she has to assume an "ostensibly masculine, paternal identification"; that is, she must assume a male-dominated Orientalist position. Thus, while speaking as a woman, Kristeva interrogates her speaking location and acknowledges her limitation. As she admits, "To write: to symbolize, with friendship and love, and without pretending to know either the true situation of those you're writing about or the determining factor, the cause, and the trends that motivate us all. But for that one would have had to live with them, become one of them: even that might not have worked" (159). Because of her gendered position in the Western symbolic, Kristeva's acknowledgement of her limitation implies the obstacle of representing the other in the postcolonial discourse. Accordingly, she undermines not only her account of Chinese women but also the Western woman's privilege of representing and speaking for the other woman.

  32. After she acknowledges her inability to represent Chinese women, Kristeva intends to give voice to them by presenting a series of interviews with them, including mothers, intellectuals, the young, and the old. However, in contrast to Chinese women who are the spoken-for objects, Kristeva is the Western feminist assuming the privilege of an articulating subject. Although she attempts to maintain the particularity of Chinese women in modern China, Kristeva unfortunately assumes the imperialist gesture of subject constitution predicated upon the recognition of the other through the logic of the same. Toward the end, for instance, she comments on the relationship between Western women and Chinese women: "At times I feel as if the reactions are the same: the need to be legitimized by a paternal function, the impossible relationship between mother and daughter, the suicidal appeal of a polymorphic sexuality in the face of the crumbling social order: the harmony with ancient rhythms, sounds, and colours that either precedes logical abstract systems or intersects them" (196-97). Consequently, Kristeva's text reveals a tension between her need to generalize and her desire to particularize the cultural alterity of Chinese women. The conflicted nature of Kristeva's representation of Chinese women shows signs of the internal split within both imperial discourse and its imperial subject.

  33. A theory of Bhabha’s may well explain part of Kristeva's ambivalent relationship with the Chinese woman, who becomes the fetishized object of her desire. In specifying the conditions and defining features of the discourse of colonialism, Bhabha uses a psychoanalytic theory of fetishism to explain the colonialist's simultaneous recognition and refusal of cultural difference. He translates "penis" into skin/race/culture and establishes the following structure to explicate the constitutive ambiguity in the articulation of otherness. As Bhabha puts it, "fetishism is always a ‘play’ or vacillation between the archaic affirmation of wholeness/similarity -- in Freud's terms ‘All men have penises,’ in ours ‘All men have the same skin/race/culture; and the anxiety associated with lack and difference’--again, for Freud ‘Some do not have penises’; for ours ‘Some do not have the same skin/race/culture’" (27). Bhabha is interested in how fetishism retains the notion that the mother does not have a penis, but also how it is denied and is substituted for with a fetish object. For Bhabha, this belief that the mother has a substitute for the penis is always characterized by an ambiguity or ambivalence, by a tension that results from the simultaneous recognition of lack and refusal of difference. Thus, for Bhabha, fetishism maintains a fantasmatic unity and sameness in the face of contradiction and difference. As Lowe puts it, "The Chinese woman is fetished and constructed as the Other of Western psychoanalytic feminism, a transcendental exception to the overstructured bind of women in Western Europe" (158).

  34. Ultimately, in Kristeva's Orientalist fantasy China and its women merely function as objects of her desire. In the colonial relationship, the West has naturally assumed itself to have what the East lacks. For instance, Said defines Orientalism as an "epistemological and ontological distinction between the West and East." This distinction is achieved by marking the East as lacking "civil society," "individuality," or secondary structures. Consequently, the nature of the Orient is inferior to that of the West. Kristeva, however, attempts to invert such structure. She insists that China is "the erotic" that is "missing" in the Western symbolic. She says,
    For me -- having been educated in a "popular democracy," having benefitted from its advantages and been subjected to its censorship, having left it inasmuch as it is possible to leave the world of one's childhood, and probably not without bearing its "birthmarks" -- for me what seems to be "missing" in the system is, indeed, the stubborn refusal to admit that anything is missing." More concretely, the refusal to admit that social entente, inasmuch as it is possible, is sustained by desire, by eroticism. (156)

    Recognizing the lack of the Western symbolic, Kristeva turns to China as an object of her desire. Ironically, although she desires the Orient, she does not attribute desire (and therefore interior complexity) to that which she desires. As Chow claims, China is merely desired, having no wishes of its own (like women in some male fantasies): "our discourses produce a non-west that is deprived of fantasy, desires and contradictory emotions" (xiii).

  35. Kristeva is the representative of Western feminists who look for a positive identificatory model for self-definition. As they recognize themselves as other and inferior in the gendered divides of Western society, Western feminists, in order to remove their psychic malaise, tend to structure imaginary identification with Third-World women. They not only idealize the other women without taking into account cultural or racial difference, but they also ignore the power relation that is involved between self and other. As Jane Gallop suggests, "I want some ancient power that stands beyond the reaches of white male culture. I want black women as the idealized eroticized alternative to European high culture" (qtd. in duCille 610). Although identification with a woman from a different culture provides immediate access to an expanded range of possibilities for female self-definition, the unconscious fantasy and desire during the process of identification tend to make cross-cultural understanding more difficult. As Jessica Benjamin says, "To attribute difference to the other [ . . . ] even to adore or idealize that difference, is not at all the same as to respect the other subject as an equal" -- as "an equivalent center of being" (8). Idealization plucks the desirable subject out of her life context and transfers her into the idealizer's own frame of reference or into her own psychic structure.

  36. Kristeva's imaginary identification with Chinese women is contingent and contested since such identification involves a degree of symbolic violence, a measure of temporary mastery and possession. In Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies, Rey Chow analyzes the violent fantasies of displacement that underlie our nostalgic identifications with cultural others -- fantasy idealizations that enact imaginary usurpations. "Our fascination with the native, the oppressed, the savage, all such figures," Chow writes, masks "a desire to hold onto an unchanging certainty somewhere outside our own ‘fake’ experience. It is a desire for being ‘non-duped,’ which is a not-too-innocent desire to seize control" (53). Doris Sommer refers to this problem as the "presumption of identification" -- overly sentimental or self-indulgent identifications that can amount to "appropriation in the guise of an embrace" (543). For Sommer, the "risk of identification" may not always be worth the taking; in fact, identification, and the symbolic violence it can wield, poses the very trap to be avoided in the already perilous process of forging political alliances across identities. In her analysis of the colonial relation between self and other, Diana Fuss also points out that "identification is neither a historically universal concept nor a politically innocent one." Instead, "identification [ . . .] is an imperial process, a form of violent appropriation in which the Other is deposed and assimilated into the lordly domain of Self" (23).

  37. Undoubtedly, in her account of her journey to China Kristeva was affected by Orientalist ideology and involved in postcolonial relations. In the introductory chapter "Who is Speaking?" she acknowledges that her position is discursively overdetermined by "universalist humanism, proletarian brotherhood, and (why not?) false colonial civility" (13). Throughout the text she both consciously and unconsciously affirms the West's previous knowledge and representations about the nature of Chinese women and culture. Although at the beginning of the book Kristeva claims, "I think that one of the functions -- if not the most important function -- of the Chinese Revolution today is to introduce this breach (‘there are others’) into our universalist conceptions of Man and History" (12), she still intends to engage an enlightenment project by representing the "unknown" and "invisible" domain of the Orient to the West. At other times, she has to acknowledge that China can only be readable through the Western lens. As she attempts to analyze hundreds of cases of suicide among young female revolutionaries, Kristeva admits, "[I]t is impossible for me to go any further in such a psychological hypothesis without projecting onto it the Western vision" (109). Ultimately, the dynamics of imperial discourse could not but enter and structure her work -- even if her relationship to some imperialist ideologies was self-consciously oppositional.

  38. Kristeva's journey to China is a quest for reconstructing Western female subjectivity, but ironically the process of subject constituting turns out still to rely on the axiomatics of imperialism. As Said suggests, "Orientalism" has less to do with the Orient than it does with "our world" (12). Although Kristeva's effort to construct an imaginary for Western women is rooted in the embodiment of the other women -- a kind of subjectivity in which the other is recognized rather than denied -- and although she tries to reverse the role of Third-World women, turning the inferior other into positive other, these moves cannot prevent her from exercising the imperialist act of subject constitution. Although she is aware of the danger of ethnocentrism in her analysis of Chinese culture and women, she tends to leave the terms of West/East polarities intact, and turns Chinese women into objects of her desire. When she structures an imaginary identification with Chinese women, Kristeva tends to risk reducing them to an undifferentiated whole to cloud their actual difference -- their complexity and contradictions -- as multi-faceted human beings. Her generalizations about Chinese women often take neither ethnic nor regional differences into account. Consequently, her gendered and social identity could not but be shaped by the imperial discourse of her day. In Kristeva's representation of Chinese women we may detect the limitation of the gender-specific access that Western women have to the enunciative positions of postcolonial discourse.


    [I am grateful to Professor James Mellard for his careful readings of the draft of this paper.]

  1. While book reviewers point out its "textual contradictions and factual inaccuracies," recent scholars such as Toril Moi and Kelly Oliver, following Spivak's critique of Kristeva's ethnocentrism, either question the credibility of her analysis of Chinese culture or dismiss the book as "one of Kristeva's ‘lesser’ works." As editor of The Kristeva Reader, Moi did not include any passages from About Chinese Women. Oliver, in Reading Kristeva, the first book-length analysis of Kristeva's writings, similarly omits extensive references to About Chinese Women, which she judges to be a "most questionable and often offensive text" (7). Back

  2. The concept of fantasy is crucial in Lacan's account of sexual relationship: Jacqueline Rose shows that it is at the level of fantasy that man achieves his identity and wholeness: "the idea of a complete and assured sexual identity belongs in the realm of fantasy," and "the man places the woman at the basis of his fantasy, or constitutes fantasy through woman" by transposing object a onto the image of woman, who then acts as its guarantee (47-48). Back

  3. For Fanon, the metaphors of seeing or looking not only constitute the imperialist as the privileging, observing subject but also locates the colonial other as the object of fascination and fixation. See Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Back

  4. Lisa Lowe has also noted that Kristeva uses conditional verb tenses to invoke this ancient Chinese matrilinear system. She further points out that the invented matrilinear-matrilocal society is "an imaginary, and therefore untextualized, Other "(155). Back

  5. For discussion on the intersection between feminism and imperialism, see Laura E. Donaldson’s Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender and Empire-Building, and Jenny Sharpe’s Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text . Back

Works Cited

Benjamin, Jessica. Like Subjects, Love Objects. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Bhabha, Homi. "The Other Question: The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse." Screen 24 (1983): 312-31.

Chaudhuri, Nupur, and Margaret Strobel. Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992.

Chow, Rey. Woman and Chinese Modernity: the Politics of Reading Between West and East. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

---. Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1993.

Donaldson, Laura E. Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender and Empire-Building. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992.

duCille, Ann. "The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminist Studies." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 19.3 (1994): 591-629.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1967. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1991.

Fuss, Diana. "Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification." Diacritics 24 (1994): 20-42.

Gallop, Jane. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter's Seduction. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hattori, Tomo. "Psycholinguistic Orientalism in Criticism of The Woman Warrior and Obasan." Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1998. 119-38.

Kristeva, Julia. About Chinese Women. Trans. Anita Barrows. New York: Marion Boyars, 1986.

---. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Lewis, Reina. Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity and Representation. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Lowe, Lisa. Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

---. "Des Chinoises: Orientalism, Psychoanalysis, and Feminine Writing." Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva's Writing. Ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: Routledge, 1993. 150-63.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. 51-80.

Moi, Toril. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva: Unreveling the Double-Bind. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Payne, Michael. Reading Theory: An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida, and Kristeva. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Rose, Jacqueline. Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London: Verso, 1986.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

Sharpe, Jenny. Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Sommer, Doris. "Resistant Texts and Incompetent Readers." Poetics Today 15 (1994): 524-51.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "French Feminism in an International Frame." Yale French Studies 62 (1981): 154-84.

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