Chinese Literature Essay

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Female Agency in Short Stories

There are numerous points of similarity between Eileen Chang's "Shame, Amah!" and Wang Anyi's "Granny". Both stories depict the lives of Chinese domestic workers. Moreover, each tale is set during the same time period -- the years surrounding the Second World War. Furthermore, both of the authors are Chinese and display a marked affinity for the intimate details surrounding Chinese culture, which factors prominently in each respective tale. Still, there is a distinct point of differentiation in these works when it comes to the notion of female agency, and how it is displayed in each piece. It is significant that female agency factors into each of these tales. However, "Granny" is largely a story about a somewhat unconventional matriarch who is able to become the provider for a host of people. The concept of female agency in Chang's piece is centered around conventional notions of masculinity and the attendant gender issues found in a society which is largely patriarchal. Thus, female agency is expressed in unconventional ways in "Granny", while the prevalence of male dominance in "Shame Allah" yields to stereotypical expressions of female agency as being subservient to that of men.

This thesis is readily evinced in even a cursory perusal of both of these works, as it becomes immediately apparent that the titular character Granny is endowed with a substantial amount of female agency of which the protagonist in "Shame, Allah!", Granny's counterpart, is decidedly bereft. Possibly the most critical distinction between these two characters as revealed in these tales involves the presence, and lack thereof, of men and their effect on these respective domestic workers. Granny lives a life in which she is able to work on her own and take care of numerous other people all without involving a man, which the following quotation proves. "Most had been widowed while still young, or were married to shiftless or preposterous husbands and had yet to bear a son. Such was the case with Granny. Bereft of family support, they were forced to be self-reliant" (Anyi 34). This passage is pivotal to Granny's characterization, and emblematic of her own agency as well. The author states Granny consistently relies on her self, in part because of the lack of a dominant male presence in her life. She is not married and does not have a son to provide for her. This sort of female agency is demonstrative of a strong, assertive power which characterizes not only Granny, but other Nannies as well. Such independent agency for women is not found in Chang's work.

Instead, female agency is expressed in "Shame Allah" almost exclusively as it exists in relation to men. Ah Nee, the story's protagonist who is a domestic worker, is primarily dependent upon her male master for her lot in life. She derives her income from him, and requires his largess to largely survive in life. She also has another male figure in her life who serves as a husband, so that she is far from independent. Regardless, her dependency on her male employer does not permit the sort of autonomous agency which Granny has. Instead, Ah Nee requires her master, his wealth, and his material resources to provide for what she needs in life. Thus, she demonstrates agency in a way which is predicated on her ability to get what she wants from a man (her master). The author states Ah Nee "Never stole tea except when her husband came" (Chang 105). This quotation signifies a different sort of agency than that illustrated in "Granny". The sort of power Ah Nee is able to exercise is firstly predicated on her master's material possessions -- in this case, his tea. Furthermore, her behavior is decidedly devious as she actually commits a social transgression in the form of theft. There are no such indiscretions on the part of Granny, who is able to assert her agency in a much more positive manner.
Nonetheless, because Ah Nee is dependent upon her master for so much, she is only able to exercise her agency both in relation to him and in a much less positive way.

In general, there is a dependent attribute for the female agency found in "Shame Amah" which is conspicuously aspect in "Granny". As previously mentioned, Ah Nee's agency is only notable as it exists in relation to her master. However, there are other female characters who demonstrate agency in this same way -- in relation to a quintessentially domineering, male character Master. Master's characterization is significant for a couple of different reasons. Firstly he is a European living in Asia, which signifies a salience of social status readily underscored by his wealth (which is discerned by the reader by the fact that he employs Ah Nee as a domestic. Secondly, he is a bachelor who has myriad women vying for his attention, if not his affections. This second point is of paramount importance because it creates a situation in which these female characters can simply exercise agency in relation to this strong, rich, single foreigner. This fact is readily apparent when Ah Nee reflects about one of his many female romantic interests that "the new one must be a capable girl if she could make him spend money on her" (Chang 111).

The diction of this passage speaks volumes about the theme of female agency in this particular piece. There is a direct correlation between such agency and Master's wealth. In her rumination, Ah Nee measures how "capable" or worthy Master's romantic interest by how much money he spends on her. Although the amount is not necessarily quantified in this quotation, Ah Nee is suitably impressed that her master would spend any of his money on a woman. Another critical facet of the diction in this passage is the fact that Ah Nee thinks of this other woman as a "girl". Such word choice has connotations of subservience, which are aligned with the male dominance which Master represents as a wealthy European foreigner among non-Western people. As such, it is truly significant that the way agency is demonstrated by this woman is in getting Master to take her out and pay for that experience. There are some women he has who he does not bother to take out -- and whom he is conceivably spending much less money on than on the one he is taking out. Again, there is a direct correlation between female agency and dependence on a male found in this passage and in this work as a whole. The ultimate expression of female agency demonstrated in this book is measured in terms of attention and financial endowments Master is willing to give.

On the contrary, Granny demonstrates a considerable amount of independent female agency. In fact, she evidences the sort of female agency that is curious bereft in Chang's piece. Granny has no domineering male figure in her life; the preceding quotations from this book suggests that not many other women in the story did either. Nonetheless, despite the presence of a man to offer either the financial or physical support which Master provides to many women in Chang's tale, Granny is able to support a host of other character's in Anyi's short story about which the narrator remarks, "How many people she carried on her back! Her daughter told her that her future husband wanted to attend….....

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Works Cited

Anyi, Wang. "Granny". 462-469. 2000. Print.

Chang, Eileen. "Shame, Amah!" in Eight Stories by Chinese Women. Ed. Nieh Hua-ling. Taipei: The Heritage Press. 1962. pp. 91-114

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