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Women Writers of Malaysian Chinese Literature - article ; n°1 ; vol.24, pg 205-234


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31 Pages


Archipel - Année 1982 - Volume 24 - Numéro 1 - Pages 205-234
30 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1982
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Yu Wang Luen
Women Writers of Malaysian Chinese Literature
In: Archipel. Volume 24, 1982. pp. 205-234.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Wang Luen Yu. Women Writers of Malaysian Chinese Literature. In: Archipel. Volume 24, 1982. pp. 205-234.
doi : 10.3406/arch.1982.1779
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/arch_0044-8613_1982_num_24_1_1779WOMEN WRITERS OF MALAYSIAN CHINESE LITERATURE
by YU Wang Luen
In the past twenty years or so, we have seen an interesting change
in the society- of Malaysia — certain fields of careers and social activities
that were virtually monopolized by men previously, are being gradually
penetrated by women. The participation of Chinese women in literary
activities may be taken as an example to illustrate such ^. phenomenon.
Women are still the minority in this field, but definitely not negligible
any more. And, in certain cases, they have shown- themselves to be as
capable as men.
Since the debut of Malayan Chinese literature in early 1920's till
1974, covering a period of over 50 years, not more than 10 Chinese
women had had their literary works published in book form in Malaysia
and Singapore. In ithe past five years, 15 literary books by 15 Malaysian
Chinese women have been published (x). Although 'the quantity of their
works is very small, as compared with the hundreds of literary books
produced by men, they have none the less shown impressive progress.
What is more significant is the emergence of several very talented young
women writers who together . with a. large number of novices, have
formed a notable force in Chinese literary circle (2). Their works are
seen more and more frequently in magazines and newspaper
(1) See table II.
(2) See I. 206
supplements. If they are still behind the male writers in quantity and
quality of their works, (they have surely demonstrated their potentiality
to catch up.
A special feature of the literary writings of Malaysian Chinese
women is manifested in the common themes of their fictions. With few
exceptions, their fictions tell the stories of the hard lot of a woman's
life: in childhood she was ignored by seniors of the family. She had
much less chance to receive normal education than her brothers. Her
love affair and marriage life were miserable. She would either lose her
virginity to a philanderer through ignorance and suffer the consequence,
or be married to an irresponsible and unfaithful man, or find herself
situated in an old fashioned family suffering indignity and toiling day and
night. Even in old age, she was not better off. Her children whom she
had reared with love and care, would have now climbed to a higher
socio-economic level, and slight and desert her.
It seems as if such grievances were preying on the minds of the
writers themselves. They generally attributed the sufferings^ of women
lo the traditions that deny the rights of women.
Based on a research into the backgrounds of some 50 women writers,
it was found that they might be taken as a fair sampling of the common
Malaysian Chinese women. Their education range from primary school
leavens — to holders of M.A. Degree. Their occupations include lec
turers, school teachers, journalists, secretaries, clerks, labourers, stu
dents and housewives. Their ages differ from early 20's to late 50's.
They represent both urban and rural people.
From their literary works there are evidences which indicate that
women are no longer contented with their lot of life. They begin to
grumble at the tradition that discriminates against women. demand
greater liberty and chance to pursue their careers. In view of this, I am
paying more attention to the themes of their writings rather than their
contribution towards literary achievement. After giving a brief account
of the development of Malaysian Chinese literature in general, and
women's part in it in particular, the contents of some of the latest publi
shed fictions by women writers will be discussed in order to discover
their common feelings in a society which still discriminates against
The Writers of Malaysian Chinese Literature
In early 1920's some Chinese literary writings in» colloquial style,
known as the modern Chinese literature, began to appear in newspaper 207
supplements in Singapore and Malaya (3). They were the works of some
Chinese intellectuals, who, being influenced by political situation in China,
came to seek refuge here. They had no intention to stay here permanently.
Their writings mostly dwelt with Chinese national and social affairs.
Such a state continued until the outbreak of the Pacific War, when
literary writings came to a standstill. The literary works produced prior
to the war might not be regarded as Malay literature in toto because of
the motive and the purpose they served.
Nevertheless, the efforts initiated by these writers set the spirit of
Malaysian Chinese literature.
The advent of peace &lso saw the arrival of some newcomers from
Hong Kong and mainland China. They soon saw a future in the new
land and readily discarded their nostalgia for China. The willingness of
the immigrants as well as the newcomers -to settle down here for good
can be clearly seen in their writings. Coupled with this, the new generat
ion of the local community was greatly stimulated to participate in
literary endeavour. They became tremendously enthusiastic in their
writing; their output soon surpassed that of ithe migrated writers (4).
Like any other literary world, writers of Malaysian Chinese literature
were divided into many school's by different literary ideologies; From the
very beginning, the majority of the Chinese writers had inherited the
ideology of "proletarian realism", subscribing to the view that literature
was a tool for social reform. In their writings, they manifested their
thoughts through emphasis on describing the darker side of society, espe
cially the hard life led by the labour class. They passed bitter criticism on
elegant style of writings and advocated literary simplicity. This school
of writers had dominated the Chinese circle until recent years
when the confrontation relaxed. In the past ten years or so, the Chinese
literary circle seems to have been in a state of "detente". There were
still quarrel's, of course, especially between the writers of the 'realist'
(3) Fang Xiu, "A Draft of History of Modern Malayan Chinese literature" Vol I,
Singapore 1962, p.2. This study by Fang Xiu has been recently translated into
English by Angus W. McDonald. Jr. : Notes on the History of Malayan Chinese
New Literature 1920-1942, Tokyo, The Centre for East Asian Cultmarl Studies,
1977. 352 p.. index ; see the review in Archipel 19, 1980, pp. 291-294.
(*) Yu Wang Luen. "The Development of Malayan Chinese Literature", M;A. Thesis,
Universiti Malaya. 1967, p. 98. 208
school and those of the 'modern' school (5). But the atmosphere has
changed to such an extent that each is able to devote to its own
line of pursuit. As a result, distinct advance is shown in their respective
styles of writings.
The Chinese Women Writers
In the early stage, Chinese literature in Malaya was monopolized
by men. Few women had ever participated in the creative activities. In
his "A Draft of History of Modern Malayan Chinese Literature", Fang
Xiu ihas introduced the names of some 180 writers who were active
during the years of 1920 to 1942 (6)^ All of them were males except one
by the name of Ying Zi, whom he described as the sole poetess of that
period (7). •
Miao Xiu has, however, made some special reference to another
woman writer, Madam L.S., whom he. regards as the -most famous writer in the early stage in his "Historical Records of Malayan
Chinese Modern Literature". According to him, Madam L.S. had regu
larly made contributions to a newspaper supplement called Huang dao,
"Deserted Island" during 1927-1929 (8). It is interesting to note that she
had shown much concern about women's social status in her writings.
She asserted that it was due to the biased system that woman had
become mere dependent of man.
She cited instances to show that even education would not help a
woman to decide her own fate : M.G. was married off to a dying man
by her parents who believed that the ceremony might help exhausting
the noxious influences and save the man's life. However she became a
(5) For examples, see :
1. Zhang Literature" Qi. Vol. 'A Glance VIII, edited at the by Post-War Zhao Rong, Development Singapore of 1975, Malayan p. 85. Chinese
2. Bernard Woon Swee-Tin "An, Anthology of Poems by Malaysian
Poets", Biéur, Perak, Malaysia, 1974, pp. 304-305.
3. Chao Foon Monthly, Kuala Lumpur. Issue 131. (1963).
4. Wong Meng Wen 'Hundreds Flowers Bloom' in Nanyang Siang Pau,- 'Readers'
Literature', 19 November 1978.
(«) Fang X.u, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 220-298, VoT. II. (1963) pp. 61-120, Vol. 111.(1965)
pp. 71-201.
(7) Ibib Vol. Ill, p. 153.
(8) Miao Xiu "Historical Records of Malayan Chinese Modem Literature" Singapore
1968, p- 118. 209
widow after a few days. D.F. was now living under oppression of her
parents-in-law. Her husband had no love for her, and abandoned her one
week after the wedding (9).
Madam L.S. was indeed a pioneer who chose such a theme in writings.
In some "anthologies of Malaysian and Singapore Chinese literature,
we may find more names of writers of that period. But it is rather
unreliable to distinguish the writer's sex from their pen-names. At least
I know of a few male writers whose pen-names are quite feminine.
However, it is quite obvious that during the early stage, women
seldom participated in literary writings.
The first literary book written by a Malaysian Chinese woman ever
published was a fiction entitled "Love in Life and Death" by Zhi Qing.
It was published by Nanfang Evening Press in 1951. Since then till 1965
only two more literary works by women were published. They were
indeed, but a trifle among hundreds of Chinese literary books published
during that period. It is therefore, self-evident that women were inactive
in literary works before 1965.
Since 1966, more and more women have joined in literary, writings.
Their articles were seen frequently in literary and comprehensive
magazines, as well as in newspaper supplements. Between the years of
1966 and 1974 women's literary works were published at a rate of ap
proximately one book per year. But it was only after 1974 when women's
participation in literary works began to show some intensity.
In the past five years, 15 literary works written by 15 Malaysian
Chinese women have been published — seven fiction, two poetry, five
essay, and one drama. In addition, six books of collective literary writings
containing women's works were also published during the same period.
Women's literary writings are seen more frequently in magazines and
newspaper supplements too. Both the two largest Chinese newspaper,
Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh, are now providing special
columns for women's works. Their literary works though still small in
quantity, have drawn great attention.
But what impressed us more is the quality rather than the quantity
of their works. I am not refering to the established writers like Cui Yuan
(9) Madam L.S. *What is the Social Status of Women, in Southeast Asia', in. 'De
serted Island' 24, and 'Only a Short Time Ago', in 'Deserted1 Island 26. See
Miao Xiu, op. cit. p. 136. 210
and Dan Ying but to the younger outstanding women writers emerged in
the past few years. Some of them are quite conspicuous for their talents,
such as Shang Wan Yun (fiction), Mei Shu Zhen (poetry), Fang E Zhen
(essay), Zi Xi (fiction), Ning Xiu (fiction), Yu Qing (fiction) and Rong
Zi (essay). There are also many young women writers who, though
being novices, have also shown great potentialities (see table I) .
The Publications of Malaysian Chinese Literature
Before the Pacific War, Newspaper supplements were the main
outlet for publication of Chinese literature. Some 70 literary supplements
of 13 major newspapers had been published between 1920 and 1945 (30).
Many of them lasted a long time, and quite a few of them appeared
daily. Strangely enough, very few literary books and magazines were
published during the same period. Less than ten literary magazines
had ever appeared, and each of them had a short life span — two of
them had only one issue each and the longest one lasted eight months
with seven issues (n). A few fictions were published in book form
during 1934 — 1936, i.e. "Bread, etc" by Wang Ge Kong (1934) "Baba
and Nona" and "Decadence" by Qiu Shi-Zhen (1934), and ''Thick Smo
ke" by Lin Can-Tian (1936).
The themes of the literary works produced in this period were
mostly concerned with Chinese national affairs, or rallying the overseas
Chinese to the support of their fatherland in its war efforts. It is parly
due to this fact that the two fictions Nong yan or "Thick Smoke" and Baba
yu Nyonya or "Baba and Nyonya" are particularly held in high esteem by
literary critics. Both are narratives about Malayan Chinese social affairs.
The general standard of the writings of that period was not very
high. Some contemporary writers had later become celebrated writers,
but at that time most of them were still young in age and immature in
skill. Moreover they generally held the opinion that literary writings
should be simple and pl'ain. Few of them really cared about the style of
Since the armistice in 1945, an essential change of attitude had taken
place among the Chinese writers, as was clearly reflected in their
writings. They began to direct their attentions to the local affairs. Some
fictions published shortly after the War had shown very strong local
(10) Yu Wang Luen, op. cit. 25, 37-38.
<») ibid. pp. 26-27, 38. 211
colour, such as "Under the Roof of Singapore", by Miao Xiu (1945),
had tried to use local Chinese dialects in their writings. The nucleus of
the contemporary writers had started a movement to advocate the
"Uniqueness of Malayan Chinese Literature", which term was inter
preted by Fang Xiu as "Besides laying special emphasis on the 'now
and here' concept of Malaya, projecting the image of its unique society
and typical people, it also shows the viewpoint and attitude of the
writer, that is to say : The writer should write from the standpoint of
a member of Malayan nation, abandoning the sojourn consciousness" (12).
After the War, the role played by newspaper supplements in publica
tion of Chinese literary works had abased considerably. The leading role
seemed to have been taken over by literary books. From 1946 to date,
more than 1000 Chinese literary books have been published (13).
There were also many literary magazines published throughout the
years. During the years of 1953-1965, no less than 47 literary magazines
had been published in Malaya and Singapore (14). The average life span
of them was, however, short as usual. It is estimated that, on the average,
there were about six to seven literary magazines in circulation each
year with a total number of some 53 issues. However, that was already
an improvement as compared with the quantity of literairy magazines
produced* in the preceding period. During the years 1945-1952, only
eleven literary magazines were published with a total of 60 odd issues,
an average of less than eight issues per year (15).
The only literary magazine that enjoys a long life is ''Chao Foon"
which has a history of 23 years and 308 issues to date, and is still in
In 1965, Singapore broke away from Malaysia. Until then Chinese
literary works produced in Malaysia and Singapore were integrated and
known as "Ma Hua literature" or "Malayan Chinese literature". Now
(12) Se Fang Xiu "The Uniqueness of Malayan Chinese Literature", in 'The Origin
and Development of Malayan Chinese Literature", Chinese language Society.
Nanyang University, Singapore. 1964, pp. 40, 42.
(13) See the Preface in Goh Thean Chye "Modern Chinese Littrature in Malaysia
and Singapore, A Classified Bibliography of Books in Chinese", Kuala Lumpur,
(14) "A Comprehensive Anthology of Singapore and Malayan Chinese literature"
compiled by the Singapore Island Society, Singapore. Vol. VIII. by Zhao Rong.
1975, pp. 301-302-
('•"•) ibid. pp. 300-301. 212
bath Literature" ithe two are terms recognized "Malaysian by people. Literature" But most and of the "Singapore people still Chinese think
they are indistinguishable and few have tried to separate them. This is
clearly demonstrated in the contents of the two bibliographies published
respectively in Singapore and Malaysia lately :
A Comprehensive Anthology of Singapore and Malayan Chinese
Literature Volume 8 — (Historical Data), by Zhao Rong, 1975 (16).
Modern Chinese Literature in Malaysia and Singapore, A classified
Bibliography of Books in Chinese by Goh Then Chye, 1975 (17).
In both these two compilations, Chinese literary works as well as the
writers of the two countries are mixed together.
However, with the political separation and the emergence of on
independent mass media in each country, the separation of the Chinese
literature of these two countries became inevitable. Hence in this paper
when reference is made to literature works after 1965, I shall limit them
to those produced by Malaysians alone.
The situation of the publication of literary magazines in Malaysia
after 1965 maintained as usual. Two literary magazines and four compre
hensive magazines that carry literary works are now in circulation.
These, together with the newspaper supplements, are the outlets for
local Chinese writings (see table II). Occasionally books are published
from time to time.
Chinese literary works have never been a profit making trade in
Malaysia or Singapore. Publishers publish them only occasionally for
cultural cause. In most cases, the writers have to rely on their own
means to have their works published, and that could be very expensive.
Besides, they have to put in a lot of time and efforts to promote the
sale before the books can reach any potential readers, as Chinese literary
books have never been distributed natron wide by book sellers. For
instance, I had to visit many book stores and rely on assistance of friends
in the circle before I could collect a copy of each of the few women's
literary works published in the past two years. In view of this, the
publication of more than 1,000 literary books is indeed an admirable
(!6) ibid. pp. 443-609.
(17) Goh Thean Chye, op. cit. 213
Lately it is gratifying to note that many Chinese guilds and clan
associations have come forward to lend a helping hand to those who
have an urge to publish. Among those which establish "Academic and
Literary Publication Fund" are :
1. Selangor Teo Chew Pooi Ip Huay Kuan.
2. The Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall.
3. Literature Study Association in Southern Malaysia.
4. Federation of Hokkien Associations, Malaysia.
5. Johore Bahru Chinese Association.
6. Malaysian Chinese Cultural Society.
7. Taiwan Universities Alumni Association, Malaysia.
The Publications of Women's Literary Works :
The Literary works done by Chinese women before 1965 were
negligible. Their occasional appearance was on any account but a token
Since 1966, Chinese women have shown a greater interest in literary
works, and in the past four years they have evidently quickened their
pace. This can be reflected by the lists of publications of their works
(see tables III & IV).
The quality of their writings differs widely. It is quite natural as
some of the writers are talented and well established, while others are
novices. But in general their works are in no way inferior to that of male
As the younger writers were all born and bred locally, their mind
and thoughtls are centred on Malaysia — its people and its land. Their
writings have truly fulfiled (the expectations to project the image of the
people and limitation of the projection to Malaysian Chinese communities •
in many of the ethnic groups. It is, therefore, a good sign to see some
of the writers halve begun to show concern over the affairs of Malays
and Indians as well — their manners of living, their feelings and their
The following are some examples of such writings :
Morning, by Rong Zi (18) .
" Downstairs the Malay youth Ali is washing the cars again. He
has used bucket and bucket of water to wash the cars clean. I ask Ali :
(18) In "The World on Saturday" by Rong Zi. Singapore, 1977. pp. 53-54.