Lee Kuei-Yun, Associate Professor, Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Tsing Hua University
Zhou Fenling calls herself a miniaturist – she excels at writing about the people and events of her everyday life, and is celebrated for her detailed explorations of women’s psychology. “Soul of Clothing,” an essay on female apparel, is actually a meditation on the existential problems of womanhood. A first-person narrator makes the theme clear from the outset, announcing that “the wardrobe is a family battleground.” Newly married, the narrator’s tiny wardrobe is stuffed with clothing, the confined space echoing the lack of freedom in her own life at the time. To make room she relies on “guerrilla tactics,” searching for any crack or crevice into which to hide her outfits. She is forced to make similar adjustments in her married life as well, ultimately settling into a dreary and forlorn existence as the independence she enjoyed in her single life comes under attack: “my dresses, once dazzling and awe-inspiring, had had all the elegance squeezed out of them; what remained was an empty existence.” Sympathizing with the young wife’s plight, the narrator’s mother provides her daughter with furniture and other goods in an attempt to help her “claim a base” of her own and reclaim her rights as an individual. Finally, however, the narrator succumbs to the pressures of the traditional family model, assuming the role of subservient wife and daughter-in-law.
Despite the constricting environment in which she lives, the narrator initially finds emotional consolation in her life as a newlywed, relying on her husband’s love, her newborn son, and her writing to relieve the claustrophobia of domestic existence. In this phase she still loves to dress beautifully, managing to keep several articles of gorgeous – though out of fashion – clothing in her crowded wardrobe. Her favorite piece is a black embroidered dress with a plunging neckline. Because it is similar to one that the American poet Emily Dickinson once wore, the narrator imagines that the dress has a soul and that by wearing it she can commune with Dickinson’s spirit. Later, no longer able to bear the power struggle inherent in her marriage, she chooses to live alone, returning to a “clean, simple” way of life. It is then that she discovers her previous love of “overdressing” was in fact a misreading of her own nature: “Beautiful clothing is only a temporary disguise.” What she really wants is to be a “wanderer” and a “rebel,” no longer restricted by the confines of her wardrobe.
In her essay Zhou uses war as a metaphor, employing terms such as “occupy,” “fall into enemy hands,” “counterattack” and “win and lose” as analogies for women’s struggles for power within the confines of marriage. For the writer, clothes are a personification of female wants and desires: the wardrobe is a home, a refuge; the beauty of a woman’s clothing corresponds to her psychological need for attention; clothing symbolizes a feminine yearning for freedom and spiritual liberation, an implication that what women seek is much more than just a “wardrobe.” “The Soul of Clothing” is at once a self-analysis and a decisive call to women trapped in suffocating marriages, urging them to forsake their wardrobes, abandon their obsession with beautiful attire, and move toward true independence of spirit.
A native of Pingtung, Zhou Fenling (b. 1955) used to write under the pen name Shen Jing, but now publishes using her real name. She holds a Master’s degree in Chinese literature from Tunghai University and has been writing continuously since her college days. Her novels and essays have won numerous literary awards, and her 1992 Stars on a Blue Skirt, a novel for young adults, was made into a popular TV serial. In 1995 she began collecting material for a women’s oral history that was published in 1997 as Angry Doves. In 2010 she was awarded the National Museum of Taiwan Literature’s prestigious Taiwan Literature Award for her essays. She currently teaches writing at Tunghai University’s Department of Chinese Literature.
Zhou Fenling has published numerous essay collections and works of fiction. She is also a theater founder, director and scriptwriter. Scholar Li Qiyun has written: “She uses writing to construct a corner, inspect wounds, illuminate shadows, keeping a perfect distance from the world – you can enter, you can leave. That tiny little spot is scorching hot…although her prose is clear and cold as glass, it is molded under extremely high temperatures.”
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=7642
|Work(English)：||Soul of Clothing|
|Anthology：||Taiwan Literature: English Translation Series（《台灣文學英譯叢刊 》）|
|Translator：||林麗君（Sylvia Li-chun Lin）|
|Publisher：||Forum for the Study of World Literatures in Chinese, University of California, Santa Barbara|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.chiuko.com.tw|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|Chiu Ko Publishing Co. Ltd.|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://paper-republic.org/publishers/taiwan-literature-english-translation-series/|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：|