Critical Reception of African-American Women Writers in Mainland China


[By: Lili Wang]

With widespread interest in Western literature in the early 1980s, Chinese literary scholars began to actively engage American writers, giving rise to a boom in the translation of American literature. This boom also generated a reciprocal relationship between African-American women writers and China. The introduction of African-American women writers and the translation of their works soon became a central component of Chinese literary criticism, resulting in a significant body of work, both books and articles. Currently, literary criticism on African-American women writers represents a major branch of American literature studies in mainland China.

If the number of articles published in Chinese journals gives any indication, the critical reception of African-American women writers in China is intensely focused on Toni Morrison. A recent search in the Chinese Academic Journals database (CAJ), a comprehensive collection of academic articles published in China, reported 2052 articles on Morrison in contrast to 134 articles on Zora Neale Hurston, 130 articles on Maya Angelou, 118 articles on Alice Walker; and few to none on other African-American women writers. Likewise, more than twenty books on Morrison’s works have appeared, 3 about Alice Walker’s womanism, and only one has been published on Hurston’s folklore. A similar search from the National Library of China shows no books published on Angelou or other women writers by Chinese scholars. Each of Morrison’s novels has been translated into Chinese, including her latest: God Help the Child (2015). It is understandable that compared with Morrison, other African-American women writers have received less attention and perhaps are even less known in China. Only a few novels written by other writers have been translated into Chinese, such as Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), The Color Purple (1982), By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). This suggests that Chinese critics can and should extend their research scope by approaching more African-American women writers, using the introduction of Toni Morrison and her works to China as a gateway. Until that expansion occurs, Chinese scholarship on African-American women writers will remain limited

One of the first studies of Morrison appeared in the leading Chinese journal Dushu in November, 1981. In this article, Dingshan Dong briefly introduced Morrison’s three novels Sula (1973), Tar Baby (1981) and Song of Solomon (1977). In the decade following, a few more articles introduced her other novels, giving special attention to her literary themes. This focus persisted even as other African-American women writers such as Zora Neale Huston and Alice Walker were introduced to Chinese readers. The period between the early 1980s and early 1990s is considered the first stage of African-American women writers’ literary criticism characterized by brief biographical introductions of and considerations of their major works with some translation of excerpts into Chinese. Chinese scholars typically showed an appraisal of these works in the prefaces and forewords that accompanied their translations; this early period proceeded without the practice of bibliographic citations typical of traditional American literary scholarship. 

Chinese criticism of African-American women writers underwent a shift in 1994 after Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize. Chinese scholars who tended to focus on the relationship between an author’s biography and the literary themes in the works shifted in focus into two trends, both Morrison-centric: one offered more information about Morrison with the goal of increasing the Chinese readership, and the other explored her unique writing style, her critical ideas, her cultural background and the intersection of these elements. The energy in these new approaches and resulting trends represented a second stage in the critical reception of Morrison scholarship in China.

The publication of Gender, Race and Culture: A Study of Toni Morrison’s Novels (1999, 2004) written by Shouren Wang and Xinyun Wu, respectively marked a milestone in the development of Chinese literary criticism. Wang and Wu, leading scholars of Morrison studies in China, established a new way of interpreting her novels characterized by a close reading with reference to specific theoretical perspectives. In addition to the more popular feminist criticism, Chinese scholars began to apply cultural criticism, post-colonialism, deconstruction, post-modernism, psychoanalysis, trauma theory, narrative theory and other approaches to reading Morrison’s fiction. Interest in comparative studies of Morrison in relation to her contemporaries like Walker and to her predecessors like Hurston and Faulkner became more visible. These insightful studies on Morrison show that Chinese scholars have promoted Toni Morrison and to a lesser extent other African-American women writers in China. Morrison’s acclaim in China reflects a prominence that may soon be transferred to future studies of other African American women writers.

There are challenges to transferring interest and expanding the critical reception of other African-American women writers in China. First, Morrison’s fiction is over discussed, necessarily leading to repetitive approaches and theoretical perspectives. Second, and most obviously, too much attention on Morrison results in the neglect of other African-American women writers, most of whom have yet to be introduced to readers. Finally, the limitation in overall criticism on contemporary writers makes it especially hard for Chinese scholars to do this work or find it appealing. However, simple solutions exist to address these challenges. Literary critics should continue to publish books and articles about African-American women writers, introducing diverse, fresh, and unique perspectives and theoretical approaches. More African American women writers need to be translated and introduced to Chinese readers, the result of which helps to create a demand for a broader range of literary criticism. These quite obvious steps can begin to establish a more consistent, inclusive, and systematic study of African-American women writers in mainland China.


Lili Wang is an associate professor in Foreign Languages Department at Harbin Engineering University, China and a visiting scholar in English at the University of Kansas who focuses on African-American women literature.