Feminism, feminist theory, feminist literary theory were already highly contentious in what they represented to Euro-American critics and theorists in the 1980s, when scholars in Chinese literary studies began sustained research on women writers in late imperial China (ca. 1600–1911). Their research drew on developments in Western feminist theories while problematizing certain applications. In this article, I review major debates in 1980s and 1990s Western feminist literary theory, divided by the different approaches of Anglo-American and French feminist critics and gender studies, examining why specific arguments on women and language, genres studied, and theoretical underpinnings did not hold significant relevance to the study of similar issues when applied to women's writing in pre-twentieth-century China. Yet certain concepts were highly fruitful in critical analysis. Feminist theory was never monolithic, even when it was Eurocentric; theories were drawn from a plurality of different disciplines and schools. Concepts that came into currency—gender, gaze, voice, agency, subjectivity, authorship, and so on—from poststructuralist, postcolonial, cultural, and film studies proved to be useful tools in feminist literary studies. Some came to be deployed in scholarship on women's literature in historical China. In this context, I reflect on theoretical approaches in significant studies of women's writing of late imperial China and consider the impact or critique this subfield of Chinese literary studies posed to Western feminist theories and broader questions of the applicability of modern/postmodern feminist theories to literature of earlier periods and other cultures before the globalization of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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