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Gender and Chinese History (Review)

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Beverly Bossler (ed.) 2015.
Gender and Chinese History: Transformative Encounters
Seattle: University of Washington Press
ISBN 9780295994703

Centering on gender as an analytical category, this insightful and provocative volume aims at summarizing the accomplishments, investigating the gaps, and anticipating new directions on the intersection between gender and history. Despite the grand narrative of history still in dominance, the perspective of gender sheds new light on historiography, power relations, and even family structures. The introduction chapter serves two roles: first, it gives a full review of recent scholarship of gender in Chinese history, including important issues such as faithful women, the cult of fidelity, and the male­­–male bond. Secondly, the introduction chapter re-examines the interactions between the critical category of gender and the field of Chinese history. As the volume argues, the perspectives of women and family relations have changed our understanding of Chinese history in recent decades. This volume provides another solid proof that the private sphere cannot be separated from the public affairs.

Chapters in this volume opens new space in examining gender practices in China, from the imperial period to the contemporary date, demonstrating how both men, women, and the imperial court/state government negotiate with the existing gender hierarchy and/or create alternative ones to ‘pursue their own interests and agendas’ (p. 10). New topics, such as gender and materialism, gender and ethnicity, or new ways to define masculinity, are emerging in the in-depth analysis in each chapter. Following a roughly chronicle order, this volume contains three parts. Part I ‘Early Modern Evolutions’ studies a variety of gender presentations and representations in material culture, political ideology, social class differentiation, and literary discourses before the Opium War. Studying an 18th-century Jesuit missionary’s portrait of a Chinese wedding procession, Ann Waltner's chapter provides a valuable comparative perspective in the early modern moment, when the Chinese empire was part of the European imagination of the Orient. Dowry, as ‘a marker of class and respectability’ (p. 31), helped to reinforce the legitimacy of marriage through the form of its public display. Guotong Li's chapter investigates how the Qing court adjusted gender relations to facilitate the civilizing project by using an educational book for women, Women's Learning. Yulian Wu turns from examining scholar-officials to searching the masculine identity of a wealthy salt merchant Wang Qishu (1728-98), who collected carved stamps, seals, and women's poetry. Investigating both status performance and gender performance of this tycoon, Wu demonstrates how wealth became a new value and new indicator of masculinity in late imperial China. Weijing Lu, however, focuses on the role of the female poet and scholar Wang Zhaoyuan (1763-1851) in the male-dominated world of scholarship by examining Singing in Harmony (和鳴集), a poetry collection composed together by Wang and her husband, revealing how affection and competition co-existed in their marriage.

Part II ‘“Cloistered Ladies” to New Women’ portrays a group of ladies who played to win during the crucial transitional period in Chinese history, when the old empire struggled to enter the rapidly changing modern age. All of them readily perceived the great potential of the emerging new media and made full use of this technology. Ellen Widmer focuses on ‘media-savvy’ (p. 113) women writers who published in four literary magazines in the 1870s, tracing how they adapted a world in radical change. Joan Judge studies how the use of visual media inspired Zhang Mojun (1884-1965) to become a modern educator enthusiastic in public affairs, attributing her change to the evolving understanding of women's learning. Yan Wang focuses on Lady Zhuang (1866-1927), the successor wife of Shanghai's most prosperous official-merchant Sheng Xuanhuai (1844-1916), and her management skills within and beyond the Sheng household. In Wang’s analysis, Lady Zhuang created her own networks with the help of print media, telegraph, as well as modern transportation.

The two chapters in Part III ‘Radicalism and Ruptures’ reveal the creation of new gender norms by investigating women's narratives since the Maoist period when Chinese women have been facing new challenges. Emily Honig re-examines the origin, the (re)structured interpretation, and its later nostalgic tone of Mao's well-known slogan ‘The times have changed; men and women are the same’. Gail Hershatter's chapter, a study based on her visits to a farmer's family in Shaanxi in 1996 and 2006 respectively, reveals how Chinese traditional virtues, revolutionary experiences, and market socialism together marked women of two generations in this non-urban household.

Besides the chronicle order, the organization of the volume unveils the transition from individual resistance to collaboration and networking for a change. Particularly, all three chapters in Part II show how women created their own networks and strategically utilized all resources. In Widmer's study, both Wang Qingdi (1828-90) and Buluo Shanren purposefully used the new media to enhance readership and feedback, inspiring more female writers as well as convincing their male peers of the importance of women's education. It is also notable that Yan Wang treats Lady Zhuang as a capable woman in the new urban context, who was actively engaged in charitable activities and made good use of her publicity in the modern cosmopolitan market. Collaboration and networking not only expand women’s connections beyond the household, but also soften the rigid boundaries of gender and class, paving the way for women to seek new opportunities.

As explained in the introduction chapter, gender as a critical category is such an intricate, inclusive, and intersectional approach, closely related with other crucial concerns when examining the construction and regulation in history between power, identity, and culture. For example, in Li's study, gender ideology integrated with the civilizing project was a tool to extend the empire's influence in the remote ethnic areas, where the ‘male gaze’ encountered the ‘colonial gaze’ in late imperial China. Weijing Lu’s study on the poetry collection Singing in Harmony reveals how redefining love and success in a woman scholar’s writing practice helped build her gender identity. Similarly, through the lens of gender, Honig argues that the Cultural Revolution should not be treated merely as a monolithic experience, but presents many constructive, disruptive, or transformative possibilities in history.

In addition to depicting individuals and groups in daily lives and social reformative movements, another pivotal question that many chapters have addressed is how men at a privileged status responded to women's emerging power. Li illustrates the male elites' anxieties and compromises about the unregulated female power. In studying Lan Dingyuan's migration policy in Taiwan which promoted women's education and women's contribution to the family, Li suggests that essentially, Lan's strategy is to regulate indigenous women into the Confucian discourse under the model of Han male elites' leadership. Yulian Wu focuses on how Wang Qishu employed his wealth and networks to establish a new masculine identity – one of his methods was to objectify women’s writings as his private collections. Through close reading, Weijing Lu not only analyzes the subtle tension on Wang Zhaoyuan's own intellectual accomplishment and her reputation defined solely through her husband, but also captures how the couple's relationship, both in romance and in scholarship, became a fantasy among their contemporary male scholars. Besides, Lu carefully compares the gendered expressions on intimacy between the couple, which helps to balance the dominating male control in late imperial gender dynamics. Besides switching to a different class category, Hershatter's chapter, though, puts the puzzle together when she examines the traditional virtues, the Maoist memory, and contemporary inconsistency in illustrating women's transformation from past to present.

This edited volume is an enlightening and delightful reading for a wide range of scholars who are interested in further exploring the intersection between gender and history. The new topics, approaches, and directions presented in this volume will certainly inspire more exciting research in the near future.

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