Bound to Emancipate: Working Women and Urban Citizenship in Early Twentieth-Century China and Hong Kong

Bound to Emancipate: Working Women and Urban Citizenship in Early Twentieth-Century China and Hong Kong

by Angelina Chin
     
 

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Emancipation, a defining feature of twentieth-century China society, is explored in detail in this compelling study. Angelina Chin expands the definition of women’s emancipation by examining what this rhetoric meant to lower-class women, especially those who were engaged in stigmatized sexualized labor who were treated by urban elites as uncivilized, rural,

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Overview

Emancipation, a defining feature of twentieth-century China society, is explored in detail in this compelling study. Angelina Chin expands the definition of women’s emancipation by examining what this rhetoric meant to lower-class women, especially those who were engaged in stigmatized sexualized labor who were treated by urban elites as uncivilized, rural, threatening, and immoral. Beginning in the early twentieth century, as a result of growing employment opportunities in the urban areas and the decline of rural industries, large numbers of young single lower-class women from rural south China moved to Guangzhou and Hong Kong, forming a crucial component of the service labor force as shops and restaurants for the new middle class started to develop. Some of these women worked as prostitutes, teahouse waitresses, singers, and bonded household laborers.

At the time, the concept of “women’s emancipation” was high on the nationalist and modernizing agenda of progressive intellectuals, missionaries, and political activists. The metaphor of freeing an enslaved or bound woman’s body was ubiquitous in local discussions and social campaigns in both cities as a way of empowering women to free their bodies and to seek marriage and work opportunities. Nevertheless, the highly visible presence of sexualized lower-class women in the urban space raised disturbing questions in the two modernizing cities about morality and the criteria for urban citizenship. Examining various efforts by the Guangzhou and Hong Kong political participants to regulate women’s occupations and public behaviors, Bound to Emancipate shows how the increased visibility of lower-class women and their casual interactions with men in urban South China triggered new concerns about identity, consumption, governance, and mobility in the 1920s and 1930s. Shedding new light on the significance of South China in modern Chinese history, Chin also contributes to our understanding of gender and women’s history in China.

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Editorial Reviews

Choice
Careful attention to language marks this thoughtful study of lower-class women in 1920s and 1930s South China. Chin (Pomona College) analyzes how social commentators discussed the project of "emancipating" (jiefang) women in revolutionary Guangzhou and compares that to the discourse of protection of helpless females in British-controlled Hong Kong. A range of occupations was available to poor women, primarily in various forms of service. In Guangzhou, emancipation was expected to lead to service to the nation; women were to bind themselves to the ideals of patriotic citizenship. Service workers, however, found gaining recognition within the labor movement difficult. In Hong Kong, the colonial government sought to regulate women's roles to promote social order. The colony's Chinese elite responded with their own ideas of charity for unattached females, including the famous Po Leung Kuk (Society for the Protection of Women and Children). Chin includes a chapter of "testimony" from women admitted to the Po Leung Kuk, who were routinely interviewed by the staff. This part of the book is a helpful addition to Maria Jaschok's pioneering work Concubines and Bondservants: A Social History (CH, Sep'89, 27-0452). Summing Up: Recommended.
Women and Gender in Chinese Studies Review
This well-written, thoughtfully researched book presents new insights on the meaning of ‘women’s emancipation’ from a comparative, gender, and regional perspective during a particular era. The volume’s comparative use, in regional context, of its documentary and secondary sources makes for a refreshing approach to this issue.
CHOICE
Careful attention to language marks this thoughtful study of lower-class women in 1920s and 1930s South China. Chin (Pomona College) analyzes how social commentators discussed the project of 'emancipating' (jiefang) women in revolutionary Guangzhou and compares that to the discourse of protection of helpless females in British-controlled Hong Kong. A range of occupations was available to poor women, primarily in various forms of service. In Guangzhou, emancipation was expected to lead to service to the nation; women were to bind themselves to the ideals of patriotic citizenship. Service workers, however, found gaining recognition within the labor movement difficult. In Hong Kong, the colonial government sought to regulate women's roles to promote social order. The colony's Chinese elite responded with their own ideas of charity for unattached females, including the famous Po Leung Kuk (Society for the Protection of Women and Children). Chin includes a chapter of 'testimony' from women admitted to the Po Leung Kuk, who were routinely interviewed by the staff. This part of the book is a helpful addition to Maria Jaschok's pioneering work Concubines and Bondservants: A Social History (CH, Sep'89, 27-0452). Summing Up: Recommended.
Antoinette Burton
In this energetically written and carefully researched study, Angelina Chin makes clear how indispensable women’s labor in its various forms was to the political economy, reform culture, and global aspiration of early twentieth-century China. By placing mui tsai in the context of both economic struggle and debates about emancipation and citizenship, she offers a nuanced, though never facile, history of women’s agency as a crucial dimension of national and imperial histories. This is history from below with women, work, and mobility at the center—a tremendous feat—and it should draw students of the urban, the regional, and the global who care about the complexities of China’s ascendancy and the ‘small’ stories of resistance to it.
Emily Honig
Angelina Chin’s richly textured study of lower-class women—from blind singers to teahouse waitresses—in 1920s and 1930s South China raises complex and important questions about the meaning of ‘women’s emancipation,’ revealing the ambivalent attitudes of Chinese social reformers toward the sexualized working women they were aiming to emancipate. This fascinating, deeply researched book should be required reading for anyone interested in global feminism and its localized histories.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781442215597
Publisher:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
03/29/2012
Series:
Asia/Pacific/Perspectives Series
Pages:
302
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Angelina Chin is assistant professor of history at Pomona College.

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