The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism

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Overview

The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism is a history of thinking about the subject of women in twentieth-century China. Tani E. Barlow illustrates the theories and conceptual categories that Enlightenment Chinese intellectuals have developed to describe the collectivity of women. Demonstrating how generations of these theorists have engaged with international debates over eugenics, gender, sexuality, and the psyche, Barlow argues that as an Enlightenment project, feminist debate in China is at once Chinese and international. She reads social theory, psychoanalytic thought, literary criticism, ethics, and revolutionary political ideologies to illustrate the range and scope of Chinese feminist theory’s preoccupation with the problem of gender inequality. She reveals how, throughout the cataclysms of colonial modernity, revolutionary modernization, and market socialism, prominent Chinese feminists have gathered up the remainders of the past and formed them into social and ethical arguments, categories, and political positions, ceaselessly reshaping progressive Enlightenment sexual liberation theory.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Placing feminist thought within a continuum that defines human life in eugenic terms, Tani E. Barlow shows how Chinese feminism is not simply an inheritance of western ideas but is absolutely central to modernity and its emphasis on the sexed human being. The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism will spark controversy and will eventually stand as a model of scholarship for all of us to follow.”—Wendy Larson, author of Women and Writing in Modern China

“Tani E. Barlow breaks original ground. Her book has a theoretical reach and sophistication very rare in the China field, drawing its analytical tools from history, literature, feminist studies, psychoanalysis, and film criticism.”—Gail Hershatter, author of Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai

“The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism is an exciting and provocative journey through Chinese feminism and its theoretical permutations throughout the twentieth century.”—Lisa Rofel, author of Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China after Socialism

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Tani E. Barlow is a historian of modern China teaching in the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Washington, Seattle. She is the editor of many books, including Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia and New Asian Marxisms, both published by Duke University Press. Barlow is the founding senior editor of positions: east asia cultures critique, also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

The question of women in Chinese feminism


By Tani E. Barlow

Duke University Press


ISBN: 0-8223-3270-1


Chapter One

History and Catachresis

A concept-metaphor without an adequate referent is a catachresis. GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK, Outside in the Teaching Machine

The catachresis of women in modern Chinese intellectual history is the primary subject of this book. Analytic and descriptive material presented in this chapter sets the stage for arguments that will emerge in later ones. In reworking a literary philosopher's insight about metaphors and catachreses, I am looking for ways to decode the historical contents that are occulted in the kinds of categorical or proper nouns that historians routinely encounter when we read documents naively, closely, or "carefully." There are consequently two major stakes in this chapter. The first is the question. What is the subject in a history of women? "women," as it is currently used in Chinese social theory, is an invention of the 1920s and 1930s, an era I define in later chapters as colonial modernity. Because most historians are sensitive to questions of anachronism and because women (like men) is always a categorical term, not a descriptor or social-cultural signifier of biological reality, the stake posed in the question What is the subject in a history of women? concerns how norms or categories are formed and stabilized. The problem of anachronism is most acute here. The second stake follows directly from the question ofsocial history methods and concerns the status of signifiers. Currently, a rather common position in China studies is that neologisms are linguistic signs, rather than, as I contend throughout this study, access points into the "material" history of an era and consequently into the question of how the name of women itself becomes a historical artifact. But if neologisms are entry points into social norms, how does the catachresis women work? How could writing about historical catachresis sidestep anachronistic assumptions about sexed subjectivity?

The Future Anterior

Histories written in the present or simple past tense often claim to "ground themselves on the truth of women" precisely when they project contemporary beliefs about women's nature into the past. They make a claim about women's reality or women's experience across time, place, modes of production, social relations of production, cognitive mapping, ideological conditions, and so on. They define what women are (e.g., procreative social beings) and then reassert this claim on the basis of evidence selected to support their initial generalization. This has the desired effect of demonstrating how women's work, ideologies, bodies, or desires are socially reproduced. Once a historian presumes that "women" are "in a society," a related claim becomes reasonable: that people in the past instantiated or embodied their own present and that their motives for action can be understood if we examine their social context with sufficient care. The authors of this kind of history presume that the subject represents the past because she was in it and also that the past explains the subject because she was in it. The conjecture that those who preceded us knew where in human time they were located when they acted historically is, I suggest, a potentially disabling inference that sometimes arises out of this general position. As is the assumption that past, present, and future form a stable sequence, either in abstract time or in the consciousness of historical actors, and the view that women is a definable, knowable category.

A history written to highlight future anteriority (as this one is) is not particularly concerned with what women are, that is, what women must have been before, given what women really are (e.g., agents of social reproduction). Nor is it concerned with speculating about what women as a collectivity will be once patriarchy is abolished. Emphasizing future anteriority shifts attention away from ideal typical or representative women per se to writing and thinking focused on decoding women and their proposed future role. It takes less seriously the content of general claims and more seriously the politics of claiming. Potentially, this shift of emphasis adds flexibility and usefulness to investigations because it allows feminist scholars and advocates to identify what might have been the stakes in an immediate or singular moment. What ideologies condition the thinkable or writable and the real effect that written expression has on the environment are important concerns, too, but this book underscores the acts of invention. It is particularly interested in the ways that thinking infuses political events and may indeed constitute an event in itself.

Diane Elam's insight is that feminist history written in the future anterior mode would characteristically abjure or decline to use fixed definitions. The work of feminist psychoanalytic theoreticians like Elam, Dai Jinhua, and Drucilla Cornell reinforce the suggestion that using future anteriority is a way of placing emphasis on the temporal heterogeneity of the present (how categorical or imperative knowledge about women emerges out of this heterogeneous unclarity is a more historical question). What they over to methods of writing feminist histories is useful because although such studies must meet the criteria of materialist history writing (evidence, subject, contingency, periodization, specificity, etc.), they would justify declining to "claim to know in advance what it is women can do and be." They would accept and even stress the value of doubting our own ability ever to know definitively what the limits of women's being are (and thus were and will be). Openness to inchoate or differently structured time suggests that history may accurately be written even in the absence of transhistorical theories about what women and men are or were. A history written in the future anterior, in other words, would not simply note the existence of a future encoded in every present, but would focus particularly on the capacity of this kind of present imagining to upset the sequence of past-present-future. Subjectivity, the province of feminism, is shaped in heterogeneous time.

For Elam, undecidability has the political effect of keeping open the category of woman or women to new strategies and subject forms. For me, Elam's insight offers a chance to highlight the lack of fit between the people and their times. It puts the premium on ways people are misaligned with their times, particularly when they are writing. Theorists, people whose writing is intended to make general claims, do not reflect or even represent their times so much as misread messages from the past, rethink received opinion, forget, embrace, accidentally contribute to it, and send messages from now toward the future. The processes of thinking and writing may or may not profoundly alter given conditions, but they are always aspects of a now. Future anteriority in history narratives puts a premium on this irrepressible force of thinking, where indecidability is most pronounced, and soft-pedals or questions the assumption of continuity in time.

Rebuffing the temptation to know things in general about women therefore becomes a precondition for accuracy in history writing. Relieved of the need to specify or generalize in a universalizing or historicist fashion about what women really is, the problem of anachronism is less pressing (this does not affect the subject's own firm beliefs about what women really are). I am not arguing here for a return to empiricist history as a route around the problem of anachronism in feminist social science. The questions of how (or even whether) in the past women were collectively a biosocial entity or statistical norm (both modernist categories) or whether other, not modern collective nouns and governing ideologies were primary, becomes a feasible (rather than simply a theoretical) question to ask the historical evidence to answer. This leaves as an open question what sort of knowledge and experiences for and of women might appear in the future or, indeed, have appeared in the past. Much of this basic positioning will already be familiar to historians. What I am proposing is more like a shift of emphasis. Getting serious about future anteriority would, in other words, build into history writing itself a demand to retain contingency at the center of every description, every social category or interpretation.

In addition to its ability to reconsider the problems of anachronism and category, writing with an accent on futurity rather than continuity also helps in thinking about larger social events, such as women's movements. Women is often considered a special case because it is held to be at once both trenchant social fact and a political rallying point, the one politically irreplaceable, transhistorical feminine subject. However, as Rosemary Hennessy has definitively pointed out, feminism is not exclusively a project of representation. It should not become preoccupied with the politics of accurate representation. This is not only because the problem of anachronism defeats the quixotic goals of representation. For Hennessy, it is primarily because feminism's main task is forming political collectivities for future action.

Presumption of the stability of women has led some social science writing about the Chinese women's movement to see the women's movement, modern Chinese women, or Chinese feminism as self-authored. Women and their movement are said to have awakened during the May Fourth era (1919-1927), of cultural revolution, declined under socialist patriarchy, and then revived in the post-Mao market economy. Recast to take advantage of a more complex temporality, the question would become: How did this women's movement come to define its subject? "Women's liberation movement" would therefore be considered in more relational terms, contingent on complex relations with peoples, sexes, and politics other than itself. Far from reducing a social movement's capacity to address injustice, however, disconnecting the subject women from political movements would actually allow the political question of Who is a woman? to be posed, as chapters 4 and 5 of this study demonstrate in particular detail. So, if we are able to disaggregate women because we do not know in advance what women is and we do not presume that women's movements simply represent the interests of women, other options are more feasible. It becomes easier to ask who the agents or authors of the women's movement were (as they cannot be presumed to be women) and whether feminism is really just "the thinking of women."

This is, of course, not a book about social movements. It is a book about various cohorts of highly politicized people who claimed to know the truth of women. It carefully reads the theories of the feminists, Marxists, Maoists, social scientists, ideologists, fiction writers, Communist revolutionaries, and others who universalized the modern subject of women in revolutionary thinking, policy, and political mobilization during the twentieth century. The questions that such people-theorists and intellectuals, for the most part-raised suggests that the subjects women and women's movement are like ensembles or constellations, contingent entities formed in relations of "irreducible difference," in which a moment or term "inscribes the other in itself and is inscribed by the other outside of itself." But what particularly concerns me in this study is that through their thinking, politicized intellectuals established women as a transparent category of knowledge. In the complex theories of Chinese progressive feminism and its feminist critics we see thinkers and policy analysis creating a valuable and unprecedented way to understand, and therefore to transform, social life. It is also in their theoretical work, which is aimed explicitly at the future of their present (and often as rooted in their analyses of the past), that future anteriority becomes transparently obvious.

"Women" in Traditional China

If future anteriority is one way of stabilizing in historical time the volatility of the people who did the thinking, it is important to ask what conditioned them: What forces larger than consciousness acted on them? What sorts of assumptions did they make about past and future in their own uncertain presents? Over the past decade, new social history studies in the U.S.-dominated China field have established a vision or understanding of the general life conditions, life experiences, and expectations of elite Chinese women in core areas of the Yangtze River valley. A descriptive summary of these generalizations shows how the new social historians have displaced the earlier idea that Chinese women were condemned to lives of universal, permanent degradation. The new historiography of women centers on women of the gentry or shi da fu class, many of whom were literate. Few of the secondary sources I draw on for this summary suggest that the Song subject women in the social elite was distinct from the women of contemporary times. Indeed, some historians speculate openly that because they are themselves women and their subjects of concern are women, an intuitive bond exists that strengthens the analysis. I take up the implications of this assumption in the section following this one.

Elite Song dynasty (960-1279) families grew up alongside and then superseded the aristocratic class of the Tang dynasty (617-907). Patricia Ebrey's pioneering work in the new social history of Chinese women clarified how the sexual division of labor contributed to the ascendancy of the new landed gentry class. The Tang aristocracy owed its entrenched position to its elaborate written pedigrees, preeminence on the national scale, and its adeptness at court politics. By contrast, the power of the new Song elites was the effect of their successes in the institutionalized government examination system (closed to women), competitive government office holding, and property ownership. Legal codes and other evidence in data on marriage politics suggest that Song protogentry elites were already vesting their daughters with substantial dowry wealth. In the property exchanges characterizing the emerging new-style gentry marriage practices, the husband's family provided bridal gifts to the bride and her relatives, and the bride's family, in turn, reinvested the bridal wealth (adding some of its own) into the daughter who was being exchanged. The exchange and consolidation of wealth as dowry heightened competition for daughters among elite families because all families sought useful political connections by all means possible. The parents of daughters who brought relatively larger portions of wealth from the natal family into marital family got, in exchange for their investment, larger, more powerful networks. Marriage politics was an avenue for raising the class standing of the bride's natal family.

Daughters consequently offered their own parents a host of opportunities to advance in all the arenas where gentry power really counted. Clear property law on the books regulated the exchange of daughters as wives (there also existed a large commercial market for buying and selling female concubines, servants, and slaves). Laws suggested adjudication of dowry claims and directly stipulated that brides would control their own wealth. According to Song law, daughters could legally inherit property from their father when the father had no sons, and daughters could be married uxorilocally, which is to say that the daughter could bring her husband into her father's family rather than being herself transferred to the family of her husband. Though this is also the era when elites began to use footbinding as a means to demarcate gentry families from mean or commoner families, men in the elite family were monogamous by law. Other household women, concubines, and slaves acquired for husbands had secondary ritual and economic status in relation to wives.

Thus, some Song wives had advantages that other women (elites and subelites) did not have in the period of gentry class dominance that extended through the nineteenth century. Empowered Song gentry wives not only exercised control over agnatic property and retained rights to their own bridal wealth; they expected to undertake gendered, productive labor. Patricia Ebrey and Francesca Bray argue in the spirit of Jack Goody and F. Engels that in the Song period, high social status and property claims correlated. Elite female mothering skills (including responsibility to educate children in basic literacy), productive labor as weavers and household and property managers, and key strategizing in the domain of marriage politics were all rewarded. Apparently, labor gendered as the responsibility of females in elite families had a high quotient of state-enforced ideological content, too. Until the middle of the sixteenth century, a state decree declaring that "men till [the land], women weave [the cloth]" maintained that noncommodified, domestic weaving for family consumption and cloth commodities produced in the commercial textile industry for the general market were separate. Elite women profited from the overall positive valuation and necessity of textile work in the home, and subelite women benefited because their primary work was a prized form of labor. But all female kinfolk, regardless of rank or status or family resources, contributed weaving labor to the domestic economy.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The question of women in Chinese feminism by Tani E. Barlow Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 History and catachresis 15
2 Theorizing "women" 37
3 Foundations of progressive Chinese feminism 64
4 Woman and colonial modernity in the early thought of Ding Ling 127
5 Woman under Maoist nationalism in the thought of Ding Ling 190
6 Socialist modernization and the market feminism of Li Xiaojiang 253
7 Dai Jinhua, globalization, and 1990s poststructuralist feminism 302
Conclusion 355
App. to Ch. 1 Historiography and catachresis 365
Notes 373
Works cited 443
Index 471
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