Gender and History in China: Beyond Eunuchs and Concubines


This seminar is a sustained exploration of gender in the Chinese context. We will treat women and men, female and male, as historically constructed categories, examining how both have been imagined and portrayed, made and mobilized, at different times. A recurring theme will be the relationship of gender to power in its various modes: social, familial, economic, and political. We will confront, head on, stereotypes about the passive Chinese woman and the Confucian family, asking: Where do we find and how do we understand women’s agency within the permutations of traditional Chinese family systems? And what are the implications of viewing imperial-era Confucianism as male oppression of women? Topics of conflict within families and the practice of footbinding will highlight female agency within and complicity with the gender hierarchy. We will delve into the appearance of feminism in the early 20th century and its subsequent fate to see how gender shaped revolution and how gender was shaped by it. And rather than leave masculinity as an assumed constant, we will examine historical and cultural constructions of what it meant to be a man in China. Located between the poles of the scholar and the warrior, Chinese manliness exhibits unfamiliar contours and traits. The course will also cover same-sex desire in both traditional and modern China. For example, in the late imperial era, we will look at homoeroticism among fashionable elite men and at female “marriage resisters” who dared to form all-women communities in a society where marriage was virtually universal. Class readings consist of historical scholarship and appropriate (translated) primary sources, including ritual prescriptions, (auto)biographies, essays, drama, and fiction that will ground the course in the authenticity of real lives of both men and women. This class has a heavy reading load, but no prior knowledge of gender theory or Chinese history is required.