Family and Gender in Modern Chinese History

Kate Merkel-Hess is an assistant professor of History and Asian Studies at Penn State University and the author of The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in September 2016.

Family and familial ties are at the heart of Chinese society and culture, and in reflection, historians have created a robust and thought-provoking body of work on family and gender in China. In compiling this list, I selected books that I might recommend to any thoughtful reader, not just historians and not just Asianists. While a few of the selections are older, I have not included much of the “classic” scholarship but instead chosen things that have largely been published in the past ten years or so and thus reflect the most recent developments in the field.

In doing so, a few trends are apparent. Social history remains the bread-and-butter of scholarship on China. Because it was only in the late 1970s and 1980s that China scholars (especially those from the United States) were able to enter China and access archives, there remains a lot of spadework for historians to do in canvassing and understanding the archival record. This is particularly true as access to new archives and broader and freer access to previously limited sources (both oral and far-flung archival) have opened since the 1990s (though some of that access is again closing off, a reflection of the broader efforts to limit speech in China since the advent of Xi Jinping’s administration). Recent trends in the discipline toward frameworks like the history of emotion and history of the body are also making themselves felt (sometimes trends still break in Chinese historical studies a bit after they have hit other geographical fields), creating space for reassessments of some long-standing tropes about topics like foot binding. In addition, much of the scholarship remains focused on the Chinese heartland and its majority Han ethnic group. However, one of the most exciting and rapidly growing areas of research in Chinese history is the history of its borderlands (particularly Xinjiang), and so we may hope for new scholarship that engages questions of gender and family in those regions as that literature grows and issues beyond top-down structures of control and bottom-up insurrections and other political themes are joined by other sorts of analyses.

Finally, my list contains several authors who are not professional historians. Chinese history is an adamantly interdisciplinary exercise where disciplinary boundaries are readily crossed. As a field, we regularly read and engage with anthropologists, literature scholars, journalists who cover China, and many others both inside and outside academia (in many graduate programs, these works are even standard entries on introductory historiography syllabi).

One of the results of the field’s openness to new perspectives and approaches is that the histories of gender, women, and family are increasingly well integrated into Chinese history. This vibrant body of literature—of which this list just brushes the surface—points us toward a Chinese history where women and gender are not a tack-on that gets covered during one week of the semester but a persistent and vital part of what Chinese historians do.

Places to Start

Jeff Wasserstrom has already recommended Susan Mann’s Talented Women of the Zhang in his list on the history of modern China. It’s too wonderful not to mention again, particularly in the context of thinking about family and gender, as it traces—and in some cases, imagines, on the basis of unimpeachable historical scholarship—the lives of three generations of elite women in the nineteenth century. But readers might also find interesting Mann’s textbook, Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese History. This overview is a solid introduction to recent topics and scholarship in the field and, like everything Mann writes, is a pleasure to read.

Liu Dapeng lived at the turn of the last century, a promising student from a downwardly mobile farming family who hoped he might pass the imperial exams and become an official—until, that is, the Qing Dynasty cancelled the exams and was then itself felled by rebellion. Unusual only in that he diligently kept a daily journal (which is largely extant) from the 1890s until his death in 1942, Liu provides a local, conservative view on a tumultuous time in China’s history. As she tells Liu’s story, Harrison also introduces the realities of cultural currency, family life, economic survival, and changing identities in the waning Qing and young Republic of China.

Digging In

Ideas about love, sex, generational relations, and the structure of the home all shifted in significant ways during the first few decades of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yan Yunxiang, who spent seven years in Xiajia village in northeastern Heilongjiang province in the 1970s when he was in his teens and early 20s, returned in the 1990s to conduct the research for this book. The result is a nuanced look at the ways intimate life shifted in the late twentieth century, from increasing autonomy for young people in dating and choosing marriage partners to changing attitudes toward filial piety and care for the elderly.

This book could just as easily go in the “new moves” section as it has shifted the way that historians of China think about the early years of the PRC. On the basis of extensive interviews with elderly peasant women who acted as “model laborers” and village leaders during the 1950s, when the PRC was just establishing its new rural economic system, Hershatter asks, “Did women have a Chinese revolution” (revising Joan Kelly’s famous question about the Renaissance). In answer, she demonstrates that women played critical but often invisible and unrewarded roles in making the early PRC function.

New Moves

In the early twentieth century, young Chinese intellectuals agitated for the right to choose their own marriage partners, and the expression of love became an act of social revolution. But as Lee shows in this excavation of the meanings and ideas of “love” from late imperial China to the early PRC, there is a more complicated story to the history of this sentiment. While radical love was associated with radical politics in the 1910s and 1920s, for the socialists of the 1930s and 1940s, love had to be sublimated to revolution. This is a compelling addition to the growing body of scholarship on the history of emotion.

The practice of foot binding, typically a reference to the late imperial practice in which women’s feet were tightly bound with strips of cloth in order to create a smaller, triangle-shaped foot, has long been a shorthand for the mistreatment and low status of women in imperial China. Every Step a Lotus, an exhibition catalogue created to accompany an exhibit of shoes for bound feet that Ko curated at the Bata Shoe Museum, presents a popular, illustrated version of the arguments in her more scholarly (but equally riveting) Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Here, Ko dissects and dismantles many of the myths of foot binding, giving us instead foot binding from the perspective of the women who practiced it.

Sommer is a legal scholar who has meticulously used Qing Dynasty legal cases to explore the most intimate—and thus often hidden—elements of late imperial life, from sexual violence to the prevalence of abortion. Through vibrant examples from the archives, Sommer here empathetically argues, first, that many Chinese violated the boundaries of the Confucian family ideal out of poverty and desperation, and, second, that they did so does not erase but instead firmly asserts the active roles these poor, marginalized men and women played in shaping their lives. Finally, he shows that the state itself exercised judicial flexibility in judging and managing these violations of Confucian (and legal) familial ideals.

Voices and Lives

Much of the historical scholarship on women and gender in China focuses on the experiences of Han women living in China’s heartland. Makley, an anthropologist, gives us a view of life from the borderlands. Here she uses gender as the lens to understand the revival of Tibetan Buddhism in the late twentieth century and the government’s implementation of socialist policies in Tibet. As a result, the book provides insight and background into the strained relationships between the state and its borderland peoples.

Arranged marriages and the need for elite men to travel to advance their careers meant that there was little expectation for marital affection in late imperial China. This book is the exception to the rule, as Shen Fu recalls his love for his deceased wife, Yün. A tender and affecting piece of writing, it also reminds us that the modes and manners of love have a history.

Tens of millions of Chinese now make their living far from home in the factories, restaurants, construction sites, and other low-skill workplaces that make the country’s major cities run and prosper. Through the stories of several subjects, Chang explores the lives and aspirations of the young women who staff most Chinese factories, illuminating the ways that their experiences and earnings have altered life not only for themselves but also for the families they support in the hinterlands, shifting the dynamics of familial hierarchy and economics in city and countryside alike.