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Vol. 9, No. 2 Late Imperial ChinaDecember 1988 ANDROGYNOUS MALES AND DEFICIENT FEMALES: BIOLOGY AND GENDER BOUNDARIES IN SIXTEENTH- AND SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY CHINA1 Charlotte Fürth Introduction Anomaly by contrast establishes the normal. What is "normal" easily becomes normative, in nature and for human beings as well. My topic here is the medical, political and literary discourse surrounding some famous reported cases of sexual and reproductive anomaly in late Ming China. Such definitions of the "strange" li, ch'i] and attempts to explain it become clues to the meaning of female and male as biological and social categories. It is well known that Chinese cosmology based on the interaction of the forces of yin and yang made sexual difference, a relative and flexible bipolarity in natural philosophy. On the other hand, Confucianism constructed gender around strict hierarchical kinship roles. When late Ming Chinese observers considered ambiguous bodies they had to confront the contradictory nature of these gender paradigms; they also had to talk about the ordinarily submerged category of the sexual itself. An analysis of the kind offered here depends upon interpretative strategies first pioneered by Michel Foucault, Ivan Mich and others who have shown that the human body has a history.2 Gendered bodies are understood through culturally specific repertories of gestures and emotions which assign significance to acts and define objects of desire at the level of the erotic; as well as by codes of the masculine and feminine at the level of psychic experience and personal identity. This way of thinking has intersected with feminist analysis of gender as socially constructed through kinship, religion and other roles, and feminist rejection of "biology" as a 1 I would like to thank the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Institute of Health History of Science Program for grant support which assisted me in my research. I am also grateful to the faculty and staff of the East Asian Studies Department and the Gest Library at Princeton University for their expertise and guidance in the sources for Ming history . Tani Barlow, Paul Gatz, Keith McMahon, Nathan Sivin, Marilyn Young, Judith Zeitlin, and the anonymous reviewer for Late Imperial China all offered criticisms and suggestions which improved and broadened the final draft. 2 Foucault 1978; Illich 1982. See also Laqueur 1986 and Duden 1987. 2 Charlotte Fürth natural basis of gender distinctions. Accordingly, sex, referring to physical characteristics and biological capabilities, is distinguished from gender, which represents the cultural and social meaning attached to sexed bodies. The "sexual" becomes that aspect of gender which deals with culturally constructed biological and erotic meanings. The issue of biological variation in physical sex characteristics was addressed most systematically in Ming-Ch'ing China by medical writers. As experts on reproductive success or failure, they were the source of biological understanding of fertility. They attempted to classify and explain reproductive anomalies: sterility and impotence, abnormal births, from twins to monsters; hemaphroditism and sex change. Mapping a code of the sexually normal, they also sought to define patterns of nature shaping reproductive processes and so bounding human beings as a species. Among medical authorities of this period (largely the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), Li Shih-chen, author of the Pen ts'ao kang mu, the classic study of the traditional materia medica, posed these questions in the most thoughtful and far-reaching way.3 But physicians were not the only ones to pay attention to such matters. Sexual anomaly attracted official notice, in keeping with old traditions concerning omens that assigned political significance to weird natural phenomena. Further, narratives claiming to be reports of extraordinary sexual and reproductive phenomena showed up in the informal writings (pi chi) of unofficial literati historians like Shen Te-fu (1578-1642) and Hsieh Chao-che (1567-1624).4 Then in turn short stories by such authors as Li Yu and P'u Sung-ling embroidered on accounts of anomalous individuals which had attracted public attention in these other settings, giving further clues as to how sexuality and reproduction were socially interpreted . One is led into a bizarre world of seemingly outlandish phenomena—of eunuchs and stone maidens, of males who give birth, of men who turn into...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3257
Print ISSN
0884-3236
Pages
pp. 1-31
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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