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Merchants' Daughters

Women, Commerce, and Regional Culture in South China

Edited by Helen F. Siu

Publication Year: 2010

Historians and anthropologists have long been interested in South China where powerful lineages and gendered hierarchies are juxtaposed with unorthodox trading cultures, multi-ethnic colonial encounters, and market-driven consumption. The divergent paths taken by women in Hong Kong and Guangdong during thirty years of Maoist closure, and the post-reform cross-border fluidities have also gained analytical attention. This collection provides further theoretical application of a "regional construct" that appreciates process, transcends definitive powers of administrative borders, and brings out nuanced gender notions. An interdisciplinary team uses fine-grained historical and ethnographic materials to map out three crucial historical junctures in the evolution of South China, from late imperial to contemporary periods, that have significantly shaped the construction of gendered space. Stressing process and human agency, the volume uses women’s experiences to challenge dichotomous analytical perspectives on lineage patriarchy, colonial institutions, power, and social activism. For scholars of modern Hong Kong society, Merchants' Daughters refocuses attention to cultural dynamics in the South China region of which Hong Kong is an integral part. For audiences generally interested in gender issues, this book illuminates the analytical importance of long historical periods in which layers of social, political, and economic activities intersected to constitute the complicated positioning of women.

Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

It is embarrassing to mention how long this project has taken from start to finish. The idea of a volume on women, commerce, and regional culture emerged from a conference in 1994 organized by Chi-cheung Choi at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which focused on merchant cultures in South China. At the time, David Faure and I just ...


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-22

The study of Chinese women has contributed significantly to gender theories. The construction of gender differences and women’s negotiation of cultural space in restrictive power contexts have been given ample attention.1 This volume continues the analytical direction by using materials from South China to illuminate the junctures of history, gender subjectivities, and power play. The authors, an interdisciplinary team, have done extensive ...

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I - Cultural Spaces between State-Making and Kinship

The Lingnan region has long seen a curious juxtaposition of powerful lineages, male-dominated ancestral estates and rituals, and remarkable anomalies from the Confucian ideals in marriage practices. The four chapters in this section deal with the historical evolution of this region and argue that compelling gender notions and divergent energies have been mutually ...

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1 - Women’s Images Reconstructed: The Sisters-in-Law Tomb and Its Legend

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pp. 25-44

Women in Ming-Qing literature were portrayed in extremes. Most were, if not virtuous virgins or chaste widows, then dissolute women or lascivious girls. These images of women were literati constructions based on the morality of Neo-Confucian thought in the Song-Ming periods.1 Reinforcing notions of male superiority, the images were prevalent in the central plain ...

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2 - Images of Mother: The Place of Women in South China

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pp. 45-58

Research on the history of the family in south China is both important and difficult. It is important because the family obviously occupies a crucial position in the Chinese psyche, but difficult because available records tend to bear on the lineage rather than the family as such. That is to say, the record tends to dwell on men and their connections rather than women and theirs. ...

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3 - “What Alternative Do You Have, Sixth Aunt?” — Women and Marriage in Cantonese Ballads

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pp. 59-75

Sixth Aunt is about to marry a man she has never met. Unappealing and fond of gambling, this man is by no means an ideal husband. Does Sixth Aunt have an alternative? She is supposed to have. Growing up in the Pearl River Delta region, she could have chosen to become a “zishunu.” Women had formed sisterhoods with other female companions and taken vows not ...

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4 - Women’s Work and Women’s Food in Lineage Land

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pp. 77-100

Patrilineal descent has dominated the study of Chinese society in late imperial and early modern periods. The lineage model has been under considerable critical scrutiny.1 But the influences of the paradigm on the study of women and gender in South China have not received comparable attention. ...

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II - Agency in Emigrant, Colonial, and Mercantile Societies

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pp. 101-103

In the previous section, the chapters outline an emergent Confucian moral order during agentive historical moments of state-making in the late imperial period, the upward mobility of local populations, and an increasingly commercialized regional economy. In the process, women experienced ambiguous positioning. For merchant families, gentility signified upward mobility along a rather orthodox path shaped by literati pretensions. ...

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5 - Stepping out? Women in the Chaoshan Emigrant Communities, 1850–1950

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pp. 105-127

Although Chinese women have been viewed throughout history as exploited and oppressed with little ability to control their fates, for the Chinese women themselves, this was not always true. Studies have revealed, especially during the late imperial period that women were powerful, independent, and content with their status within society.1 In different parts of China, they are described as domestic financial managers as well as supporters of the ...

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6 - Abandoned into Prosperity: Women on the Fringe of Expatriate Society

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pp. 129-142

Chinese and Eurasian women lived on the edge of expatriate society in the China coast cities where the cultures and peoples of trading empires met. The passage of time has altered the nature of these relationships. As the world moves in fits and starts towards globalization, there is increasingly greater interrelation of peoples, a breakdown of racial exclusiveness, and a blurring of cultural distinctions. ...

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7 - The Eurasian Way of Being a Chinese Woman: Lady Clara Ho Tung and Buddhism in Prewar Hong Kong

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pp. 143-163

This study uses a biographical account of Lady Clara Ho Tung and her contribution to Buddhist institutions in Hong Kong and China to illuminate the social, cultural “space” enjoyed by elite Eurasian women in an unusual colonial environment in the early decades of twentieth century. Lady Clara Ho Tung’s marriage to Robert Ho Tung, compradore for Jardine Matheson ...

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III - Work and Activism in a Gendered Age

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pp. 165-167

How have the historical moments in the postwar decades, when the border between Hong Kong and mainland China hardened and softened, affected the subjectivities of women and their positioning? Has their gendered activism contributed to wider civic participation and political engagement? Helen Siu uses Anson Chan’s generation of women in politics ...

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8 - Women of Influence: Gendered Charisma

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pp. 169-196

Although working women in Hong Kong have been given analytical attention, studies of professional women and political figures are not numerous.1 Serious biographies of female movers and shakers are rare compared to those written about male public figures.2 When the images of ...

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9 - Women Workers in Hong Kong, 1960s–1990s: Voices, Meanings, and Structural Constraints

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pp. 197-236

This chapter tells the stories of women workers in Hong Kong during the period between the 1960s and the 1990s. These three decades witnessed the growth of a vibrant economy fuelled by rapid industrialization, which peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. Over the years, much has been written ...

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10 - Half the Sky: Mobility and Late Socialist Reflections

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pp. 237-257

At the end of the 1950s, during the years of the Great Leap Forward, steelmaking became a nationwide movement in China. “Iron,” as a symbol of strength and firmness, was endowed with a special political significance. In this atmosphere, the government promoted the ideal of the “steel maiden,” typified by women like Xing Yanzi, who left her comfortable city life to ...

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11- Fantasies of “Chinese-ness” and the Traffic in Women from Mainland China to Hong Kong in Fruit Chan’s Durian Durian

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pp. 259-272

Following the work of Jean Baudrillard, David Harvey suggested that the flexible accumulation that gives rise to the postmodern condition is characterized by the production of images and sign systems rather than commodities themselves.1 Such cultural forms and the fantasies they generate in daily experience are integral to the circulation of capital. One of the key ...


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pp. 273-334


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pp. 335-341


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pp. 343-369


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pp. 371-375

E-ISBN-13: 9789882205796
Print-ISBN-13: 9789622099692

Page Count: 388
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Businesswomen -- China -- Guangdong Sheng.
  • Businesswomen -- China -- Regional disparities.
  • Businesswomen -- China -- Hong Kong.
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