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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953
  • Joan Judge (bio)
Susan L. Glosser . Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2003. xxi, 275 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 0-520-22729-8.

The Republican period in China was a time of intense personal, cultural, and political flux. Young intellectuals and political reformers struggled to define themselves as individuals, as a nation, and as a state, and to create new selves and a new polity that were self-consciously distinct from (however implicitly indebted to) the Chinese past and the Western experience. Susan Glosser offers a new and important perspective on this complex process by focusing on "Chinese visions of family and state" from 1915 to 1953. She examines the ideal of the xiao jiating (nuclear or conjugal family), which she defines as including "freedom of marriage choice, a companionate relationship between spouses, at least some degree of economic and emotional independence from the joint family, and women's continued devotion to reproductive labor" (p. 197). Analyzing the ways in which this ideal was appropriated to personal and political ends by New Culture intellectuals, Guomindang and Communist Party (CCP) activists, and entrepreneurs, she argues that discourses on the family and discourses on the state were purposefully and inextricably intertwined. She demonstrates that, unlike in the West, where family structure evolved as the result of processes of modernization and industrialization, changes in the Republican family were self-consciously dictated in order to serve diverse visions of social, economic, and political modernization.

The story Glosser tells begins with New Culture intellectuals. This group trumpeted family reform as a means of liberating the individual from the weighty structure of the extended family and from the constraints of arranged marriages. While their prime emphasis was on personal autonomy, they tied their vision of family reform to the state—primarily, Glosser argues, out of an unacknowledged debt to traditional political culture. The New Culture linking of family reform to the state created an opening for Nationalist reformers to use the new xiao jiating ideal to state-building ends. They recodified family ritual and legislated family law in ways that expanded their own authority, making the state the ultimate arbiter of the family. At the same time, Nationalist-era entrepreneurs attempted to use the xiao jiating ideal to new commercial ends, representing the conjugal family as the basis of a new culture of consumption and production. The communists upheld the importance of the small family while voiding both this entrepreneurial emphasis on petit bourgeois consumption and the New Culture construction of the small family as a site of personal autonomy. They further strengthened the ties between xiao jiating and state-building that had been established under the Guomindang by conflating all aspects of the conjugal family—including love and [End Page 92] work—with the needs of the revolutionary state. Arguing that the Nationalist legacy upon which the communists built has not been sufficiently acknowledged, Glosser questions the revolutionary nature of the PRC construction of the family.

In her introduction Glosser states that she is most concerned with the level of discourse—with family-reform rhetoric and debate—rather than with actual practice (e.g., p. 24). Throughout the book she repeatedly reminds the reader of how this xiao jiating discourse unfolded. She outlines the progression of ideas on family and state from the New Culture movement through the succeeding periods often several times in a chapter, thus imposing a sense of inevitability on the way the discourse evolved. At the same time, however, she offers fascinating glimpses beyond, in her words, the "façade of ideals and discourse" (p. 62) that often contradicted the dominant discursive trends. Since she presents such tantalizing and complicating evidence, it is unfortunate that she does not probe more fully the revealing disjunctions it brings to light between what the family meant to individuals living in the Republican era and how it was constructed. Literature, film, and memoirs from the Cultural Revolution, the period when the state co-optation of the family that Glosser describes reached its peak, demonstrate that the ruptures between state demands and family loyalties...


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