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Reviewed by:
  • Women in Early Imperial China
  • Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee (bio)
Bret Hinsch . Women in Early Imperial China. Lanham, Boulder, New York, and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. xi, 237 pp. Paperback $26.95, ISBN 0-7425-1872-8.

At a time when Western interest in China is steadily on the rise, Bret Hinsch's book on women in early imperial China, with an emphasis on the Qin and Han dynasties, is a fitting new addition to the volume of recent scholarship on the status of Chinese women. Instead of offering sweeping statements on the overall status of Chinese women, Hinsch focuses on the complexity of the social roles that women play. He lays out his methodology as follows: "Understanding these ideal female roles, and how individual women accepted, comprehended, and contested them, is a powerful method for interpreting the distant female past" (p. 7). The book is composed of eight short chapters, each touching on a specific aspect of society such as kinship, wealth and work, law, government, learning, ritual, and cosmology, providing different perspectives on the range of social roles that women assume and play. According to Hinsch, the advantage of this role-playing approach, as opposed to focusing on the Confucian classics or searching for a single "status" or "position" of women, is that it can encompass different times and places and reveals general trends by grouping individuals into larger social roles. More importantly, it avoids an explicit Western philosophical bias and is thus better able to cross cultural boundaries (pp. 7-8). Hinsch's performative approach [End Page 112] to the concept of womanhood allows for a more dynamic view of woman, whose identity is not static or fixed according to her gender, but instead intersects with a wide range of roles that she plays throughout her lifetime.

In addition, Hinsch believes that the three intellectual trends of pragmatism, patrilinealism, and cosmology have also influenced the way that women have been perceived. Pragmatism accounts for the disparity between an elite idealized separation of gender roles and popular practice, which often granted women relative autonomy. Patrilinealism, emphasizing kinship seniority, accords great respect to the role of mother and can thus be manipulated to women's advantage. Han cosmology abstracts both man and woman from their concrete social roles to the realm of metaphysics, where gender becomes a static fact, which in part accounts for the increasing inequality between genders in subsequent centuries (pp. 13, 165). However, whether the cosmological pairs of heaven/earth, qian/kun, and yin/yang can even function as a theoretical explanation for the inferiority of women in imperial China is a hotly contested issue; feminists and sinologists alike disagree over the centrality of cosmology as well as the conventional dualistic interpretation of these cosmological paradigms in the discourse of gender in everyday life.1 Hinsch's take on Han cosmology in relation to gender inequality certainly reflects the position of the proponents of cosmological centrality in this ongoing debate.

Prior to the rise of Han cosmology, gender relations were discussed mostly in the context of the appropriateness of the respective social roles that men and women played (p. 12). And kinship based on patrilineal seniority was the prime regulator of women's lives in early imperial China (p. 33). Gender itself was not a social role, nor was it an indicator of social status, but only one factor among many determining the relative status of various kinship roles (p. 52). Oftentimes, generational seniority overrides gender in importance. Patrilinealism, although it emphasizes women's obligation to sacrifice themselves for the well-being of patrilineality, also confers tremendous power on women in the role of mother; Mencius' self-sacrificing yet revered mother is an enduring icon in Chinese history. The principle of generational seniority not only underlay the kinship system but also permeated different aspects of society such as wealth and work, law, and government. For instance, in the area of wealth and work, the moral injunction that a junior may not hold private property while the senior is still alive clearly benefited both senior men and women (p. 61). In the area of law, children could not denounce their parents, and to conceal...


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