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Reviewed by:
  • Gender and Chinese Archaeology
  • Elizabeth M. Brumfiel
Gender and Chinese Archaeology. Katheryn M. Linduff and Yan Sun, eds. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2004. 392 pp., tables, figures, index. US$39.95 paper, US$80.00 hardcover. ISBN 0759104093 (paper), 0759104085 (hardcover).

Gender and Chinese Archaeology presents an introduction and 11 original studies that draw upon already published data. The authors are professors and graduate students of art history, Asian studies, anthropology, and history at the University of Pittsburgh. Their studies cover a 3500-year span, from the Neolithic Majiayao culture of northwestern China to the Shang, Zhou, and Han dynasties. Most of the chapters examine mortuary data, and most are concerned with the relative status of women and men and the sources of their equal or unequal status. I approached Gender and Chinese Archaeology with great interest, curious to know whether the engendered archaeology of an unfamiliar region from a non-Western point of view would yield new and challenging insights. I came away somewhat disappointed—but also impressed by the potential of these scholars and their data.

As Gideon Shelach explains in his introductory chapter, the Marxist foundations of the People's Republic of China during the 1960s through the 1980s encouraged the study of ancient social structure, including family organization and the status of women. True, Chinese researchers accepted as given Engels' (1972 [1884]) model of social evolution from matriarchy to patriarchy, accompanied by a decline in the status of women. And they also accepted that women throughout the ages were confined to the domestic sphere due to their biologically imposed roles in reproduction and child rearing. But within these limiting assumptions, debates could and did occur among Chinese archaeologists concerning the classification of particular cultures as matriarchal or patriarchal, the reconstruction of marriage systems, and the effects of different gendered divisions of labor and property regimes on the status of women. This led in turn to methodological discussions of using archaeological house plans, burial practices, and ethnographic analogy to reconstruct ancient gender systems. Although Marxists presented stereotyped models of gender in ancient societies, they did produce relevant data and they did envision ancient societies that were significantly different from those recorded in historical documents. [End Page 237]

With liberalization during the 1990s, Marxist approaches in Chinese archaeology were superseded by a nationalistic program that sought to recover the deep historical roots of Chinese culture. This nationalist program has tended to diminish the power of archaeology as an independent source of knowledge about the past because it projects onto prehistoric data the social and cultural institutions recorded in Chinese historical texts. The nationalistic program has produced less work on gender and a less careful formulation and testing of hypotheses about ancient gender systems. This volume, then, might have provided a timely return to the topic of gender, drawing on the strengths of earlier Marxist research and introducing new theoretical approaches of the scholars' own design or from outside sources. For the most part, this has not happened. While the 11 case studies presented in this volume are data rich, the analyses sometimes draw conclusions prematurely and at other times fail to explore the full implications of their findings.

Examining Majiayao culture (3300–2000 B.C.E.), Yan Sun and Hongyu Yang ask: Did this Neolithic culture evolve from a matrilineal society to a patrilineal/ patriarchal society with parallel increases in gender and social inequality? And were these trends intensified during the subsequent Qijia culture (2200–1700 B.C.E.) with the emergence of metallurgy? They examine 397 tombs from ten Majiayao and Qijia cemeteries. Looking at the relationship between tools and sex in single burials, they find two patterns. In half of the cemeteries, there is no consistent association of tool types with sex, either because no tools are present or because tools are the same for female and male burials. In the other cemeteries, some tools (stone chisels, adzes, knives, awls, arrowheads, and axes) are mainly associated with males and some tools (spindle whorls) are associated with females. Sun and Yang conclude that these two patterns show different attitudes toward gender, with some groups playing down gender differences and some groups choosing to highlight...