- Gender in Motion: Divisions of Labor and Cultural Change in Late Imperial and Modern China
Gender scholars of late imperial and twentieth-century China have drawn our attention to the prescriptive work of nei and wai in the social, cultural, and political formations of everyday life. Gender in Motion: Divisions of Labor and Cultural Change in Late Imperial and Modern China further complicates our understanding of nei and wai as the book takes these spatial categories as its collective starting point. The focus of the book is an investigation of how male and female laboring bodies redefine nei and wai while often working within and against the normative but fluid categories. This volume is notable for its coherence and the ongoing conversations across chapters concerning the operation of spatial organization and its differential meanings in various times, locations, and occupations.
Because the book presents the work of many of the most prominent scholars currently researching gender issues in late imperial and modern China, readers will not be surprised by the high quality of all the chapters (although depending on the reader's familiarity with the work of specific authors, readers may find themselves in expected territory as some offer continued research and analysis from projects that have been the subject of earlier publications). Regardless of the knowledge one brings to the volume, what is most productive about this book and what distinguishes it from other anthologies is its organizational structure and the ways in which it encourages the reader to move through the book not as separate chapters but as sustained dialogue. My comments focus on this aspect of Gender in Motion because it is in this area that most anthologies fall short. In the case of Gender in Motion, the book is organized in three sections that eschew a chronological order and instead opt for thematic resonance. Section 1 is titled "Patterns of Mobility," and the articles by Matthew Sommer, Susan Mann, Luo Suwen, and Ellen Judd interrogate when, where, and to what end women's subjectivity and social position emerged through prescribed movement. Section 2, "Spatial Transformations," features articles by Joan Judge, Catherine Yeh, Madeline Yue Dong, Wang Zheng, and Wendy Larson. Together these scholars shift attention from the mobility of individuals and groups to focus on how space has been conceptualized in gendered terms. The final section of the book, "Boundaries," includes the research of Kenneth Pomeranz, Bryna Goodman, Deborah Sang, and Gail Hershatter. Here the emphasis is on women who live and work in the interstices of fluid gender categories and the constant redefinition of these categories. [End Page 447]
Rather than rehearse the arguments put forward in each article, I would like to highlight the questions that the authors collectively raise. In section 1, each of the essays demonstrates how typical understandings of nei and wai categories as the inner/familial realm versus the outer/public realm are too constraining. That is, if we are to understand the diversity of activities and forms of mobility of women that arise in relation to familial obligations and class standing, we need to consider the expansiveness of nei, as well as its restrictive prescripts. In this regard, Matthew Sommer puts forward two important arguments in his analysis of the practice of "getting a husband to support a husband (zhaofu yangfu)": first, maintaining and respecting the family unit in a moment of economic crisis is often the criteria and impetus for the practice (rather than having the family challenged by the addition of a sexual partner or second husband for the wife); and, second, sex work is not necessarily understood by the women and men involved in the arrangements as the primary defining aspect of their lives. These two points resonate with the analyses presented by Mann, Luo, and Judd in terms of the class dimensions of the practices of nei and wai and the expansive character of the physical space of nei. In her...