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Reviewed by:
  • Women in China's Long Twentieth Century
  • Lisa Fischler (bio)
Gail Hershatter . Women in China's Long Twentieth Century. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007. 170 pp. Paperback $29.95, ISBN 978–0–520–0985–65.

Although Women in China's Long Twentieth Century is a well-documented state-of the-field guide to Chinese women's more recent history, its analysis raises the significant question of the degree to which patterns of change in Chinese women's lives reflect broader political developments in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Based on the sources surveyed, three broad themes emerge as the core of this concise work's revealing discussions of twentieth-century scholarship on Chinese women. Following a clear and perfunctory introduction, the next three chapters take up each of these themes. Chapter 1 focuses on marriage, family, sexuality, and gender difference; chapter 2 on labor; and chapter 3 on national modernity. The final chapter, "Afterthoughts," serves as a conclusion that puts forward five paradigmatic ways in which scholars can shift the frames within which they explore the subject of Chinese women's history. Despite its historical bent, this volume offers an important contribution to the fields of China studies, Chinese history, contemporary Chinese politics and economics, and comparative gender studies because the patterns it identifies cross both disciplines and time periods.

Tremendous expansion, boundary pushing, and new questions have characterized post-1970s research on Chinese women's lives since 1949. The rapid movement of studies beyond the China field, women's studies, and chronological approaches to find different analytical perspectives has accompanied China's emergence onto the international stage in the wake of opening and reform. In fact, as discussed in chapter 1, these trends help define the constraints, challenges, and importance of Gail Hershatter's thoughtfully constructed state-of-the-field guide. While interdisciplinarity and a thematic approach are its strong suits, the book necessarily has left out sources concerned with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora due to length limitations and the significant differences in sociopolitical context for women's lives in each of these places. Space, language, and ethnic factors have further limited the sources consulted, but citations for these volumes are presented in the introductory chapter. Although the choice of themes depended on the authors surveyed, Hershatter clearly lays out some of the difficulties involved in this choice. First, a concentration on certain thematically driven patterns related to twentieth-century Chinese women's lives risks a backward-looking reification of trends from the past. On the other hand, sufficient comparisons between women's lives in the twentieth and earlier centuries might not be made given conceptualizations of labor and revolutions as related to modernity. In effect, economics and politics raise new questions about some of the conventionally accepted narratives [End Page 461] of contemporary China: women as visible participants in revolution, revolution and employment as women's liberation, Confucianism and the family as sources of women's oppression. In other words, "making women the barometer of social crisis or revolutionary success" may no longer be tenable (p. 5).

Both continuity and change are evident in the discourses and practices governing women's lives over China's "long twentieth century." Subdivided into sections related to policy, law, practice, and affect, chapter 2 shows the pervasiveness of family and bureaucracy in women's choices, differences in the impact of urban and rural contexts on women's lives, and new freedoms and challenges structuring women's agency. While parents still play a role in a woman's choice of marriage partner, this role is now considered "compatible with free-choice marriage" (p. 8). Although premarital sex has become more widely practiced, a woman's virginity at marriage is still important. The urban residence permit still influences marriage choice, but picking ideal spouses now involves considerations related to migration, diaspora, affluence, and emotional connection. Rural marriage rituals, such as bride price and dowry, may seem the same in form across Maoist and post-Maoist eras; however, their function has shifted in ways that reflect the nuclearization of family, growth in women's agency in the marriage transaction, local variation in marriage practices related to...