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  • Intimate Politics: Marriage, Market, and State Power in Southeast China
  • Yen Hsueh-cheng (bio)
Sara L. Friedman . Intimate Politics: Marriage, Market, and State Power in Southeast China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. xvi, 344 pp. Softcover $49.95, ISBN 0–674–02128–2.

Intimate Politics is an ethnography originated from the author's PhD dissertation. Based on fieldworks spanning from 1994 to 2002 on the coastal village of Shanlin (pseudonym) in the Hui'an county of Fujian province, Friedman's book examines various aspects of local women's intimate relationships with their own labor, their families (both natal and conjugal), and their friends (of same-sex networks—locally known as dui pnua), and their bodies, dress, and modes of consumption within the context of the Chinese socialist state from the Maoist era to market reforms.

Although people of Hui'an insist they are Han Chinese and are officially recognized as such, women there practice certain customs that are not typical Han. Their exotic hair and sartorial style and the extended natal residence after marriage prompt some Chinese scholars and the general public to associate "Hui'an Woman" with ethnic minorities (shaoshu minzu). The image of ethnic exoticness was exploited by cadres and entrepreneurs in marketing regional differences by the 1990s. Although all ethnic groups are proclaimed to be equal by the state, the author argues that the evolutionary scheme adopted by the Chinese communists in effect put the Han above all ethnic groups. Possessing customs reminiscent of ethnic minorities places Hui'an Woman low on the evolutionary hierarchy. "Theoretically Han but in practice not-quite Han" is one analytical thread that informs the political struggle of the women in their intimate relationships.

Another thread relates to the ambiguous ethnic status of the "feudal" (fengjian) concept. Feudal is not understood as a political institution but as an accusation about one's cultural backwardness. Early in the Liberation, local women's dress and hairstyles, postmarital natal residence, and cases of collective female suicide (mainly among women of same dui pnua) were identified by the state actors as feudal. They were picked out as obstacles to development of socialism and were targeted for eradication. In the 1990s, the same concept was employed by villagers to attack people deemed not open and progressive enough to accommodate the market economy. Cultural backwardness and the association of ethnic minorities put Hui'an Woman in a double jeopardy whereby the author investigates the interventions of the socialist state and market economy in the intimate relationship of Hui'an Woman.

While the state actors forcefully intervened in the intimate relations of the women in Shanlin in the Maoist era, the author shows that their efforts mostly failed. Although the women's hair and dress styles were modified, the extended natal residence after marriage and the dui pnua network remained firm. It was [End Page 430] not until the 1990s that the intimate relations of the village women showed signs of change. The change was not attributed to state intervention but to the force of the market that empowered the women through their expanded economic (such as working in stone-carving factories that made them financially independent) and social activities (as in mixed-sex socialization in workplaces and in entertainment). The intimate relation of the village women was not so much a function of ideologies of political campaigns as change in the structure of political economy. However, political ideology (such as in the concept of "feudal") was important understanding their own subjectivity in the intimate relations.

The book is composed of three parts. Part 1 mainly deals with the Maoist era, and the remaining two are mostly about the period of market reforms. Chapter 1 is about the gender divisions of labor and the process of collectivization in Shanlin. In this traditional fishing village, men fished and, atypical among rural Han Chinese, women farmed. This gender division of labor was exploited by the socialist state since the 1950s in mobilizing the women to build a reservoir and sea embankment, and farm unsettled land. While the labor of Hui'an Woman was glorified by the state, in their "speaking bitterness," the author argues that village women saw...