- Negotiating Masculinities in Late Imperial China
Martin W. Huang has made a tremendous effort to analyze in depth the construction and negotiation of masculinity within the framework of Confucian ideology. His work is based on a wide range of—sometimes contradictory—male literati discourses of self-representation in late imperial China, that is, from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty.
The work itself is divided into three parts. The first part deals with the elite discourse, taking as a textual basis, the Confucian classics, political treatises, and collections of historiographical and literati writings. The second part is based on vernacular fiction, which blossomed during the Ming and Qing dynasties—the period when the classical Chinese novel emerged. The third part deals with prescriptive advice literature as found in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Huang’s account follows, in general, a chronological course, but he frequently refers to much older philosophical works from the Zhou and Han periods, when the foundations were established for China’s Confucian ideology.
Part 1, “Engendering the Loyal Minister,” begins with two examples from classical China. Chapter 1, “From True Man to Castrato: Early Models and Later Ramifications,” deals with the writings of the Confucian Mencius and of the famous historian Sima Qian since they both had considerable influence on later images and discourses of masculinity. Huang argues that Mencius defined masculinity as contrasting strongly with what he considered to be femininity. Masculinity, according to Mencius, was not characterized by physical attributes, but by a man’s ability to be independent and to practice the Way (dao 道) alone even—or especially—under unfavorable conditions, while a woman was characterized by her obedience (p. 17). Huang follows the interpretation of the twentieth-century scholar Hu Shi, who asserted that with the formation of Confucianism (ruxue 儒學) became more “feminine” and was based less on martial prowess than on ethical courage (p. 18). Later on, the role of the Confucian advisers (shi 士) in relation to the monarchy were defined and shaped by obedience and subservience—attributes that, according to classical understanding, characterize femininity. One of the most striking examples of these developments is the well-known story of Sima Qian and his involuntary “self ”-castration. In his writings, Sima Qian shows that physical mutilation such as castration could render a man more masculine, thus separating sex (that is, the sexed body) from gender.
Building upon these classical examples, Huang then continues in chapter 2, “From Faithful Wife to Whore: The Minister-Concubine Complex in Ming [End Page 110] Politics,” to explain how Ming scholar-officials negotiated their own male gender identities, building on the discourse of early imperial China. Huang links the contradiction between a minister’s absolute loyalty to the monarchy (chenqie臣妾) the writings of Confucius and, in particular, Mencius with a gendered discourse on the role of the shi 士. Huang argues—following the writings of Huang Zongxi—that in Ming China, when a minister decided to abandon his Confucian duty of serving “all under Heaven” (tianxia 天下), choosing instead to serve the ruler like a slave or concubine, he began to take on the political gender identity of the feminine. Thus the often expressed criticism of the Ming period is that eunuchs in the inner chamber became powerful, and the Confucian scholar-officials served de facto as “concubines” to the monarchy. Huang concludes that the changes in Ming China reflected an intricate relationship between the writer’s self-perceptions as gendered beings and their increasingly marginalized status in politics (p. 52).
In chapter 3, “The Case of Xu Wei: A Frustrated Hero or a Weeping Widow?” Huang analyzes the writings of Xu Wei, a dramatist and poet who lived from 1521 to 1593. Xu Wei wrote more than one thousand poems that involved a strong masculine hero, but his personal fate resembled more that of a faithful woman than of a strong masculine hero, especially after he had—as a result of political entanglements and the execution of close friends—made an attempt at...