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  • The Direction of History and Women in China
  • Tani E. Barlow

Between the 1992 Harvard-Wellesley College conference, “Engendering China,” and the 2002 “Women in Republican China” workshop at the Free University of Berlin, stretches a decade of remarkable work in history studies of women in China.1 A Luce Foundation grant allowed key organizers to bring together for the first time the three constituencies of US-born China historians, graduate students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) schooled in the US and PRC-educated historians of Chinese women. The stated objective was to “gender” China scholarship, though confrontations among native and expatriot PRC-born scholars which enlivened the proceedings and continued to condition collaborative work. In fall 2002, scholars of various national origins working in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany, England, PRC, New Zealand, USA and Australia were convened at the Free University of Berlin. Eschewing the starkly polarized world of migrant scholarly politics, the European organizers seemed to initiate an equally complex and diverse, but explicitly multilateral, even internationalist project.2 Like the Harvard Conference, the Berlin meeting focused on Chinese women broadly construed. Post-socialist in the sense of sublating Marxist scholarship into its own vision, the Free University group draws on metaphors and strategies of globalization and anti-globalization that are now shaping the internationalized China field particularly as it pertains to the history of women.

Chinese women’s history has a singular place in U.S. academic feminist politics. “Engendering China” was the scholarly apotheosis of a history subfield that Roxanne Witke, Marilyn Young and social scientists Margery Young, Emily Ahern and Judith Stacey had carved out starting in the late seventies when the image of the self-liberated Chinese peasant woman inspired second wave, US feminist scholarship.3 Stacey’s general thesis of socialist patriarchy in the early eighties consolidated the idea that Chinese women offered a living laboratory for U.S. socialist feminism. The truism that socialist revolution had betrayed Chinese women has since fed into an emergent subfield of “international feminism,” a U.S. Ford Foundation-funded project for documenting crimes allegedly fomented by nation-states against the world’s women.4 Historical studies have sought either to confirm Stacey’s general thesis or reveal its analytic and empirical deficiencies.5 The entry into the US academy of a PRC cohort of graduate students, now assistant and associate professors, did not fundamentally change this dynamic in scholarship on Chinese women’s history.6

The core problematics in nineties scholarship on Chinese women have therefore emerged in a complex post-revolutionary bilateralist political rapprochement and retrenchment. They are roughly speaking of (1) reappraising women’s lives in old regime, (2) integrating the idea of gender (or social gender in Chinese scholarship) into history and research-based social policy, and (3) periodizing the transitional 1890–1920s period of colonial modernity between the land revolutions of the nineteenth and the social revolutions of the twentieth centuries.

The first of these problematics has effloresced in the nineties in what I call a new historiography of Chinese women’s history.7 Nineties pioneering work on premodern life by Dorothy Ko, Patricia Ebrey, Kathryn Bernhardt, Yu-yin Cheng, Francesca Bary and Susan Mann describes a complex historical reality where propagandistic certitudes had seen only derogation.8 This new historiography has, with the important exception of Kathryn Bernhardt’s pioneering work on women and property law, largely focused on the lives, emotions, work and physical culture of educated female elites. It stresses the satisfactions of everyday life under regimes of gender inequality (e.g., female seclusion, foot binding, the retraction of legal rights to own property and the sexual and labor markets in women) and suggests that the Chinese Enlightenment of the 1920s may have unfairly mischaracterized the ancient regime.

The “gender” perspective has had a continuing impact throughout the nineties in Chinese women’s history as Thomas Laqueur’s “Foreword” to Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities: A Reader makes clear.9 He characterizes gender history as a foundational element of cultural history which he considers a necessary companion of politics, economics and social studies. Volume editors Susan Brownell and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom endorse this view and argue...

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