- The Burden of the Double Question
Back in the early 1980s, when I had the good luck to discover Chinese history, it was possible to read and keep up with everything published in English on the topic of women, family, gender, and sexuality in China. It has been a long time since anyone I know of could make that claim. In the late 1980s the field picked up momentum, and in the 1990s it seemed to expand exponentially. Gail Hershatter’s authoritative 2007 review of the post-1970 Anglophone literature on women in Chinese history, anthropology, politics, and sociology cited approximately 650 books and articles. A rough-and-ready search using those same parameters suggests that, since 2007, the reading list has grown by at least another 50 percent. A better sense of the overall size of Western scholarship on the field can be found in Robin Yates’s 2009 bibliography; it lists 2,500 books, articles, or chapters, and over one hundred dissertations. The range of topics and approaches runs the gamut. Angelina Chin’s and Margaret Kuo’s recently published histories are part of this fabulous profusion and could be connected in any number of ways to the genealogy of [End Page 611] scholarship. Given the size of the field, this review will focus on one way in which American and European historiography on women, gender, and the family in the West has shaped our expectations of scholarship on these topics in China.
The study of women and gender in China got a jump start from scholars of Europe and the Americas, who by and large began their inquiries into these subjects a couple of decades before scholars of China did.1 In many ways this has been a boon to the field. Those of us who commenced our studies in the 1980s had the advantage of growing up alongside the new field of women’s studies and gender history. We started by reading scholarship that relied on prescriptive literature (think Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of True Womanhood” ) and the inventive use of sources not to be found in government archives (think Lawrence Stone’s History of the Family, Sex and Marriage in England ) and had ringside seats to subsequent critical assessments of the gender, class, and ethnic components of various gender and family ideals. By the time Western studies of gender in China took off, we had learned to treat prescriptive literature critically and were rightly wary of monolithic pronouncements on anything. Studies that reconstructed small slices of “real” life, like Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost (1965) and Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale (1990), also taught us that, with a little luck and a lot of hard work and ingenuity, we could come closer to understanding how and whether gender and family ideals shaped our subjects’ lives. In a way, then, we started with hindsight, and that was a great advantage. But it also created a lot of pressure; in the China field we have not been satisfied with first figuring out what the prescriptive norm was and then, in subsequent studies, researching how these ideals played out. Rather, scholars, editors, and dissertation advisors want authors to answer both at once: what were our subjects supposed to do, and what did they really do? I call it the double question, and it can feel like stringing a tightrope while trying to walk it.
In Bound to Emancipate, Angelina Chin sets herself a laudably broad and complicated agenda. She explores “the social context and political movement that affected the lives and aspirations of women in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the 1920s and 1930s” (2). She is especially interested in understanding how New Culture Movement ideas about women’s “emancipation”—something political activists, intellectuals, and foreign missionaries all believed was essential to...