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Reviewed by:
  • Gender and Sexuality in Modern China by Susan L. Mann
  • Margaret Kuo (bio)
Susan L. Mann. Gender and Sexuality in Modern China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 235pp. Hardcover $90.00, isbn 978-0-521-86514-2. Paperback $28.99, isbn 978-0-521-68370-8.

This book presents an exquisite collection of insights by a leading authority on the considerable body of literature that relates to the study of gender and sexuality in modern Chinese history. This volume is significant for many reasons, beginning with its ambitious time frame, which encompasses the transition in gender norms from late imperial to twentieth-century China. Mann also paints a broad canvas, incorporating analysis of the arts, sports, medicine, law, literature, and more across at least three distinct political periods (Mann’s judicious use of fiction to illustrate [End Page 464] key tropes is a particular strength of the book). Further value lies in Mann’s ability to weave together several somewhat disparate threads of scholarship from philosophy, religion, literature, history, art history, anthropology, and sociology into an overarching argument about the comparatively prominent role of the Chinese state in the regulation of gender and sexuality. Those interested in sexuality, moreover, will be happy to see that Mann engages the issue directly rather than treating it as an offshoot of gender.

The book’s title signals a departure from the first waves of Chinese women’s studies that were instrumental in bringing women into the historical record, and the book’s content serves as proof positive that gender and sexuality are highly valuable categories of analysis that not only add to the study of Chinese women but also to many other important topics in Chinese history. Mann’s masterful treatment of the dynastic cycle (the political theory used to explain the pattern of conquest and consolidation, stability and prosperity, and decay and decline by which dynasties rise and fall) stands out as a case in point, illustrating how adopting sexuality as an analytic category enables the historian to tackle areas in which actual women may not have been present but gendered power formations and sexualized ways of understanding the world certainly were. By explicating the link between virtuous women, dynasty-toppling consorts, female infanticide and suicide, and the condition of marriage markets to the political condition of dynasties, she breathes new life into old understandings of the dynastic cycle concept.

Indeed, Mann’s main thesis embodies developments in the field of gender history over the past several decades that further demonstrate the ways in which adopting the lens of gender and sexuality allows, even demands, that we reconceive fundamental notions of Chinese history. Mann argues that the Chinese state was distinctive because of its outsized role in the regulation of gender and sexuality. Mann articulates a particular view of the Chinese state as one in which the family, gendered division of labor, and processes of reproduction were more closely tied together with the operation of the state than perhaps in any other political system. The very foundation of Chinese statecraft was the need to ensure that men and women married and bore children. For example, the Qing state promoted universal family values through penal laws, the baojia system of mutual surveillance, state-sponsored public lectures, monetary and other rewards for demonstrations of female chastity, and moral instruction by family and lineage organizations. Even the advent of twentieth-century changes that led to more women seeking education and employment outside the home, the erosion of parental control over marriage, and the emergence of an urban popular culture that featured the new woman and small, nuclear families does not seem to have transformed the basic relationship between women and the state. That often-stated link between family and state was so crucial to political stability, in Mann’s view, that the Chinese polity could be said to have relied primarily upon the promotion [End Page 465] of family values for its survival. In contrast to modern political theories that derive from the idea of a social contract, Chinese state-society relations highlight rather than tuck away the position of the family. This persistent emphasis on the family partly explains prominent continuities...