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  • Regulating Prostitution in China: Gender and Local Statebuilding 1900–1937 by Elizabeth J. Remick
  • Tiantian Zheng
Regulating Prostitution in China: Gender and Local Statebuilding 1900–1937. By Elizabeth J. Remick. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014. Pp. 288. $45.00 (cloth).

Through an analysis of archival sources and government reports, Elizabeth Remick explores the intersection between prostitution policies and local state building in China during the first half of the twentieth century. Plagued by problems of public order, public health, and proper gender relationships, state officials intervened to regulate prostitution. Remick argues that in regulating prostitution, state officials shaped and reconfigured the structures, functions, and capacities of local states and, in the end, transformed local states. Remick points out that although women were banned from political life, gender was integral nonetheless to the story of state building in China.

In exploring the intersection between gender relations and state building, Remick argues that regulating prostitution was, in fact, a practice of regulating and reordering gender relations. Just like European state builders who created modern states through controlling gender and sexuality, Chinese [End Page 339] state builders also adopted a modern police system to regulate prostitution. It was by regulating prostitution that Chinese state builders exerted their influence on gender relations, gender roles, gender behaviors, and issues concerning women’s sexuality. Hence prostitution was about gender, and being a prostitute was inseparable from the social system of gender relations. As a result, prostitution and regulation of prostitution were highlighted and emphasized as political and public matters through which state builders enforced and restructured gender relations.

This book comprises seven chapters. The introductory chapter delineates the main theme of the book and the limitations of the study. Chapter 1 provides a general history of policy on prostitution in China during the Republic era and explores the ways in which different cities in China enforced different major forms of prostitution policies. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 represent the centerpiece of the book, investigating respectively the cities of Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Kunming as representatives of the three major forms of regulation policies. The chapters on each city feature a local political history, prostitution policy, and the impact of the policy on local state structure and function. In particular, these chapters explore the ways in which the three different regulation policies affected the structure and function of local government, including fiscal consequences, coercive power, bureaucratic forces, the provisioning of social services, social reforms, and other critical markers of local state capacity. Chapter 5 examines the prostitution rescue institution and argues that this institute, in returning women and girls to their “proper” roles in the family, reinforced and perpetuated the patriarchal conditions that fueled the abuse of women. The final chapter points out the problems of decriminalization and legalization of prostitution and argues that the social, legal, and political context is crucial in formulating policies on prostitution.

Remick pinpoints three main types of prostitution regulation in China that significantly impacted local state building in diverse ways. The first type was the most prevalent: a light regulation approach, mandating the registration of prostitutes, behavioral rules in brothels, venereal disease inspections, light taxation, and a prostitute rescue institution. This type aimed to ameliorate problems of social order, protect public morality, and improve public health. Hangzhou City represents this first type of regulation. Its police staff grew somewhat in numbers because of the amount of work related to prostitution. Although some health clinics were established for prostitutes, the few taxes collected from prostitution did not warrant state building beyond the regulatory system.

The second type was a more revenue-intensive approach, featuring heavy taxation and aimed at the smooth operation of brothels. This type strove to accumulate revenue for the local government, paying slight heed to public order, public morality, and public health. Guangzhou represents the second type of regulation. Its tax structures and capacities grew immensely. [End Page 340] The police staff also grew to some extent in order to register prostitutes and arrest unlicensed prostitutes. The revenues from prostitution provided funds to projects and considerably enabled state building. Guangzhou City, for instance, was able to appropriate tax revenues from prostitution that at times were equivalent to...


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