- Bound to Emancipate: Working Women and Urban Citizenship in Early Twentieth-Century China and Hong Kong by Angelina Chin
By exploring what “women’s emancipation” meant for “lower-class women … who were engaged in stigmatized sexualized labor” (p. 4), Bound to Emancipate revises the historiography of gendered labor and social activism in Republican China. It does so not only by examining the political discourses of women’s emancipation in modernizing Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the 1920s and 1930s, but also by exploring the role and experiences of women, and their rights and agency in the construction of urban citizenship. Women’s labor also became a site for discussing such issues as urban identity, consumption, and working-class consciousness. At the core of these discourses are the contradictions between victimhood and agency, morality and emancipation, national identity and colonial governance. According to Chin, women’s emancipation did not always empower lower-class migrant women. Rather, it was a “strategy to restrict their movements and shape their public behavior to fit the requirements of a modern urban citizenry” (p. 4). Chin argues that women’s emancipation is implicated by the desires of competing regimes over social control. Through narrating their stories, we begin to learn how rural migrant working-class women were historical agents at the crossroads of modernization in Republican China.
Organized into eight chapters, each of which deals with actors who contributed to the political economy of the Pearl River Delta region, Chin’s revisionist history of working-class women and citizenship enhances the methodological perspective on Chinese history and urban citizenship. Indeed, it is a history both from below and from the margins. As noted by Chin, most studies on modernity in China have focused on such political and industrial centers as Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin (pp. 4–5). Instead, she focuses on marginalized cities such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong and the emergence of women’s emancipation in this region. She achieves this feat by creating a global history focused on local specificities and experiences of working-class women, including mui tsai (bondservants), guji (blind singers), nuling (female singers), nu zhaodai (waitresses), and prostitutes. However, various stakeholders—such as colonial, Communist, and Nationalist officials; urban planners; social elites; reformers; male workers; and revolutionaries—dominated the discourses on women’s labor in order to implement social control and promote legitimacy and prestige. As a result, the voices of these women became hard to hear and recover (p. 5).
On the one hand, Chin argues that the differential regulatory discourses pertaining to the abolition of mui tsai and prostitution were not about the victimization and freedom of women, but about the contest between the colonial government, local elites, and activists in the imperial metropolitan center over [End Page 69] issues of hygiene, national prestige, moral superiority, and legitimacy of colonial governance (chap. 2). On the other hand, the emergence of working-class women intersected with nation-building processes and the continued impact of colonization. Fengsu (social customs) (chap. 3) and fenghua (social morals) (chap. 5) are ideas and campaigns promoted by both Chinese parties in Guangzhou in the 1920s and 1930s; however, they also became categories that at once mobilized and regulated women’s bodies and behavior in the name of China’s revolutionary discourse on the moral direction of the new nation.
Women’s voices emerged through a wide range of sources, including newspaper articles, magazine and tabloid articles, novels, guidebooks, government documents, women’s testimonies, and letters and records from rescue institutions (p. 6). By focusing on the lived realities of women as laborers in the public service sector of the teahouse industry, Chin is able to redirect the discussion away from an official orientation of women’s bodies as sites of morality. As such, Chin successfully “emancipates” the category of “stigmatized sexualized labor” and, at the same time, elevates the role and participation of rural women migrant workers in the nationalist survival of...