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Reviewed by:
  • Gender and Chinese History: Transformative Encounters ed. by Beverly Bossler
  • Anne E. McLaren (bio)
Beverly Bossler, editor. Gender and Chinese History: Transformative Encounters. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. xii, 266 pp. Hardcover, $50.00, isbn 978-0-295-99470-3.

Gender and Chinese History: Transformative Encounters offers an illuminating set of studies on gendered encounters at specific moments in Chinese history from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Arranged in rough chronological order, the chapters span the early eighteenth century through to the contemporary period. Each contributing author enlists a particular case study to present a set of intriguing encounters between men and women, different social classes, Han Chinese and other ethnic groups, and, in one case, Europeans and Chinese.

In her introduction, Beverly Bossler provides a timely overview of several decades of work on the study of gender in Chinese history. We are reminded of earlier contributions that challenged Eurocentric notions of gender and established the importance of the relational nature of male and female roles within Chinese kinship and status systems. Chinese “patriarchal” institutions have been fruitfully studied from the perspective of female participants. We now know much more about women’s roles in local economies and in household management, female influence at court, women’s property and legal rights, and the role of women in writing and publishing. The cults of “the chaste widow” and “the faithful maiden” have been intensively studied. The new topics of masculinity, homosexuality, and nonconventional sex roles are now routinely included in studies of “gender” in China.

The first chapter, by Ann Waltner, discusses a Chinese bridal procession as re-created in the European imagination, seeking to assess early Western understandings of the gendered nature of Chinese ritual. The image is an engraving in the monumental encyclopedic work on China by French Jesuit Jean Baptiste du Halde (1679–1743). According to Waltner, this engraving was produced by A. Humblot (ca. 1700–1758), who had access to Chinese illustrations and encyclopedias brought back from China, most likely from Canton. Waltner suggests that the illustrative matter from which the wedding procession was derived could well include illustrations devised in China specifically for the export market to the West. This helps to account for the “exoticized” aesthetics of Humblot’s engraving. Unfortunately, the image provided in this volume is the wrong one. It turns out to be the funeral procession and not the bridal procession (see fig. 1.1 on p. 24). The reader will notice immediately the large coffin beneath the central canopy and will look in vain for the details of the bridal procession set out here (pp. 28–30).1 The two images are clearly companion pieces with a similar style of composition. It would have been instructive to consider them both together. One finds the same curved procession with similar musicians and entertainers. However, the bridal sedan is markedly smaller than the gigantic canopied coffin in the funeral procession. The processions also travel in opposite directions. The giant coffin travels [End Page 113] from the lower right to the upper left, where one sees a tunnel in a large mound awaiting its occupant. The wedding procession begins in the upper left and zigzags toward the marital home at the bottom right. One could even speculate that the funeral procession is bearing a “male” coffin (it is large and grand) while the marriage procession, with its (small) sedan chair at the center and female riders on horseback, is coded “female.” Such considerations could have enriched this chapter, which is otherwise detailed and insightful.

Literati men commonly reproduced works of female instruction. Guotong Li discusses one such male, Lan Dingyuan (1680–1733), who served as magistrate of counties in Guangdong Province as well as a term as political advisor in Taiwan. While Lan’s Women’s Learning is a conventional type of instructional text, Li examines his intentions through the lens of ethnicity. Lan Dingyuan was descended from both Han Chinese and Fujian She people. In his life work he vigorously promoted the sinicization of non-Chinese populations, believing that the promotion of female “virtue” along Confucian lines was an essential aspect of good governance in the borderlands. For this...


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pp. 113-118
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