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Reviewed by:
  • Women in Ancient China by Bret Hinsch
  • Sheri A. Lullo
Women in Ancient China. Bret Hinsch. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 226 pp., 20 figures, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. Hardback US $79, ISBN 978-1-5381-1540-4.

Bret Hinsch has made a number of contributions to the history of gender and sexuality in China, primarily for the ancient and premodern eras. His latest book, Women in Ancient China, "details the process of growing sexual inequality as it unfolded" across the Neolithic, Shang, and Western and Eastern Zhou periods (seventh millennium to third century b.c.) (p. x). This work greatly expands upon Hinsch's summary of these periods in a chapter in his other recent book, Women in Imperial China (Hinsch 2016:1–32). It also serves as a welcome and long-awaited companion to his Women in Early Imperial China (2002), which covers the Qin and Han periods (third century b.c.a.d. third century). Like many of his books, Women in Ancient China takes a chronological approach, which allows Hinsch to examine the various ways that a woman's identity and status were affected by the shifting social, political, and institutional structures of each ruling power. Thus, each chapter is a comparative study that looks both back in time and anticipates future developments or changes.

Drawing from multiple disciplinary perspectives, this useful and comprehensive study synthesizes the growing body of secondary scholarship on women's lives in ancient China. Hinsch's central thesis is that "growing institutional complexity affected female rights and privileges" (p. xii). The study details the various ways that gendered hierarchy became standardized with the expansion of a patriarchal governing system, relegating women to roles in which they invariably served to aid or help legitimize men. Interwoven within this narrative, however, are stimulating accounts of instances where women occupied positions of political, moral, and maternal authority.

Hinsch's chronological study is framed by chapters that take up two prominent and influential "myths" in the study of gender in early China, including theories of matriarchy and a rhetoric of females causing the downfalls of major dynasties. Following the "Introduction," chapter 1, "The Myth of Matriarchy," addresses the "vexing methodological problem" with early and in some cases current scholarship that views early society in China as matriarchal (p. xiv). Such theories developed in the mid-nineteenth century under the influence of Marxism; to a certain extent, they remain part of state orthodoxy (though they are quietly disregarded by most scholars today) (p. 5). As Hinsch demonstrates, evidence of matriarchy and matrilinealism in Neolithic China and into the succeeding periods has been disproven. These approaches, however, must be acknowledged in an historical survey of women in ancient China since for decades they have been an underlying assumption of many scholars from numerous disciplinary perspectives, including archaeology, religion, social history, and linguistics. By including this "critical discussion" at the opening of his book, Hinsch positions his research as separate from this outdated body of scholarship (p. xiv). It should be noted, however, that a rather crucial part of the historiography of the "matriarchy myth" is missing from Hinsch's summary. Quite relevant to the purposes of his book are some of the positive outcomes that came with the quest to uncover China's matriarchal beginnings, as explained very clearly in an article by Gideon Shelach (2004) titled "Marxist and Post-Marxist Paradigms for the Neolithic." According to Shelach, misguided as they were, theories of matriarchy were foundational to the study of gender in the archaeological record of China:

The Marxist paradigm fostered in China a coherent discussion on issues such as the family structure during the Neolithic period and forced Chinese archaeologists to think of archaeological methods that could flesh out these abstract social norms. Contrary to commonly held views in the West, Chinese archaeologists vividly debated theoretical and methodological issues related to concepts such as [End Page 413] matriarchy, matrilineality, patriarchy, and patrilineality.

(Shelach 2004:14)

These are some of the very issues that are central to Hinsch's book and as such should have been properly acknowledged.

In chapter 2, Hinsch surveys the Early, Middle, and Late Neolithic periods of China, with dates provided...


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