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Reviewed by:
  • Sexuality in China: Histories of Power and Pleasure ed. by Howard Chiang
  • Tani Barlow (bio)
Howard Chiang, editor. Sexuality in China: Histories of Power and Pleasure. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018. xi, 255 pp. Paperback $30.00, isbn 978-0-295-74347-9.

Howard Chiang is constructing a field of Chinese sexuality history. In his single-authored After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (2018), he capstoned an archival-based, generically appropriate, history monograph. The volume under review here is one of many he has edited and co-edited on related topics ranging from queer sexuality to [End Page 107] psychiatry, medicine to transsexual histories, modernity, medical bodies, and the relation of eros and literature. Notable is Chiang's 2019 edited volume, The Making of the Human Sciences in China, where he shows how ambitious this historiographic venture is. Subtitled "Historical and Conceptual Foundations," Human Sciences provides the underlying platform Chiang is laying out, step by step, allowing him to situate sexuality in the entirety of modernist human science. Modernist revaluation of values includes, as historians are aware, "life," sexual and social reproduction, racialization, sexuality and gender, psychology, statistics, health, as well as the problematic physiological body. Chiang dedicates Sexuality in China to Lois Banner, who mentored Chiang into this work and whose own 1974 volume Women in Modern America: A Brief History transformed the way a generation that became feminist historians, including me, engaged professional history. Putting these two things together, the foundations for examining modernism in its Chinese version and large-scale, Foucauldian-inspired history of sexuality, the sexed body, sexual life, and epistemology push things way beyond "women and men in modern America" but with a large debt to pioneers like Lois Banner working almost fifty years ago.

Sexuality in China is probably targeting nonspecialist China historians who want to teach sexuality or just introduce themselves to a subfield they will enjoy. Chiang's "Editor's Preface" deftly sketches out the rise and significance of "sexuality" as "an established area of critical inquiry," and it is a historiographic characterization of the topic and approach. The second intent seems to be introducing Chinese history of sexuality to mainstream historians, and this has two implications. First, the default position of "sexuality" is considered to be universal when it is actually a European history. And, second, the problem of developing a "Chinese" or non-European approach immediately confronts China scholars since Chiang is seeking to avoid an "apply Foucault and stir" even as editor and contributors struggle to find alternatives. Chiang writes that given that "historiography of non-Western sexuality is [usually] broached under the lingering shadow of the theories, categories, themes, and debates derived from European and American historical analyses" (p. 3), an alternative is to take what he believes is "a snapshot of the state of the field" of China-oriented sexuality studies in order to introduce what, almost fleetingly, he terms "perverse possibilities." Therefore, although the double bind of the European enlightenment is not resolved in this volume, Howard Chiang seems to be suggesting that one way beyond it is to set Chinese history in a "sexy, powerful, and pleasurable light" and that "sexing" history is the next step.

Debby Chih-yen Huang and Paul E. Goldin's chapter offers an introduction to the ideology and practice of family formation that they argue characterized Chinese history from the Bronze age to the present. "Polygyny and Its Discontents: A Key to Understanding Traditional Chinese Society" provides a classic vision of the Chinese family. Like many of these essays, "Polygyny and [End Page 108] its Discontents" introduces readers to the basic dynamics of polygynous and non-polygynous families, which have the effect of clarifying how significant plural marriage was to the class structures of social economic eras or periods. The essay is particularly valuable for introducing advanced undergraduate and graduate students to the historiography of the Chinese family. The authors recognize how rich this field has become. They present and evaluate key work Katherine Bernhardt, Bettina Birge, Beverly Bossler, Francesca Bray, Patricia Ebrey, and Mathew Sommer have produced; the article also draws on Chinese and Japanese scholars whose work may not...