2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 55: Progress or Regress: Negotiating Gender Identity and Modernity in Contemporary China

Organizer: Yi Sun, University of San Diego

Chair: George Wei, Susquehanna University

Discussant: Louise Edwards, Australian National University

Keywords: women, history, political science, China, contemporary.

This panel consists of four presenters and one discussant from four academic disciplines working in three different countries. The papers examine women’s quest for identity and status during China’s reform era from various disciplinary angles.

George Wei’s paper offers a historian’s insight into the origin of women’s studies as an academic discipline in China in the mid-1980s and analyzes how it emerged as a result of intense debates on the need to indigenize women’s studies within the existing ideological framework. The "indigenization" of the Western concept of feminism is also demonstrated in Di Bai’s literary dissection of Feminism in China, which reveals the cultural and political significance of the local appropriation of feminism in China. Yi Sun’s case study of the Women’s Hotline in Beijing exposes women’s dilemmas during modernization and attributes them to the "paucity of rights," conditioned by the combined influence of Confucianism, communism and commercialism.

The chair will start the session by highlighting the theme(s) of each paper, followed by a 15-minute presentation by each panelist of his/her theories and findings in an outline format (their papers will be made available to the audience). Louise Edwards, a prolific writer on Chinese women, will offer her insightful critique of all the papers while leaving ample time for audience interaction with the panelists.

Gender Politics in the Martial Arts Cinema

Rong Cai, Emory University

In this essay I study the image of the Chinese female warrior in the transnational cinemas of mainland China, Hong Kong, and the world. I analyze the organization of gender space and sexual transgressions in the martial arts genre outside the loci where Western feminist theories define the woman and difference such as romance, home, maternity, sexuality, class, race, and age. By looking into the representation of the destructive female desire and the monstrous gender-bending body in a number of films, I argue that a sort of duplicity informs the gender imagination in the martial arts productions in the martial arts cinema. While the martial arts conventions provide a platform for unorthodox representations of women in a fantasized martial world, the inscriptions of order, normalcy, and hierarchy in the Jianghu (the world of the knights-errant) reaffirm the normative gender system. Calling attention to the multifaceted nature of transnational representations, I point out that cultural translations may convey prejudice and bias as well as the excitement of the local culture.

Indigenizing Feminism: Gender Discourse and Women’s Studies as an Academic Discipline in China

George Wei, Susquehanna University

"State-derived feminism" is a common feature of socialist countries. The establishment of feminist studies in most of the socialist countries had to face the task of struggling against the taboo in putting gender above the category of class. During the 1980s, there was much discussion in China on the necessity to establish women’s studies as an academic discipline and to develop new approaches within the framework of Marxism. At the "Second National Conference on Women’s Studies Theory" in 1986, the conference attendees were urged to break taboos and criticize orthodox views. Scholars made efforts at developing different interpretations of the relationship between Marxism and women’s studies. Some called for breaking the taboo and learning from the West, i.e., the experiences of the Western feminist movement; others called for indigenizing feminist theories. This paper aims at carving out the development of women’s studies in China in the 1980s by discussing how its theory and method as well as the emerging discourse on developing "local" and indigenous women’s studies vis--vis globalization exemplified the Chinese reflections on the importance of ideology and science in general, and gender consciousness in economic and scientific development in particular.

Women’s Literary Criticism in Contemporary China

Di Bai, Drew University

In the era of globalization, any concept, especially that of Western origin, when translated or transported into another social/cultural context, in this case into China, is about to face fierce negotiation and local appropriation. Feminism is one of such concepts. In the field of literature studies in China, contemporary Western feminism, both as a theoretical concept and a writing/reading practice, has been constantly dissected and contested since its introduction into China twenty plus years ago. The appearance of the pilot issue of Feminism in China (Zhongguo nuxing zhuyi) in March 2004 seems to indicate to many in China that Chinese indigenization of feminism has been partially achieved.

This paper intends to do a textual study of Feminism in China in order to understand what is in the Western feminist theories that has been acclaimed or disclaimed as a valid perspective in Chinese literary studies. Chinese feminism clearly differs from its Western counterpart in that it is less "edgy" politically. The paper then discusses the cultural and the political connotations in this embracing of "femin(ine)" and rejecting "ism" against the backdrop of the government discourse of "all Chinese citizens striving for a comfortably off life."

Confucianism, Communism, and Commercialism and the Paucity of Women’s Rights in China

Yi Sun, University of San Diego

Since the New Culture Movement during the early 20th century, Chinese women’s struggle for their rights and status has been on going for nearly 100 years. A careful examination of their changing experience reveals, however, that women in China have been increasingly marginalized. The new era that was ushered in by the economic reforms twenty-five years ago has generated new dynamics and opportunities for some women, yet it has also created new dilemmas and hardships for many of them, especially the blue collar and rural women. Overall, women’s rights to equal employment, education and political participation as well as their rights to marriage, child-bearing, familial decision-making and legal protection have all experienced various degrees of erosion, especially during the last fifteen years. These holders of "half of the sky" have become the main victims of economic poverty and social discrimination.

In an effort to broaden the analytical framework of contemporary women’s experiences in China, this paper introduces the concept of "paucity of women’s rights" in dissecting the root cause for the multifaceted problems and discriminations that confront women in the areas of employment, education and marriage. This analysis is placed within the broader context of China’s institutional transitions—from Confucianism to communism to commercialism. The paper is primarily based upon field research consisted of case studies at the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing and the author’s personal interviews with women in Beijing and Tianjin.