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Polygyny, Concubinage, and Prostitution: Continuations and Aftereffects from the Late 19th Century to the Present
Organizer and Chair: Keith McMahon, University of Kansas
Discussant: Joshua Mostow, The University of British Columbia, Canada
This panel will discuss continuations and aftereffects of dominant forms of sexual subjectivity in China from late imperial times to the present. Our focus is on the structure of feeling constituted by the matrix of polygyny, concubinage, and prostitution, and the socially productive force they have exerted and continue to exert. The positionalities of man and main wife, concubine, and prostitute enact what amounts to the dominant mode of sexuality as China has flowed into the global scene of modernity. The panelists will engage in a critical rethinking of this dominant mode in terms of the intersection of politics, gender, sexuality, and sexual service and class. Our premise is that recent and contemporary sexual politics must be viewed as ultimately having descended, however directly or indirectly, from the age of legal and faithfully practiced polygyny and the intimately connected practice of prostitution.
Our papers will deal with an assortment of topics: the rules and values governing the institution of concubinage, including the caste markers of base and good, as in "woman of good family"; the relevance of polygyny and concubinage to the discourses of nationalism, feminism, and queer sexuality; and in general the necessity of considering polygyny, concubinage, and prostitution in the construction of modern and post-modern subjectivity. With a Japan specialist on sexuality and cultural self-definition as discussant, we will keep in mind an ultimate goal of considering these topics against a larger Asian cultural context.
The Polygynous Politics of the Modern Chinese Man
Keith McMahon, University of Kansas
The premise of this paper is that to take the new man and woman of late Qing reformism as signs of a new sexuality to come is to risk forgetting the affective power of the polygynist/philanderer and the concubine/prostitute. As novels like the 1910 Nine-times Cuckold demonstrate, the positionalities of the polygynist/main wife/concubine and prostitute continue to be a productive force in the formation of the supposedly liberated man and woman. The hierarchic principles inherent in polygyny and concubinage still act like a dominant ideology even while they are under attack and even as the egalitarian ethic supposedly leaves them behind. To assert this is to affirm the relevance of the wanton and savvy Shanghai prostitute to the late Qing discourse of modern femininity. Similarly, the scandalous and retrograde polygynist still exerts an affective power alongside and in spite of the man struggling for an egalitarian ethic. My point will be that any observation of the progress of egalitarianism and the independence of women from the late Qing on must inevitably take into account the process of remolding that the new man and woman must undergo given the effects of polygyny as a dominant sexual formation. As a tool for understanding these points, the popular novel Nine-times Cuckold is a sign of the stubborn appeal of the excesses of the brazen polygynist and philanderer and proof that even he can serve as model of the modern, reformist Chinese man.
Concubinage: Institutions and Imaginaries
Naifei Ding, National Central University, Republic of China
This paper examines the fallout of concubinage in eighties and nineties Taiwan as (receding) institution and (reactive) imaginary in populist feminist and fictional discourse and how it matters for sexual politics in Taiwan. The paper will consider a range of feminist texts in order to think the historicity of a certain way of talking about and imagining women and sex within the matrix of polygyny and concubinage as both social institution on the demise and social imaginary proliferating anew for rhetorically feminist yet often, though not always, conservative usages. Terms that seem a holdover from the institution of polygyny and concubinage, such as little wife and concubine, are often used and retooled in contexts that repeat symbolic class and status or caste debasement: they reproduce and affirm a "past" stigma for new subjects who are neither in the situation nor the institutions that foster those old stigmas. Alternatives to such delimiting figurations will also be explored. This line of inquiry has implications for not just Taiwan, since concubinage as historical institution and cultural imaginary work in several neighboring Asian sites (Hong Kong and Singapore for example).
Back to the Future. Nostalgia and Prostitution in China and Beyond
Paola Zamperini, Amherst College
This paper explores the legacies of late imperial representations of prostitution on contemporary Chinese sources as well as on present-day Western readings of the Chinese/ "Oriental" sex-worker. By focusing on nostalgia as the main link between pre-modern and contemporary discourses and drawing on a variety of Ming, Qing and contemporary works (novels, movies, photographs, and academic studies), we begin by looking at how the tropes created to narrate and regulate prostitution in the past still hold currency in modern-day China. The diachronic ruptures occurred in the sources under study point to the continuing, problematic importance of prostitution in Chinese culture as a fundamental category to define masculinity, femininity, empowerment, consumerism and modernity, among other things. It is in this sense that nostalgia, as a utopian and often dystopian reading of the past, becomes a useful concept to study the sexual politics of contemporary China.
But nostalgia is also useful to expose the global destiny of these representations, and thus the paper addresses in its second part contemporary Western depictions of the Chinese prostitute of old and their impact of configurations of race, gender and sexuality. Works such as "That Chinese Woman," and "Suzie Wong", reveal how the Chinese/Oriental prostitute has been playing a key role also in the context of Western sexual politics for at least one century. In conclusion, we will look at the intersections between Chinese and Western discourses, to illuminate the relationship between past institutions and practices and new, emerging sexual subjects.
Prostitution, State Feminism and ‘Sage-Queen’ Sexual Order in Taiwan: A Queer Intervention
Huang Hans Tao-Ming, University of Sussex, United Kingdom
This paper attempts to offer an ideological critique of dominant Taiwan state feminism by analyzing how it enables the positionality of the ‘woman of respectable family’ (liangjia funü) to police multiple sexual lives in present-day Taiwan. The paper traces this discursive formation back to the normative context of Taiwan state culture shaped during the Cold War era. There a sexual-moral order premised on the speaking position of the Confucian ‘sage-king’ was established through the proscription of prostitution. The paper then shows how state feminists, in assuming what can be termed as the ‘sage-queen’ moral position upholding the monogamous ideal, actively intervened through legal reforms to curb the inundation of sex caused by the proliferation of ‘deviant’ youth subcultures (such as teenage prostitution and sex parties) in 1990s Taiwan consumer culture. Through examining the leading state feminist Liu Yuxiu’s production of postmodern subjectivity as well as her articulation of the feminine mode of governance, the paper makes the case that the ‘sage-queen’ governmentality is founded on the continual repudiation of the figure of the gendered prostitute and that such a deployment of prostitution constructs as it delimits the domains of teenage sexuality, female sexuality and perverse sexuality. The paper will conclude by considering the resistance that state feminism has compelled. It demonstrates that queer activism as enacted by the local group Gender/Sexuality Rights Association Taiwan embodies the practicing of what Partha Chatterjee calls ‘postcolonial democracy’: in forging a ‘political society’ through a coalition politics, Taiwanese queers counter the non-sleaze ‘civil society’ envisaged by the sage-queens.