Guardians of sexual mores

Women and Sexuality in China
February 13, 1998

Sexuality is not so much a taboo subject in China as a site of political control. In her path-breaking study of dominant public discourses on sexuality published in China since 1949, Harriet Evans shows that it is the regulation of sexuality which has comprised the most powerful means of ordering conjugal, familial and social relationships. Her study further argues that the official and dominant discourses of sexuality have constructed women as the main agents responsible for patrolling general standards of sexual morality and family order. In the constant regulation or disciplining of female sexuality, therefore, lies an important foundation of social order and stability.

This book charts the history of this regulation and surveillance of female sexuality from its establishment and dominance in the 1950s to its contestation but continuation under the new market conditions of the 1980s. While the 1950s discourse emphasised the public and social importance of women's sexual or gender concerns, the market orientation of the economic and social reforms of the 1980s have contributed to the "reprivatisation" of such concerns. However both sets of texts are based on one overriding assumption: that it is nature rather than culture which defines gender difference. The ensuing conflation of sex, sexuality and gender fixed hierarchical gender attributes to biologically defined sexual differences. This book highlights the representations of female sexuality as a naturally different responsive but passive complement of the powerful male drive and invariably oriented towards procreation.

Evans examines a range of narrative and visual representations of women's sexuality constructed and published since 1949 with reference to several distinct themes. Chief of these is the regulation and confinement of sexuality to marriage and the silence and surveillance of sexuality outside marriage. Women's sexual regulation before marriage is associated with the need to protect her virtue and energy for the inevitable advent of marriage and childbirth. Indeed the maintenance of pre-marital propriety largely rests on female self-restraint, while during marriage, which is well-nigh universal, woman's sexual responsiveness and sensitivity to her husband's sexual and domestic needs sustains marital satisfaction and familial harmony. Her own expression of sexual desire therefore is a conjugal responsibility necessarily constrained within the marital relationship. Outside this context, her sexuality becomes a source of potential danger, contamination and chaos.

The significance of this marital focus becomes clear only when considered in conjunction with the denial of female subjectivity, autonomy and the marginalisation of women whose sexual behaviour does not conform to discursive definitions of appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour. Many of the chapters discuss such "deviant" forms of sexual behaviour including homosexuality, the abuse and sale of women in marriage and prostitution and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as later changes in attitudes towards sex and sexual practices as evidenced in the explosion of sexually explicit materials available in China since the early 1980s. In this emergence of a new sexual culture in China's cities deriving from the commercial orientation of the reforms, neat ideological categories of proper behaviour have given way to shifting meanings and signification.

However despite the abundance and diversity of sexual representation and the apparent withdrawal of state interest in sexuality, this study argues that campaigns against crime and for social order and stability continue to emphasise the conceptual link between regulated female sexuality, marital stability and domestic and social harmony. Moreover a fundamentally biological construction of male and female sexuality continues to coexist, albeit uneasily, alongside messages of female empowerment and poses little challenge to the active male/passive female dichotomy which continues to inform official and most popular approaches so that neither have seriously begun to treat sexuality itself as a gender issue affecting power relations between men and women. There is one exception and that it is within the burgeoning field of women's studies.

In the discussion of abuses of women's right to existence, sexual violence against women and the sale of women in marriage and prostitution, the idea of sexuality as a site generative of gender hierarchy is gaining some currency in new women's studies. As aspirations in love and marriage change, many women no longer accept the representation of sexuality as a harmonious balance of complementary functions and characteristics. In looking at female sexuality from new perspectives in which conflict is prominent, women are contesting the privileged authority of the dominant discourse to define differences between legitimate and illegitimate or normal and abnormal rules of sexual and gender conduct and instead are propagating ideas about women's sexual autonomy and subjectivity. Such challenges to the dominant view are not easy to find either in the media or in other social discourses, for the voices articulating them are far from centre stage; it is one of the very many virtues of this book that it brings not only these still-minor voices but also the major official and popular sexual discourses centre stage.

At a time when studies of women and gender in China largely focus on the impact of socio-economic change on Chinese women's lives and their contribution to the process of economic reform, a study which focuses on textual and visual representations of women in sexually implicated contexts is a welcome contribution to the literature. This is both an erudite and imaginative study making full use of the author's considerable language skills, interviews in and long experience of China which, combined with a firm grounding in western theories of sexuality, pre- and post- Foucault, allows her sensitively to balance and carefully to document her arguments. In analysing official, semi-official and popular publications produced since 1949, the author is mindful that she is interpreting discourse rather than reactive, resistant and participative social behaviour. As such this book is more about rhetoric than everyday life practices or hidden transcripts but this significantly new and comprehensive study of a rhetoric that has attempted to regulate sexuality, shore up marital stability, confine the body and channel fantasy for more than four decades deserves a wide audience.

Elisabeth J. Croll is professor of Chinese anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Women and Sexuality in China

Author - Harriet Evans
ISBN - 0 745 613977 and 613985
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £13.95
Pages - 0

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