"Engendering the Histories of ëAsian Civilizationí"

Susan Mann

University of California, Davis

Note to the reader: This is a paper prepared for oral delivery at the regional conferences of the Association for Asian Studies during 1999-2000. It forms the nucleus of a larger work in progress. Please donít cite or quote without permission. The brief review of textbooks is an excerpt from my pamphlet "Womenís and Gender History in Global Perspective: East Asia (China, Japan, Korea)," published by the American Historical Association this year.

This talk originally had the pretentious title "Beyond Patriarchy," and itís only a little less pretentious now. But the title is just a device, a provocative way to capture some of the dissatisfaction a lot of us feel about what has happened to the promise of gender studies in Asian studies, and to explore some of the ways we could break of out the impasse that seems to have emerged.

The impasse may partly result from the context where we work, among non-Asianists. Almost all of us do our teaching, research, and writing in a Euro-NorthAmerico-centric disciplinary environment. And if you are interested in studying women, as I am, ethnocentric disciplinarity comes with particular complications.

Colleagues know what you are up to because you have embarked on a track familiar to North Americanists and Europeanists who study women:
historical narratives in English marginalize or erase them ("hidden from history") and your job is to make them visible [thatís a kind of "sameold sameold" problem that virtually every historian interested in women, in any society, has had to tackle first].

The complications arise because U.S. academic culture -- and U.S. historiography -- come with presumptions or rules about where to find those women and how to put them back in.

In the case of Chinese women, the rules for historians are all shaped, one way or another, by the overriding paradigm "patriarchy," the agent of womenís oppression signalled by visible, manifold practices:

These emblems of patriarchy produce the "victim script" that, in the case of China at least, makes Chinese womenís history a record of oppression broken only when Chinese women are "liberated" by ideas and movements imported from the West, first by (European and North American) missionaries and then by (Chinese and Western) reformers and revolutionaries. And the further result is that when we read our texts and probe the past, we are always looking for signs that some Chinese women had started to figure out that they were oppressed and were struggling against ó resisting -- their own oppression, precociously seeking "equality" with men.

I think itís fair to say that all of us are very clear that this kind of teleological thinking is both ethnocentric and intellectually suspect, and that all of us are finding new vantage points that help us to spring free of it. But every time I write a course syllabus I run into the same problem. I can now put women in the Song, thanks to Pat Ebrey; and women do well in the urban print culture of the late Ming, thanks to Dorothy Ko; and I have ways to work them into my discussion of the High Qing era, using my own book. Even so, when the master narrative is written and the lecture topics are organized and Iím well into the course, I realize that women donít actually emerge as integral subjects of my historical narration until the late 19th century ó that itís only when anti-footbinding movements and Kang Youweiís end-of-family utopias and Qiu Jinís bombmaking and Liang Qichaoís call to educate women and put them to work, and of course the New Culture Movement ó and finally, the Communist revolutionaries and the one-child family policy ó only then that you really canít tell the story without women, and they become necessary to the master narrative. Not people you have to work in, but people you canít afford to leave out. So whoops, there I am, recapitulating the teleology in my syllabus.

One suspects that the same habits that trap us trap all crafters of master narratives. So where to start in getting out of this trap? Certainly not with the standard textbooks.

[East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, by John King Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig [Fairbank, 1973, 1978 #7]. The Fairbank text, which in many respects is ideally suited to the study of East Asian history, impedes fruitful discussions of women and gender, and does so right from the start, with its introductory comments about the "authoritarian family system" (p. 16). The Fairbank textbook compounds standard problems of omission because the limited treatment of women is dominated by negative information. For example, such major changes as urbanization are linked to a decline in the status of Chinese women by associating urbanization with the spread of footbinding (pp. 142-143). The narrative thus subtly invites students to imagine a backward culture where women were increasingly oppressed, even in the face of economic development.

Since this is a textbook on "East Asia," where Chinese civilization was hegemonic through much of the regionís history, the status of women in China serves as a proxy for ideas about women throughout the region. We are never asked to wonder why neither Korean women nor Japanese women ever professed interest in footbinding. According to the Fairbankian narrative, it was only the spread of Western-style industrialization, which brought with it new economic opportunities for the young and for women, that caused the breakdown of the old family system (p. 765), thus liberating women slowly from oppressive traditions. Subsequent passing references to the "emancipation" of Chinese women mention the May Fourth and New Culture movements in the second decade of the twentieth century, and the new marriage law of 1950 (pp. 771, 910). These bits of narrative offer the opportunity to situate changes in the position of women within the cultural context of changes within China. But they mainly describe a society where gender relations change following Western models of individual liberation. This is a model most students will be predisposed to accept unless they are presented with other ways of understanding the situation.

In the discussion of Japan in this same textbook, mention is made of the literary achievements of court ladies writing in Japanese (p. 357), who were not subject to the constraints of Confucian thought embedded in classical Chinese writing, the favored medium of court nobles. (This brief discussion is not even listed in the index under "women," which means that an interested reader might pass it up entirely.) Japanese women do not appear again until the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), when the textbook discusses women in the entertainment quarters of Tokugawa cities, the famous geisha (pp. 423-424, 427). The remaining references to women in Japanese history focus on the expanding opportunities for womenís education, beginning in the late 19th century under the modernizing Meiji government (p. 534), with major advancements resulting from the U.S. Occupation following World War II (p. 834). The textbook concludes by pointing to the promise of university-educated women for the future of democracy in Japan (p. 855). Again, the implicit model for change is the West. The chapters on Korea in this textbook do not mention women at all.

[Within the China field itself, three history textbooks are more conducive to the study of women and gender. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, written and designed with profuse illustrations by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, presents more material on women than any of its counterparts. Ebrey, the author of a prize-winning book on women in the Song dynasty, brings gender relations and family history into her discussion throughout her chronological narrative, with plenty of allusions to historical change in notions of physical beauty, ritual status, and fictional images. Lloyd Eastmanís Family, Fields, and Ancestors , and Jonathan Spenceís The Search for Modern China , both conveniently begin their narratives in the seventeenth century, which is the point when women as writers enter Chinaís historical record in significant numbers for the first time. Thus all three textbooks may readily be supplemented with Dorothy Koís study of women and urban print culture to stress the importance of printing and publishing for gender relations and especially for elite women. ]

While I was surveying Chinese history textbooks, I looked at world history books to see how they did with women, wondering if the East Asia field is somehow unique. I saw the same problems. Textbooks on world history beyond East Asia do not do a much a better job of integrating women into larger narratives. In fact, they resemble the China narratives in one telling respect: women are integrated into the plot lines of historical narrative only AFTER the advent of the modern nation-state: that is, it is only in national narratives that we find we canít tell the story, canít make sense of it at all, without including women. Empires, or civilizations, turns out, have narrative histories that exclude women by default. This is one reason why gender issues are a particular problem for Asianists as we struggle along in our ethnocentric disciplinary environments: the history of the nation comes late to most of Asia, and much of our own historical narratives concern the pre-national histories of complex agrarian civilizations.

So letís try posing the question a different way: why are women an integral part of national histories ó all national histories? On one level, of course, the answer is obvious: the need for labor and for political participation by the entire citizenry, the call for mothers to rear and educate future citizens, concerns about the quality of the citizenry and the supply of men for the military (and therefore the reproductive success of fertile women) ó all belong to the national narrative. True, most of these concerns were shared by the rulers of pre-national empires and civilizations. But somehow they donít surface in the narratives we tell about pre-national empires and civilizations. Why not? Seems like Asianists are well positioned to think hard about this question.

Prasenjit Duara, freeing history from the nation, proposes ways to shake up our perspectives and rewrite our narrations without the baggage of the overdetermined nation-state narrative. Provincial histories is one possibility: going local. Another is to try "bifurcating" histories ó that is, seeking out suppressed narratives or silenced discourses that may supply a tension or a counterpoint that would expose the constructed or overdetermined telos. Letís follow out Duaraís impulse to arrive at some new ways to think about how we imagine and narrate prenational pasts, and how those narrations might be reconstructed in such as way as to make it impossible to leave women out.

What kinds of discourses make us trip over women? Well, perfectly clearly, one route to take would be to rewrite a history of China focused on everything classified as "nei." This would be bifurcated history par excellence. In Chinese weíd be talking about any discourses having to do with "nei," or the "inner" world of domestic space and family matters. Women are almost always identified with the "inner" sphere, and with activities appropriate to it. Thereís lots of documentation in "prenational" sources: These are glossed with phrases such as miyan ¶Ã ÆQ (rice and salt, i.e. food preparation, managing the household budget, etc.), jingjiu §´ ¶ð (drawing water and pounding rice, household chores), and more generally nü gong §k §u (womenís work, especially work at spindle and loom) or nü hong §k¨? (embroidery). All of these terms are commonly used to define spheres where womenís activities are visible in historical texts. Beyond these early uses of the term nei associating "inner" with women, womenís work, and domestic affairs, are other "nei" categories defining sensuality, sexual intercourse, and even with what a Westerner might call "femininity" (parrots, certain kinds of fabric used in the making of bed curtains and boudoir accoutrements, and so on, were for women only). Nei, in this context, marks a boundary that defines or divides the sphere of men from that of women: the Li ji ¬ß°O("nei ze" §º ´h) says: "Men do not speak of what is ëinsideí and women do not refer to what is ëoutsideí" (nan buyan nei, nü buyan wai ®k§£®ï§º §k §£®ï ï~), "each attends to his or her proper business, and does not confer or collaborate with those on the other side." By extension, the term nei could refer simply to places that are sexually off limits: to "women," or to femininity, or even to female sexual allure. Again, in the Li ji ("nei ze"), we are told: "Those inside and those outside do not draw water together at the well; they neither bathe together nor sleep together."

The problem with this bifurcated approach is that most Asian histories involve the study of complex agrarian societies where whatís interesting is the LINKAGE between families in households and the larger structures of government, economy, religion, society, and so forth. So a "nei" history is not going to give us the new master narrative we are looking for.

How then would we use a bifurcated history to construct a new narrative from which women could not be missing, even in the prenational era? I just want to try out one little possibility here with you today. I want to look at the unexamined link between inner and outer represented by consumption and investment: by womenís purchases of commodities, by menís purchases of women, by the tastes and values that govern these transgressive activities and practices. The payoff here, for those of us living in ethnocentric disciplinary environments, is the amazing new literature thatís developing in all fields to help us rethink consumerism, commodification, and taste. Most of this Euro-North American literature is still grounded in national narrative. But Asianists are uniquely positioned to push these issues back into the prenational era, and to re-pose them to interrogate the Euro-North American paradigms. Why?

First, in most fields of Asian studies, we already have a vast literature on urban consumerism, print culture, desire and acquisitiveness, commodification, and commercialization. That literature points to a particular time too: the late sixteenth century is a period of near-universal economic prosperity in Asia. We have ideologies that make consumption a cultural practice that contrasts sharply with consumerism in non-Asian societies. We know from recent work by Leora Auslander, and others, that consumerism is readily identified with gendered practices and ideologies. And even though many Asian societies cloistered women ó especially women with money -- thereís lots of evidence for womenís transgressive economic activity in societies where they are cloistered: in philanthropy, religion, endowments.

[Studies of investment and trading by veiled women in early modern Cairo, Bombay, and elsewhere in the Muslim world where women were active contributors to and founders of the family endowments or trusts known as waqf. See for example Beshara Doumani, "Endowing Family: Waqf, Property Devolution, and Gender in Greater Syria, 1800-1860," Comparative Studies in Society and History 40.1 (January 1998): 3-41; also Mary Ann Fay, "In Search of the Harem: Gender, Space and the Body in the Upper-class Ottoman/Egyptian Household," paper presented at the Eleventh Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, University of Rochester, 5 June, 1999.]

I think itís possible, in other words, that research on gendered consumption patterns in non-Western societies may open up entirely new ways of understanding the relationship between "inner" and "outer," and at the same time help us bring gender relations into the master narrative we already tell about economic transformation in Asiaís agrarian societies.

So quickly, in the time remaining, Iíd like to give you a few examples of the kinds of things we already know about gender and consumption in "Asian" societies. What we already know points up contrasts with gendered practices in the non-Asian world that will make scholars working in the U.S. sit up and take notice.

In-home consumption.

A key market for in-home consumption in Asia was centered on womenís hair. Long straight black hair of the sort that predominates in East Asia and South Asia requires elaborate dressing, including oiling, and featuring heavy styles that require the use of false hairpieces and elaborate combs to hold them in place. This makes the role of the hairdresser and the fashioning of hairstyles (including the various ornaments ó combs, bars, pins) a centerpiece of female consumer culture. [Inouye, 1985 (1910) #128, pp. 115-119] opines that itinerant female hairdressers made more money than any other wage-earner women during the nineteenth century ó more yet than geisha, whose business expenses cut into their profits. Other womenís consumer services came to the home: According to Verity Wilson, Chinese Dress (New York: Weatherhill, Victoria and Albert Museum, Far Eastern Series, 1996), for example, tailors and silversmiths came to richer private homes to make items to order (p. 100 notes that in 1838, one commentator observed that most of the tailors in Peking came from Ningbo, often taking the tools of their trade into private houses.)

Liminal spaces: the garden as investment, consumption, and production. Although both Craig Clunas and Joanna Handlin Smith [Joanna F. Handlin Smith, "Gardens in Chíi Piao-chiaís Social World: Wealth and Values in Late-Ming Kiangnan," JAS 51.1 (Feb 1992): 55-81] appear to treat gardens as masculinized spaces dominated by menís plans, aspirations, and networks [see p. 206, where Clunas makes a half-hearted attempt to consider gender, and gives up], there is good reason to view gardens as spaces that gave women unusual opportunities to invest and manage money and labor. Hints of this appear in Clunasí discussion of writings by Wen Zhengming on garden culture. In 1504, for instance, Wen wrote a composition titled "In the Gu Clanís Xiangying Hall there is a Flowering Plum Planted by my Grandmotherís Hand" (see Craig Clunas, Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China [Durham: Duke University Press, 1996, p. 109). Yuan Meiís ëAt Easeí Garden may have been a gathering place for his "female disciples," marking it as a space much like the French salon, where men and women could mingle and share literary and sensual companionship. Women would be free to harvest and work in the fields of cloistered gardens, which were "nei" to the external worldís "wai," making the rice, mulberry, fruits, and flowers of the garden ó not to mention its animals ó their charge. Clunas notes as well (p. 113) that Madame Wu was charged with the "impure task" of purchasing the land for gardens for the Wen family. The gardens built to honor Bao Yuís sisterís return from the palace in Dream of the Red Chamber appear to be sites for inspiring poetry and clever names, rather than working fields producing capital returns on investments, or sites for organizing and deploying labor. Still, the plans for the garden call for her majesty to make the final judgment about naming each section, and the garden is earmarked as the domain of the young Jias during the duration of her visit. Surely it is what were perceived as womenís tastes that dictated what was spent to create the grand garden. (Clunas notes [p. 168] that gardens had gendered spaces marked by certain kinds of plantings and architecture.)

In-home production for the market. Things women produced themselves in the home often moved into commercial markets beyond. The famous case of embroidery and lace-making in Ningbo is only one example of this widespread phenomenon. A recent study of batik in Java points to the ironies of these circulating commodity markets, linking women in disparate households as producers and consumers [see Van Roojen, Pepin. Batik Design (Amsterdam: The Pepin Press, 1996)]. Until the late 18th century, batik was mainly traded within Java, and made only for use in village communities where it originated. From about 1800, large cities along the northern coast (e.g. Batavia) became commercial centers for cloth export (stimulus: decline in textile imports from India due to Napoleonic wars). "Initially Arabs and Chinese were the principal traders in batik made by indigenous Javanese. These merchants would commission women, who previously made batik for their own and their familyís use, to do so for trade. This created a modest cottage industry, which eventually evolved into a full-scale economic activity.

"During the 1830s batik became popular among Indo-European women in Java, a sizable number of whom recognised a means to earn money in the batik industry and established workshops to produce cloth decorated with designs and colours based on European taste. These Indo-Europeans were probably the first in Java to transfer batik production from disparate villages to single-site workshops for the sake of efficiency.

"A few decades later Chinese entrepreneurs followed with similar ventures, producing batik decorated with Hybrid European, Chinese and Javanese designs. In particular, Pekalongan became known for its mixed style batiks, which were popular in Java and among the Chinese in Singapore, Malacca and Penang. The Indo-European or Indo-Chinese batik sarong would eventually become part of a distinct Nyonya-style costume (ëNyonyaí is the word for Chinese women who, to a degree, adapted to the cultural environment of the Malay world)." (pp. 22-23) [see illus. P. 107]

Women in the marketplace. Timothy Brook (The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998]) has observed the prominence of women in the market systems of the late Ming: especially peddlers bartering gold and pearl head ornaments, selling kerchiefs and thread, specializing in makeup and hairstyling (p. 202, citing a Songjiang writer at the turn of the seventeenth century). And in Southeast Asia, the presence of "market women" was a hallmark of the culture and its bilateral descent system. [Anthony Reid, "Economic and Social Change, c. 1400-1800," in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Volume One: From Earliest Times to c. 1800 , ed. Nicholas Tarling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 482-83]:

"In considering the ways in which Southeast Asians responded to the commercialization of the ëlong sixteenth-century boomí, the role of women cannot be ignored. Commerce and marketing were considered predominantly the business of women by all Southeast Asian societies, as to a lesser extent they still are in rural areas. . . . While for males of high status it was considered demeaning to haggle over prices, at least in oneís home territory, women had no such inhibitions. The business concerns of powerful men were typically managed by their wives." Reid also calls attention to another aspect of the entrepreneurial success of women in Southeast Asia:

Marriage alliances as a female entrepreneurial strategy.

"For all but the most aristocratic and the most Islamic women, there was also a tolerant attitude towards marriages of convenience with foreign traders . . . The local women who made the most advantageous unions of this type occupied very strategic commercial positions. . ." [ibid.] It is these kinds of relationships, of course, that make possible the transformation of batik from domestic production to commercial markets, and drive the increasingly cosmopolitan tastes of women in Southeast Asia and the Nanyang generally after the 16th century.

Other places to look:

Clothing ("Fashion"). Western observers of fashion and taste in Asian societies in the nineteenth century were inclined to be dismissive. Sir John Chardin, writing in the late 1600s, remarked that the clothes of the "Eastern people" were not subject to "Mode": "they are always made after the same Fashion, and if the wisdom of one Nationa appears in a constant Custom for their dress, as has been said, the Persians ought to be mightily commended for their Prudence, for they never alter in their Dress." (quote in K.N. Chaudhuri, Asia Before Europe:Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 [New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994], p. 187) Westerners were also astonished at the extent to which clothing in Japan and China was refashioned, recycled, and remade until only bare threads remained.

Of course, these kinds of judgments are the result of misreadings of modes of taste and consumption based on unfamiliar criteria. In Tokugawa Japan, for example, as Susan Hanley has pointed out, consumers valued fine design rather than many things, and they measured affluence by immense storehouses kept discreetly distant from the home, displaying in view only a few selected possessions at a time. Similarly, in Chinese clothing the beauty of a garment lay in the elaborately embroidered trimmings and accessories rather than in the finished gown they embellished; and the fashion statement on the head was a hairstyle, not a hat. The value of embroidery was greatly increased if it was made by the wearer: embroidered accessories, including pouches and small purses, collars and sleeve cuffs, trimmings and bindings, and shoes, are all part of the endless stitchery projects that kept Chinese women of the upper classes continually busy, and that also supplied the arena for endless creativity and variability in fashion.

Last: Dowry.

The centerpiece of the dowry in China and Japan is the quilt, and quilts came into general use in Japan only with the spread of cotton culture in the first half of the 17th century, when the term futon begins to see widespread use (see Hanley 1996: 46-47). "ëBy the end of the eighteenth century . . . the custom of making bridal furnishings even passed down to ordinary people, especially in western Japan. . . .These furnishings ceased to be the showpieces of upper-class weddings, but now met the everyday needs of a lifetime, from marriage on. Typical items included chests, trunks, hampers, mirrors and mirror stands, clothes racks, cosmetic cases, and sewing boxes.í" Quoted on p. 48, from Kazuko Koizumi, Traditional Japanese Furniture (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1986), pp. 172-73.

So suppose we try analyzing gender and consumption in Asiaís prenational age. Suppose, in other words, we take questions framed by Europeís bourgeois industrial revolution and test them on complex agrarian societies. What will happen? First, clearly, we will have found a way to change our master narratives by make women people we canít leave out. But we may be able to do more than that. Mary Louise Robertsí recent review of the Euro-North American literature on consumer culture ["Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture," AHR 103.3 (June 1998): 817-844], shows the kinds of questions our Euro-North American colleagues like to pose. For instance, U.S. historians keep wondering if women as consumers are agents or victims: are they using clothing and makeup to reinvent themselves and create new identities? Or are they capitulating to the demands of the power structure for compliance with fashion trends, standards of beauty, and so on. Will these be the questions that evidence from Asian cultures will raise? Not necessarily.

First of all, in the construction of gender relations in Asian societies before the national period, the "domestic bursar" was generally a woman, not a man. It was she who set the standards of taste for her children and her household, and she who produced ó or hired, or bought ó the commodities that displayed those tastes and standards. The acquisition of things displaying taste was not a weakness but a sign of good breeding and knowledge. If the housewife as "domestic bursar" was in charge of consumption -- food, household decoration and clothing for family members, the payment of servants and other dependents, and the care of parents-in-law ó of course she had to be frugal, but it behooved her to spend well when spending was appropriate, and to know the best when she saw it.

Second, the separation of the sexes by the design of the domestic space and the strict division of labor helped to ensure that consumption by women lay in their own hands and was not dictated by the tastes ó let alone the pocketbooks -- of men.

Third, as we have seen consumption was utterly unfettered by cloistering. Cloistered women consumed and produced at home, invested and divested from home; while their social inferiors, market women, were out on the street profiteering.

In other words, what we may find, in the prenational narratives of consumption and gender in Asia, is an ideology of shopping without guilt. We may discover societies where creature comforts are a sign of moral order, and the women who provide them emblems of that moral order. It was Mencius, after all, who insisted that the rulerís first obligation was to provide for the material wellbeing of his people, through farms and markets. It was Confucian thought that encouraged wives to believe that price was no object in serving a husbandís parents. And yes, there are Buddhist and Confucian critiques of luxury and decadence, but when it comes to ritual expenditures, both turn a blind eye to cost. The precocious level of development of markets and cities and ports in Asian history, long part of our master narrative in the prenational era, suddenly beckons as an arena where female consumers, producers, and investors cannot be left out. And where we now have a chance to ask questions that will problematize and relativize the agendas of our colleagues in non-Asian fields.

Additional references

Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1997).

Garrett, Valery M. Traditional Chinese Clothing in Kong Kong and South China, 1940-1980 (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Tarlo, Emma. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).