Shanshan Du and Ya-chen Chen, eds. Women and Gender in Contemporary Chinese Societies: Beyond Han Patriarchy. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011. 241pp. ISBN 978-0-7391-4580-7 (hardback).


This book is a distinct contribution to the understanding of women and gender in China. Scholarship in Chinese Studies or Sinology has been limited by the continuing neglect of ethnic diversity in mainstream representations of Chinese women and gender. This tendency inadvertently reinforces a partial understanding of China as homogeneously Han and Chinese women as unvaryingly suffering under patriarchy. This edited volume is a systematic effort to bridge the gap between understanding the majority Han and ethnic minorities with regard to women and gender in China.

This edited volume is divided into three sections that challenge the traditions and norms of Han patriarchy from various perspectives, including anthropology, film studies, history, and literature. The first section focuses on gender traditions among ethnic minorities that compete with the norms of Han patriarchy. The second section considers the impact of radical social transformation on gender systems and practices among both Han and ethnic minorities. The third section emphasizes socio-cultural diversity and complexity in resistance to Han patriarchal norms from a broad perspective.

The first section, “Competing Traditions”, gives us a comprehensive insight into the diversity of gender ideologies in China. Shanshan Du reveals gender-egalitarian constructions of the Lahu society, as manifested in life cycle, gender roles, leadership organization, and kinship system. In contrast to Han patriarchy, the Lahu gender system is based on husband-wife dyads that nurture gender equality in binding the two sexes to each other in value, interest, obligation, and authority, as well as in social roles and status. The next two chapters discuss negotiations of gender ideologies between indigenous Southwest Chinese religions and world religions. James Wilkerson illustrates how the interactions between the Zhuang and Taoist religious traditions take the form of deliberations over the roles of women in ritual performance, while Shanshan Du shows how the De’ang shape Buddhist cosmology in reasserting the indispensable position of their indigenous goddess, the Mother of Grain. Both emphasize the resilience of indigenous gender egalitarian traditions in the context of assimilation and domination of male-privileging religions.

In the second section, “Current Transformations”, we are provided with a thoughtful analysis on shifting gender norms in post-socialist China. Two chapters discuss emerging trends in relation to gendered patterns of family relationships that undermine the hegemony of Han patriarchy. Lihong Shi reveals the significant transformation of Han traditions that position a young married woman on the lowest rung of a patrilineal family structure. Due to the severe sex-ratio imbalance of people of marriageable age, young women are leveraging the scarcity to their advantage and exercising their agency in marriage formation, marital conflicts, marriage termination, and family relations. Turning to parent-child relationships, William Jankowiak perceives greater father-child intimacy amidst the simultaneous organization of the modern urban Chinese family and persistence of Han cultural continuities. Following which, the other two chapters examine representations of gender norms among the Dai and Nuosu. Monica Cable illustrates the fetishized commodification of Dai marriage traditions in the Dai Park, a major tourism site in Xishuangbanna. The negotiations between Dai villagers and Han park management personnel in the contested representation of Dai culture complicate the process of commodifying an ethnic tradition where women’s status is higher than that of the Han tradition. Likewise, Shao-hua Liu shows wives’ and mothers’ structural significance and practical resourcefulness in the Nuosu patrilineal kinship system and social life. In recent years, marital kinship has been appropriated to cope with heroin addictions plaguing the community.

The third section, “Resistance from Within”, illuminates the various ways of resisting, contesting, or negotiating established conventions of Han patriarchy. Chia-lin Pao Tao discusses the historical significance of the nude parade in 1927, where a small group of nude women unexpectedly showed up with feminist slogans at a government-sponsored International Women’s Day Parade in Wuhan to protest against discriminatory rejections of their applications to become female soldiers. Representing a different form of resistance, Hillary Crane argues that Taiwanese Buddhist nuns’ masculine identification is not a challenge to dominant Han gender ideologies but their conceptualization of gender as correlative and fluid rather than binary and predetermined. In her analysis of the Chinese cinematic world of martial arts, Ya-chen Chen identifies male filmmakers’ cinematic pen(is) as the glass ceiling or constraint of “Chinese cinematic martial arts feminism” in film narratives. Focusing on literature, Murray A. Rubinstein examines how Li Ang, matriarch of sexual fiction and critic of Han patriarchy in Taiwan, uses the power of the printed word to redefine gender, gender roles, and gender stereotypes.

This edited volume not only expands our conceptual framework on women and gender in China, but also illustrates how ethnic minorities shed new light on our understanding of Han patriarchy itself. Hence, it encourages an increasing awareness of, and sensitivity to the cross-cultural diversity of gendered China. This book will be a useful point of reference for scholars with an interest in gender and women in historical and contemporary Chinese societies.


(Adelyn Lim, National University of Singapore)