Siumi Maria Tam, Wai Ching Angela Wong, and Danning Wang, eds. Gender and Family in East Asia. London & New York: Routledge, 2014. 246 pp. ISBN: 9780415715898 (hardback).


Its editors introduce Gender and Family in East Asia by stating that ‘modernization manifested itself differently in East Asian societies than in the West’ (p.1). While Asian modernities are sometimes modelled on the West, local cultural contexts have distinctively impacted women and the family. The introduction asserts that geo-political and economic changes have influenced gender, but traditional systems, such as Confucianism, continue to have an effect on the Chinese, Korean and Japanese contexts. The editors employ the notions of second modernity and institutional individualization in relation to East Asia. Second modernity is defined as neo-liberalist efforts to encourage individualism while the ‘individualization process should be contextualized within an institutional framework by understanding the tension between the increasing demands for individuality […] on one hand, the complex and unavoidable dependence of the same individual on social institutions on the other’ (p.2). However, the editors argue that in the East Asian context, with the absence of any welfare state, family and collective support to individuals remains important. At the same time, gender and family in East Asia are heavily influenced by the global economy, and domestic and transnational mobility. The collection is divided into three sections. The first two, dealing with marriage and motherhood, and migration respectively, are clearly signposted by the introduction, whereas the rationale for the inclusion of the third section, religion, is less clear.

The first part of the book ‘Marriage and motherhood’ consists of four chapters, covering studies from Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan. Yuqin Huang’s chapter on gendered childcare categorizes three generations of rural mothers and demonstrates how the role of women as carers has changed along with state policy and migration. Seyoung Kang’s chapter on the dynamics of entrepreneur couples in Daeg shows that the wives face obstacles like balancing work and family, and male-oriented business hospitality. Female entrepreneurs are also over-represented in micro and small-scale entrepreneurship, and as non-paying family members. In 2004, among the self-employed, 54.9% of women were business owners and 45.1% were unpaid family workers, while 96.7% of the male self-employed owned their business and only 3.3% were unpaid family members. Yun Hsien Diana Lin’s chapter discusses how Confucian ethics have influenced the surname law in Taiwan that assumes paternal lineage. Taking a maternal surname marks out individuals as born ‘out of wedlock’, and legal structures are also built around social norms. Taiwanese laws no longer support patriarchal practices though social norms are yet to change. The four contributions do not lend themselves to any easy conclusions. In fact, they show that traditional patriarchal values continue to impact women’s lives, although other factors such as state intervention (in the case of China) and generational differences also play a role.

The second section consists of four chapters, with two focusing on China, one on Chinese migrants in Canada and the fourth on Indian migrants in Hong Kong. Pui Yim Ada Lai’s chapter on married Miao women in a poor village in Guizhou clearly shows the burden of farm work and childcare on women left behind by relatives who have migrated. Filial piety and intergenerational support are no longer guaranteed. Wai Ling Wong’s chapter on mainland women’s migration experiences in Hong Kong and Guida Man’s comparison between mainland and Hong Kong women in Canada show a significant similarity between the various groups in that their children’s education was a major factor in their decision to migrate. The sacrifices that some of these women made concerning their own careers, for instance taking less well-paid and exploitative jobs, are also well documented effects of first generation migrants to more developed countries. More could have been said about specific factors such as the effects of the economic downturn in Hong Kong after 1997.

There are only three chapters in the final section, ‘Religion and family’. Ke Man’s chapter on the Islamic menhuan, a Chinese sufi order, and its oppression of the women of the Dongxiang minority in Gansu province sheds light on a subject that is rarely addressed in English language scholarship. Wai Ling Wong‘s chapter covers a lot of ground, examining the discourses within Catholicism and Daoism as they are practised in Hong Kong, and religious beliefs around marriage and divorce that are discriminatory against non-conventional families and homosexuality. Many of the women interviewees accept their fate. For instance, instead of divorcing their husbands they stay in ‘empty beds’ or asexual relationships. However, Wong concludes that to some extent these women do question the ideal family and a woman’s role within it and are subjects in the process.

Laurel Kendall’s conclusion is a welcome addition that draws together some of the themes of the collection, such as modernities and traditions, by considering marriage across East Asia. The author offers no generalizations, but instead draws out some of the common trends like bridal photography (the adoption of the Western wedding dress), and discusses how ideas about child rearing and marriage are changing all over Asia.

The selection of the articles seems somewhat random and imbalanced. There is a shortage of studies on key countries, with only one chapter on Japan and two on Korea. Much of the valuable empirical research reported in this collection is also dated. Pui Yim Ada Lai’s chapter for example relies on evidence from fieldwork conducted in 2001-2003, leaving the reader craving an update. As a collection, these chapters are academically vigorous and help to highlight the diversity of women’s experiences in East Asia. It is certainly a worthwhile addition to the university library as a reference work for both undergraduates and more advanced researchers.


(Leung Wing-Fai, University College Cork, Ireland)