Gender Construction in China's Late Imperial Period
Review of the following source: Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. University of California Press, 1997.
In this scholarly monologue, Francesca Bray “explores the role of technology in shaping and transmitting ideological traditions, focusing on the contribution of technology to the construction of gender” (Bray, pg. 2). What does one typically think of when one hears the word “technology”? Such a question lies at the heart of the research that makes the writing of this book even possible. This is because to Francesca Bray, author of this monologue, the term is actually much more broad in its possible usage and more inclusive when it comes to defining what things constitute “technology”. Her very down-to-earth definition of technology is any tool, whether a tangible one you hold in your hand or an abstract set of ideas meant to “shape the material world” of the people in a society. As such, her discussion of the topic is organized into three parts, each concentrating on the technological domains of 1) the building of houses, 2) the weaving of cloth, and 3) the “production” of children.
Once the main focus of the book is presented and elaborated upon somewhat, the author in turn addresses what might be termed other “sub-foci” of the book, for instance providing a bit of background on the field of technological history in the past and how she feels it is lacking in original scholarship. Her sharpest criticisms are reserved for those that, as she terms it, concentrate on the “master narrative” of Western technological superiority and the comparative backwardness of other nations in the context of rapid developments in Western applied sciences; in other words, the failure of non-Western societies to develop “technology” in the same manner as the West (with which the West was able to effectively pursue aggressive policies of world domination and imperialism) is seen as a shortcoming or failure. Instead, the author states, a historian of the topic must study technology in the context of a particular society's goals or particular value system, for “other worlds were made in other ways” (Bray, pg. 12). This particular “sub-focus” at first seems like a cliché criticism of the more traditional ways of conducting historical research but in the end the author is able to convincing guide this seemingly digressive topic back to the main focus of the book. It is interesting however, to see the author at the end of the introduction doing what she had earlier criticized, pointing out several examples of China's technological innovativeness and how such achievements compared with those of the West. Is the author just trying to satisfy our biased curiosity about why China didn't follow the same route as the West or might she herself still be subconsciously bound to this way of thinking?
The author makes one interesting choice in the manner in which she presents the focus of her book – technology as a tool of gender construction in pre-modern China – to the reader. Throughout, she not only talks about China but also presents examples of the particular cultural practice under discussion in other cultures from around the world. For instance, in the first unit of the book, Bray discusses the separation of the sexes and directs the reader's attention to research being done on Islamic societies in which there is a cultural emphasis on the propriety of separation by sex. Such tidbits serve the purpose of demonstrating that the Chinese experience is not unique or strange. While at times this may seem to be an unhealthy divergence from the main topic, such an approach actually helps point out to the reader that the Chinese experience is not necessarily unique to China and as such further strengthens the author's argument within a world view context.
The first technological domain that helped serve the purpose of gender construction in pre-modern China was that of social space, the material manifestation of this being the house. The house was representative of three interconnected “imaginary architectures”, namely 1) a space of decorum in which rituals were performed, the ancestral tablets were kept and neo-Confucian values were embodied, 2) a cosmic, energetic space the advantages of which could be exploited through the use of the geomantic fengshui system when placing the structure, and 3) a space of culture in which children are socialized and one could find the woman's domestic domain.
In addressing these main points of this particular section, the author more or less places the first and third points together and often addresses the two as if speaking about one topic, noting the correlations between features of the buildings themselves and what purpose the building in question serves. For instance, everything from the layout, design, construction methods and construction materials used in building houses and housing complexes had a functional meaning; Bray states that “the division of interior space into designated functional categories was much the same in rich and poor houses, all of which contained an ancestral shrine, bedrooms, kitchen, and storage space” (Bray, pg. 74). The most important of these “functional spaces” and the one upon which the construction of the remainder of the house centered on was the ancestral shrine and tablets. Ancestral worship and the filial piety one exercised by faithfully observing the required rituals of said worship were at the center of Chinese culture and the placing of these important objects within the home – the domestic domain of a wife – served to demonstrate to a degree the essential role wives played in these Confucian rituals. Other physical aspects of houses were meant to be symbolically representative of certain Confucian-mandated proprieties. The wall that typically encompassed an elite family's housing complex was symbolic of the independent nature of each individual family as well as clearly delineating the inner domain of the home from that of the outside one. Other subtle design features such as the height of buildings within the complex were representative of the seniority of the person dwelling within the building, the tallest of which housed the oldest of family members. Other buildings grew progressively higher as each person grew older and aspired to an age of venerable seniority. Every aspect of these residential buildings “display a fundamental unity of design, conforming to a clear-cut set of principles” (Bray, pg. 74) in many instances meant to delineate the differing roles and place of men and women within Chinese society.
The technological domain discussed in the second part of the book comes closest to what many of us might consider “real”, applied technology: textile production. Other than presenting a history of textile production itself, the author still presents the topic within the context of her much broader definition of technology and discusses how ideological construction affected the traditional role of women in textile production and other “productive” work from the Song period on, resulting in an increasing shift of women's work and identification into other technological domains.
An old proverb states that “men till and women weave” (bray, pg. 183), helping one to understand in only a few words the traditional division of labor in pre-modern China. Traditionally, all aspects of textile production were exercised by women, from gathering the resources needed to produce thread to the final weaving of a piece of cloth or silk. The author then goes on to emphasize the economic importance of textile production during this period of time, expounding on how the sale of textiles made up a large proportion of imperial revenue and (in the case of silk) was a symbol of one's social status; cloth apparently was used as a medium of legitimate monetary exchange, a good example of this being poorer women who often would weave their own bolts of cloth at home in order to build up their own personal dowries.
Next, the author outlines the conditions under which economic changes towards “proto-industrialization” began, precipitated by such crises as the capture of northern China and the establishment of the Southern Song state in 1126. Many of the former inhabitants of the Northern Song decide to move south, and in time demand for items such as silk increased to a point where higher-producing urban workshops began to be established. The appetite of these larger enterprises for raw silk prompted many rural households which had formerly been involved in all stages of silk production to turn exclusively to the production of raw silk to sell to these more sophisticated urban workshops. These events were apparently the beginning of a downward trend in the productive work that a Chinese woman could do and – this is the big point Bray wishes to hammer home in this section – led to a shift away from women's productive work to an emphasis on women's reproductive work. Here, the reader can see the convergence of all three technological domains: textile production done within the social space of the home and a shift to reproductive work in the home. A further item to note is a correlation between the overall decline in the flexibility of women's roles and the decline of household textile production. Production of textiles provided a link between the inner, domestic domain to which women are technically tied and that of the outer domain in which her homespun cloth played an important economic role. The shift to emphasis on reproductive work meant a severing of this connection and a strengthening of female ties to the inner space.
The "Production" of Children
The final section of Bray's book deals with the domain of reproductive technologies, a domain which is variegated into what Bray calls various “reproductive cultures” (Bray, pg. 278) that differ from society to society. She identifies two elements that she feels constituted the reproductive culture of late imperial China: The first concerned what women felt “the maternal role consisted of and how Chinese women could act to achieve it” (Bray, pg. 280) and the second how the role of mother is embedded in the broader responsibilities of wifehood. Towards these ends, Bray devotes a chapter to the exploration of Chinese medical history, especially the gynecological specializations in the field, another chapter to the differences between biological and social motherhood and finally one more to the subjects of polygyny and adoption. In essence, technologies affecting reproductive ability were decisive since the upbringing of children – especially boys – was such an important part of a woman's being considered complete. Bray explores several techniques women utilized in order to gain this kind of edge.
All in all, this scholarly work is in many respects a refreshing read; the heavy use of academic language can be tedious and hard to understand at first glance, however. All of those looking for another feminist criticism of past oppression of women in China can look elsewhere; within these pages, Bray rather seeks to portray the women of the time within their own context of that time and seeks to demonstrate how they were active producers and contributors to society rather than “passive objects of ideology” (Bray, pg. 380). Women in pre-modern China did not necessarily seek avenues of resistance against the limits set by her environment but in many instances – especially as evidenced in the section on reproductive technology – to find an advantage within it and even at times to actively support and uphold the prevailing system.
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Country: United States
Interests: numismatics, reading, history, Star Trek, computer games, Chinese
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