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The legacy of the Maoist gender project in contemporary China Huang, Xin

Abstract

This study examines various ways in which the Maoist gender project manifests itself in Chinese women’s lives today, as conveyed by a range of women currently living in Beijing. Oral histories were collected from fifteen women, four of whom were selected for in-depth analysis using a method informed by narrative studies and feminist approaches to women’s auto/bio/graphy. Judith Butler’s ideas on gender as performative serve as a framework to examine these individual negotiations with changing models of femininity, and the first chapter presents a critical account of the limits and applicability of her theory in this specific transnational context. The four following chapters provide detailed, contextualized analysis of these particular performances of gender in relation to the Maoist model woman (funű, or socialist labourer), whose presence remains in the shadow of the currently preferred nűxing (feminine, consumer-oriented woman), while the even older pre-revolutionary devoted wife and mother remains in the background. Their gender performances bring out the intersections of physical embodiment and the construction of subjectivity through discourse. Analysis of the content of each story is complemented by a discussion of the structure and language of their narratives, including an innovative interviewing method of “telling and retelling”. Hybrid language—various mixtures of official dialect, regional dialects, and imported terms—is a feature that becomes prominent, conveying changing performances of being a woman, as do the visual representations (photographs, artwork) that some of them shared. The analysis reveals how women individually appropriate, resist or synthesize the ideologically motivated models proposed by government and media, from China and from the West. The concept of gender performance as a “project” is introduced to convey both conscious manipulation at the collective level, and personal agency for individuals. This research shows that the Maoist legacy still manifests itself in various ways in the lives of women with different social locations and sexual orientations, and is one of the resources for women to formulate strategies for gender subversion. The persistent existence of this legacy sheds light on how to formulate subversive strategies to challenge the narrowly defined, class-encoded, normative gender model of the post-Mao nüxing, and create a more diverse and democratic gender landscape in China.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

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