Gender fluidity : an alternative image of women (and men), and a critique of the colonialist legacy

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Tang, Jin, master of music

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Chinese feudal women have long been identified as victims of the Chinese Confucian patriarchy and discussed in terms of notions of backwardness, dependency, female passivity, biological inferiority, intellectual inability, and social absence. This image of the victimized women, however, is a product of China’s modernization and Westernization processes since late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Its formation is inseparable from the appropriation of the colonialist categories of sex binarism by the May Fourth male “new intellectuals.” This binary, linear gender ideology, together with the social context of Confucianism’s long-term status as the official, orthodox ideology in premodern China, easily led to the conceptualization of women in terms of absence, marginalization, and ultimately victimization. In this process, Chinese women became Woman, the other of Man, which constitutes a monolithic, ahistorical entity that masks specificities and variations in different historical periods and concrete cultural contexts, and obscures the dynamics of gender relationships. Kunqu (Kun opera) and the literati culture of late Ming (1573-1644) and early Qing Dynasty (1644~1722) surrounding it could be of particular use to demonstrate the problem of this binary and static conceptualization of gender in premodern China. In this study, I will be examining the case of two distinguished kunqu, Mudan ting (The Peony Pavilion) and Taohua shan (The Peach Blossom Fan), whose text, music, and performance raise interesting questions about femininity and masculinity in the specific social and cultural context of the time. Through this study, I want to help illuminate the inadequacy of the modernist, rigid sex binarism in understanding traditional Chinese gender ideology which cannot be reduced to the Western sexual physiology and biology, and to refute the ahistorical construction of the victimized Chinese Woman.




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