Wednesday, September 6, 2017


I recently posted a podcast review of the book Crossing the Gate: Everyday Lives of Women in Song Fujian. I was lucky enough to get an interview with the author Man Xu. 

Man Xu is a professor of history at Tufts University where she specializes in Middle Period and Late Imperial China, with a focus on local history, material culture and gender. In addition to authoring Crossing the Gate, her articles have been published in English, Japanese and Chinese. 

Crossing the Gate is published by Suny Press. You can learn more about it HERE. It is presently being translated into Chinese and will be available in that language in 2018. 

BRENDAN DAVIS: What made you decide to write this book and why did you focus on Fujian?
MAN XU: My research interest is women and gender in medieval China. Any historical study of women and gender should be class-, locale-, and age-specific. Great divergence between geographical areas, especially north and south, in the Song dynasty makes an intensive local study of women’s history necessary. This book takes as its focus the Fujian Circuit in the southeastern edge of the Song empire, which suddenly rose as a new force during the Song dynasty. Its economy and culture advanced greatly and it became a developed district during the Song period. It produced a large number of Neo-Confucians including Master Zhu Xi, whose ideas gradually became the orthodox ideology for the duration of late imperial China. The concentration of Neo-Confucian scholars and officials in Fujian provides us a valuable context for studying the contrast and conformity between Neo-Confucian ideology and local women’s everyday lives. Fujian’s prosperity in education, examinations, and culture not only brought up a local society possessing a large number of elite families, and built a benign living atmosphere for women’s activity, but also left us plentiful written texts and material sources to recover women’s life experience. Although the book is based on intensive research on a specific locality, I am convinced that many of its conclusions can be applied to Song China as a whole.

BD: How would you describe your approach to history?
MX: Deficiency of sources has been considered a serious problem for scholars studying Chinese women’s history. My book, Crossing the Gate, presents an exhaustive search of the widest possible range of surviving sources—including the standard histories, government document collections, the Song legal code, descriptions of local customs, epitaphs, collections of miscellaneous notes and anecdotes, encyclopedias, poetry, and paintings. Furthermore, it accords proper value to material sources that have been largely ignored by social historians. Adopting the methodologies of art history and archaeology, the book draws upon a wide range of previously untapped sources—including archaeological reports, museum collections, and excavations of women’s tombs—to recover women’s experience of the life course, from childhood socialization to death, and the artifacts that women produced, transmitted, and consumed, including cosmetics, dress, embroidery, jewelry, kitchen goods, calligraphy and sutra transcriptions. The unparalleled access to new sources as well as the interdisciplinary research approach covering the fields of social history, intellectual history, cultural history, women’s studies, literary history, art history, and archaeology contribute to this book’s inclusiveness and uniqueness among all the scholarships on women’s history in medieval and late imperial China.

BD: How were the lives of women during Song Dynasty different from the lives of women during later dynasties like the Ming and Qing?
MX: In this longue durée framework, one striking finding of this book is the relative freedom that Song women from all classes enjoyed in comparison with those from the Ming and Qing periods. The state and elite in the Song normally adopted a noninterference strategy in handling women’s affairs. The state never issued edicts to regulate women’s everyday behaviors and left the administration of female populations to local officials. In contrast to their laissez-faire predecessors, the Ming and Qing states appeared more proactive in intervening in women’s everyday lives. The tremendous differences between the Song and Ming-Qing do not suggest the decline of women’s mobility in late imperial China. Women’s manipulation of domestic authority and expansion of living space outside the jia never stopped throughout Chinese imperial history. Ming-Qing gender scholars have revealed women’s agency in “the inner quarters and beyond” in many respects. In comparison, their female ancestors in the Song can be said to have lived in a more woman-friendly society, if one takes into account the government’s and scholars’ more tolerant attitudes toward and favorable views of women.

BD: Why did you select the Song Dynasty as the time period for your research in this book?
MX: Most scholars portray the Song period as being a dark age for Chinese women, who were, they say, confined to the home as part of the gender segregation that was a cornerstone of the Neo-Confucian social order. In this book, I argue that women's everyday lives diverged significantly from this ideological vision. Song Neo-Confucians restored and promoted the ancient idea that “men should manage the outside; women should manage the inside,” which suggested strict gender segregation in physical and functional terms. As a result, women were expected to be confined to the inner quarters, deal with domestic affairs, and interact with family members exclusively. The book seeks to complicate this simplistic picture by investigating women’s roles in gender construction and examining the divergence between Neo-Confucian ideology and women’s actual life. This book presents a strong challenge to the accepted wisdom about women and gender roles in medieval China. It is the first book in English that tracks the diversity of women’s life experience across class lines, outside as well as inside the domestic realm.

BD: What were women’s property rights like at the time? Were there any limits placed on women around commerce and property ownership?
MX: Song women had substantial inheritance rights and were able to control their dowries, largely owing to the government’s legislation of women’s property rights. Their personal properties mainly consisted of what they received from their natal families before and after marriage. In addition to dowries and inheritances, Song women’s weaving earnings, although probably limited in amount, were a significant source of their agency. Furthermore, some professional women were actively engaged in the highly commercialized economy. These include midwives, matchmakers, shop owners, traveling religious practitioners, weavers who plied their trade from household to household, and peddlers left the jia to make a living in the outside sphere, etc.

BD: How much were the gender ideals expressed by the Neo-Confucianists a reality of peoples’ daily lives?
MX: Witnessing women playing unorthodox roles in a wide range of domains, Neo-Confucian moralists anxiously demonstrated their concerns, restated and reinterpreted ancient ideas in prescriptive literature. But my research shows that these scholars compromised and accepted the imperfect social reality. In contrast to the stubborn and dogmatic stereotype of Neo-Confucians, the book presents more flexible and pragmatic aspects of these male elites' everyday life. They respected women’s domesticity, refrained from directly intervening in women’s affairs, and resorted to moral preaching and economic leverage to encourage women to pursue the "right" way of living. They more or less recognized women’s values and even supported their contributions in the public domain.

BD: Can you talk about the practice of foot binding during this period and how widespread it was? Are there common misconceptions about it?
MX: According to some Song historians, foot binding had an irresistible erotic appeal to many men in the Song. It started as the fashion of a professional group from the entertainment quarters, and as it was accepted by some upper-class women, it transformed into an important symbol of Chinese femininity that persisted into the late imperial period. However, this stylish practice did not prevent women from moving beyond their home. Song women occasionally traveled outside and used various transportation modes as men did. They communicated with outsiders, became involved in the local community, interacted with local government, and patronized the local religious market. Although men dominated the public sphere, women received and took advantage of various opportunities to access it.

BD: What role did mothers, wives and daughters play in the lives of elite men like Scholar-Officials?
MX: Elite women were supposed to be “inner helpers.” The role of “inner helpers” did not confine women to the inner quarters. Living in a complicated network of human relationships, they were expected not only to be filial to their parents-in-law and harmonize family members inside their jia but also to support relatives in their husbands’ lineages, to make friends with their neighbors, and to help people in their local communities. Like their managerial talents, their contribution to local welfare was sometimes as crucial as their male relatives’ in assisting their jia to establish a local reputation and maintain social status. 

BD: One of the most fascinating figures in your book is Ms. Liu (Lady Eighty-Seven); would you mind talking a little about her and how she gained power?
MX: The record of Ms. Liu is from an important collection of legal cases in the Song dynasty. She was identified as a main culprit and principal offender. She started her life of crime from her thirties or forties as a widow and remained a local hegemon for three decades until she was taken into custody by a local judge. Her two sons lived in the shadow of her authority and followed her directions on how to establish their dominance over the local community. She either inherited a large dowry from her parents or received much wealth from her deceased husband. The wealth became her primary resource to develop her nuclear family’s local influence. She also paid attention to her sons’ education and bought one of them an official title, which added to the family’s political and cultural capital. Ms. Liu and her sons were familiar with local government’s standard tasks and endeavored to establish a local administrative authority apart from the existing local government. They functioned in the way that the local government exactly did—they built prisons, adjudicated local people’s conflicts, hired private guards, smuggled salt, and collected commercial tax. In effect, they created a shadow local government through their organized crime activities.

BD: The concept of the jia is central to the book; can you explain what this is, and why you spend the first chapter on it?
MX: The book presents a panorama of women’s activities in a variety of physical locations. Song women’s legitimate living space was their jia 家, an amorphous concept which meant house as well as kin. Social norms were made material by the interior house structures to shape women’s sense of space and identity. Neo-Confucians advocated strict gender segregation in physical terms, and transformed a house gate from a structure in a housing compound into a definite symbolic and physical structure keeping men and women physically apart. However, women’s dominance in the jia and varied domestic experiences blurred the inner/outer boundary and revised the gender implications of the architectural objects presumably demarcating men and women's spheres.

BD: In the final chapter, you cover burial tombs extensively and analyze them using all available data from published and unpublished reports; how did you conduct this analysis and what did it reveal?
MX: The tombs of women offer particularly valuable insights into the gendered norms and beliefs about the connections between life above ground and underneath. Three aspects of burial practices—the structure of the burial chamber itself, the relative position of the corpse, and the burial objects inside—offer clues about the attitudes of the relatives and ritual specialists about a woman’s place, for it was these contemporaries who made decisions about a tomb’s location, construction, interior structure, decoration, and funerary accessories. Such funerary accessories as clothing were often selected by the tomb occupant herself when alive; hence they constitute a particularly fruitful venue for exploring a woman’s self-presentation to posterity. My study of Fujian Song tombs suggests that gender distinction and segregation in life did not translate to afterlife, where ideas about equality, harmony and communications between husband and wife predominated. The analyses of the structure of Fujian tombs and the burial artifacts inside these structures present a more complete picture of gendered practices of the Song than texts alone may suggest.

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