Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui
1997 Through Chinese Women's Eyes. Santa Barbara: Anthropology Department, University of California.
Notes: 1 videocassette (53 min.) : sd., col. with b&w sequences ; 1/2 in. Formerly entitled "Look at the World Through Chinese Women's Eyes". Produced, written, and edited by Mayfair Mei-hui Yang
, Anthropology Department, UC-Santa Barbara. Distributed by Women Make Movies, New York, email@example.com, 212-925-0606. Reviewed 23 May 1998 by:
Sydney D. White <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Temple University, Philadelphia
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Women -- China -- Shanghai -- Social conditions
Women -- China -- Social conditions
Shanghai (China) -- Social conditions -- 20th century
Shanghai (China) -- Economic conditions -- 20th century
ABSTRACT: Mayfair Yang examines the transformations in the constructions of gender and sexuality experienced by women in Shanghai since the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution, as well as the prognosis for an emerging women's consciousness in the PRC.
This video represents an important visual media contribution to the understanding of gender and sexuality in the contemporary People's Republic of China. In this ethnographically-informed documentary, anthropologist Mayfair Yang focusses on the transformations in the constructions of gender and sexuality experienced by urban Chinese women of a variety of positionalities during the past five decades. The two primary sociopolitical periods which she addresses in the video are the Maoist period (roughly 1949-1979), which she characterizes as a revolutionary period of state socialism, and the ensuing post-Mao period, which she characterizes as a commercialized era shaped by China's re-entry into the global economy. Yang's central thesis in the video is that the Maoist period provided Chinese women with a significant degree of equality through a "state feminism" based on the downplaying and even "erasure" of (female) gender. She further asserts that the current, commercialized post-Mao era has led to the commodification of female difference and sexuality. While the official state discourse is still that women in the PRC have been liberated and have attained gender equality since the 1949 Communist Revolution, Yang addresses how some Chinese women have started to develop a "conscious women's perspective" since the 1980's which is distinctive from state feminism.
Yang begins the video with a pan of the Shanghai waterfront as a literal visual collage of the economic transformations experienced over the past century in at least one part of China. Positioning herself as a Chinese-American anthropologist who first came to China as a graduate student in 1982, she informs the viewer of Shanghai's prominence as Asia's main commercial center in the 1930's, its "slower pace" as part of the "state-ordered society" of the Maoist period, and its "speeding up" as China has re-established its links with the global economy. Against this brief sketch of these dramatic economic transformations, Yang poses the question of how women in Shanghai have experienced these changes. Drawing upon archival film footage, she depicts female gender role archetypes as having shifted from "traditional" models of femininity (as reflected in Beijing opera), to the "Western"- influenced images of bourgeois and middle-class women of the 1930's (as represented in popular films), to the images informed by "Maoist revolutionary dictates of women's equality which led to the masculinization of women" (as portrayed primarily in Cultural Revolution model operas), to the models of a commodified femininity reflected in the consumer society of the contemporary PRC.
Throughout the rest of the film, Yang details these transformations by alternating her own narrative with portions of narratives from a variety of women whom she interviewed in Shanghai and Beijing. It is clear from their narratives that her key informants (i.e., the individuals upon whose narratives she draws the most) are women who came of age during the Cultural Revolution and are intellectuals and professionals, though she does include interviews with two women who are workers, a woman who is a cadre for the state Women's Federation, and some younger women who have come of age during the post-Mao period. This is, of course, essential to the analysis which she is developing throughout the video, since the experiences of the urban intellectual Cultural Revolution generation women are what provide them the positionality from which to address the transformations in female gender roles between the Maoist and post-Mao periods. Additionally, this is also the positionality in the contemporary PRC from which much of the discussion of a "conscious women's perspective" has been generated.
In characterizing the Maoist period, the themes which emerge from Yang's and her informants' combined narratives include state efforts to support women's equality, the relative financial independence of women given their virtually universal entry into the (officially acknowledged) workforce, and the de-emphasis on gender distinctions, including what Yang refers to as the "masculinization of women." A point that is emphasized byYang and some of her informants, however, is that there was no grassroots development of a feminist consciousness precisely because the essentially male leadership implemented an official state feminism which led to the formation of the Women's Federation with its highly delimited and circumscribed role.
In characterizing the post-Mao era (although Yang seems to prefer to refer to this period as the "commercial society of the 1980's and 1990's"), a new distinctive femininity has emerged; the contours of this new femininity are traced by a passion for wearing make-up and fashionable clothes, as well as a variety of other "feminine modes of self-presentation." While many Chinese women clearly are actively embracing and participating in this process, Yang also emphasizes the ways in which women and their bodies have been commodified and sexualized in this new consumer era, particularly focussing on the close relationship between a "fast-developing male business culture" and the sex industry. This includes the "evening entertainment" of male business clients in nightclubs and restaurants, as well as the increasingly widespread practice among wealthy married men of setting up additional households for mistresses. Yang and her informants also refer to other structural specters of the "new era." These include the widespread lay-off of female workers in the state sector legitimized by an unabashedly sexually essentialized discourse which asserts the superiority of men over women, the dramatically increasing divorce rate (although Yang downplays this, the jump from a national rate of 5% in 1980 to Shanghai's rate of 24% in 1994 is a bit attention-grabbing), and the continuing stigma upon women over thirty who are not married.
In addressing the issue of why PRC women have not put up much visible resistance to these recent developments, Yang suggests that gender consciousness was appropriated and undermined by state feminism during the Maoist period (as outlined above). She predicts that a distinctive feminist consciousness may develop in the PRC given 1) the "re-emergence" (in her view) of the category of gender, and 2) the degree to which Chinese women become aware of how (female) gender has become a category for exploitation (just as class was emphasized as such during the Maoist period). By including the narratives of a feminist intellectual at Beijing University, of a female entrepreneur who has established a women's fan club for single women, and of professional women who talk in sophisticated restaurants about their choices to "have it all" and balance careers with families, Yang traces out arenas of a nascent women's (if not uniformly and explicitly feminist) consciousness in intellectual and popular culture circles. By closing with scenes from the International Women's NGO Conference in Beijing in 1995, Yang seems to also implicitly suggest that there may be a dialogue emerging between international feminism (in some form) and the PRC women who participated in the conference.
For an introduction to the video by Yang herself, viewers should refer to the Society for Visual Anthropology section of the October 1997 issue of the Anthropology Newsletter. Yang addresses her rationale for making the video and also discusses a number of details about the filming and production of the video. She additionally notifies the viewer that the video especially complements her article "From Gender Erasure to Gender Difference: State Feminism, Consumer Sexuality and a Feminist Public Sphere in China," which is forthcoming in a book she is editing, entitled Spaces of Their Own: Women's Public Sphere in Transnational China (to be published by the University of Minnesota Press).
Clearly, this is an important video for anthropology. This is especially the case since, with the significant exceptions of Carmalita Hinton and Richard Gordon's work on Longbow Village ("Small Happiness") as well as Sulamith and Jack Potter's work on Zengbu Village ("Zengbu After Mao"), virtually no English language videos (to my knowledge) have dealt with the subject of gender in the PRC from an ethnographic perspective. And while, over the past decade, a number of the "Fifth Generation" feature films have dealt with the issue of gender in China, it has hardly been from a feminist perspective. As reflected in the title she has chosen, Yang's goal in the video is to "look at the world through Chinese women's eyes."
Yang outlines her intended audiences as encompassing "...college students and scholars of women's studies, Asian studies, anthropology, sociology, and of state socialist societies." There are two issues, however, which viewers who are not scholars of gender in the PRC should bear in mind when watching the video in order to appropriately contextualize it.
The first issue is that there are many statuses besides gender per se which shape the identities of women in the contemporary PRC. Most significant for the viewer in this video is the dramatic faultline that exists between the experiences of women who live in cities and towns in the PRC, and those who live in villages. Although Yang is specific in stating at the outset of her video that she is focussing on the transformations in the experiences of women's lives in Shanghai, it is important for the viewer to know that only approximately 20-30% of PRC women live in urban areas, and that Shanghai is arguably the most self- consciously cosmopolitan city in the PRC. It is also important for the viewer to realize that the bulk of the narratives in the video reflect a very specific positionality among urban women -- that of urban women intellectuals (as opposed to workers, Party cadres and other technocrats, or, say, domestic workers and other female laborers from the countryside). Additionally, as addressed above, generation is a critical status which shapes PRC women's identities, and it appears to be primarily Cultural Revolution generation female intellectuals who are shaping the contours of an emerging, distinctive discourse of women's consciousness in the contemporary PRC.
The second issue of which viewers should be aware is that there has been considerable scholarly debate (primarily in "the West") about the shifting nature of the construction of gender and sexuality in China since the 1949 Revolution. Theoretical developments in feminist anthropology and the anthropology of gender and sexuality have both benefitted from and contributed to the China gender debates. Additionally, since the early 1980's, there has been a self-reflexive discussion and critique of gender and sexuality among intellectuals of both genders in the PRC, and in literary and popular culture contexts of the PRC as well. Many of these discussions look back on the Maoist period as having created not only the "masculinization of women," but also the "feminization of men." It is important to contextualize this historically specific discourse, however, and to see it as a discourse promoted by individuals of some positionalities, and contested and resisted by individuals of others in the PRC. There has also been a nascent "women's studies" movement in the PRC over the past decade, which has been careful to position itself as distinct from "Western (bourgeois) feminism." China scholars in the US and elsewhere (including several US academics who are themselves originally from the PRC) have addressed both of these latter developments in PRC popular culture and scholarship.
While Yang might have problematized the two issues just raised a bit more in her narrative, she has without question taken on an extremely important and complicated topic and done a truly commendable and timely job of representing it.