- Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China series
Edited by David S.G. Goodman
Chapter 17: From Xianglin’s Wife to the Iron Girls: the politics of gender representation
The six-decade history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has witnessed drastic changes in gender discourses and practices. Contentions over gender norms and gendered power relations have intimately interconnected with political, economic, social and cultural changes, constituting a prominent realm of power struggles entangled with shifting class alignments and infused with ideologies vying for dominance. While the lives of women and men have been deeply implicated in such a realm of power that generates conflicting and contradictory gender prescriptions and regulations, its very pervasiveness poses challenges to analytical scrutiny. This chapter focuses on the politics of gender representation to narrow down the vast field of gendered power struggles in the PRC while presenting a historical narrative with some coherence over grave historical ruptures in the past six or so decades. Selecting two well-known signifiers of historically distinct gender discourses in the PRC, Xianglin’s Wife and the Iron Girls, I trace the historical processes through which these gendered symbols were produced and investigate the changing political contexts within which their meanings were contested and altered. Examining multiple forms of artistic representation of Xianglin’s Wife, a quintessential victim of ‘feudal oppression’ originally portrayed in a classic New Cultural literary text of the 1920s, I establish a tangible linkage between May Fourth feminism and socialist state feminism by identifying specific cultural producers and analysing their agendas.
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