Transnational Gender and Women in Modern China

Friday, January 6, 2023: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Room 306

Dewen Zhang, Randolph-Macon College


  • The Making of Modern Female Citizens in Republican Beijing

Aihua Zhang, Gardner-Webb University

  • Herlinda Chew: A Chinese–Mexican Woman’s Identity Formation through Negotiation along the US–Mexico Border, 1900s–1930s

Xuening Kong, Purdue University

  • Promoting American Sexuality: The “Glocalization” of American Beverages in Wartime Shanghai (1930s-1940s)

Haoran Ni, University of Kansas

  • Departure from the Household Kitchen: The Great Leap Forward toward Women’s Employment in China, 1958–62

Hanchao Lu, Georgia Institute of Technology

Comment: Margaret Mih Tillman, Purdue University

Panel Description:

In the twentieth century, Chinese women’s lives underwent great changes under the influence of Westernization and globalization. Chinese women undertook more social responsibilities as citizens rather than staying at home, as most of them had done in earlier times. Their public and global activities even changed the social expectation of Chinese womanhood. Thus, discussing women’s stories not only helps to understand the gender dynamics in China, but also offers an angle from which to study the interactions between China and the West and the formation of modern Chinese society. The four papers of this panel focus on the period from the 1900s to the 1960s and explore, from global and transnational perspectives, how formerly marginalized Chinese women were integrated and mobilized into the modernization and nation-building process in China.

Paper Abstracts

  • “The Making of Modern Female Citizens in Republican Beijing”, Aihua Zhang, Gardner-Webb University

There are two major strands of scholarship on women in Republican Beijing: one focusing on the educated or elite; and the other on the lower class. Sparse attention has been paid to the interactions between the two groups of women beyond the areas of charity and political mobilization. This paper will take up this scholarly insufficiency by examining the Beijing Young Women’s Christian Association’s (YWCA’s) anti- binü (bonded girl servants) and mass literacy campaigns, which were launched in response to the nationwide fervor during the 1920s. Regarding binü, the Association not only took action to help emancipate them from bondage, but also taught freed ones to learn employable skills, including skills for paid domestic work in modern terms, with mixed outcomes. In its literacy education, the Association targeted working-class women, who constituted more than half of the city’s illiterate population. While not intending to raise class and political awareness among women as the Shanghai YWCA did, the Beijing YWCA was successful in attracting students through a variety of instructional methods and instilled civic consciousness in them. Both programs contributed to the making of independent, literate female citizens in Beijing’s modern transformation.

  • Herlinda Chew: A Chinese-Mexican Woman’s Identity Formation through Negotiation along the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1900s-1930s”, Xuening Kong, Purdue University

Born with a mixture of three cultures, Herlinda Chew (1893-1939) engaged with Chinese, Mexican, and Anglo-American communities in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region while developing friendships with local immigration officers and military troops. She once helped 200 local Chinese residents and their family members cross the border to avoid warfare during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Moreover, as a mixed-race Chinese, Chew established connections and a sense of belonging to China through multiple relationships in her life, including her husband, her assistance to Chinese individuals in returning to China, as well as her own travel to China with family members. This paper focuses on Chew’s life in the border region and the establishment of her transnational connections. I will examine how her negotiation among regional powers and the formation of Chinese identity were under the influence of transnational, national, and regional politics, familial cultural background, as well as her personal goals. I argue that, in addition to “born as a half-Chinese,” multilateral borderland lives and transnational travel largely contributed to Herlinda Chew’s formation and adaptability of her self-identity. Affiliation with China thus did not necessarily stem from feelings of belonging instilled among overseas families, but rather developed in the intercultural exchanges of daily life. This paper highlights overseas mixed-race Chinese women’s agency and challenges preconceptions of nation-centered citizenship in defining overseas Chinese people. It also a-geographizes the concept of “China” by placing the historiography of overseas Chinese in U.S.-Mexico borderlands in conversation with that of modern Chinese history, expanding the focus of both.

  • “Promoting American Sexuality: The “Glocalization” of American Beverages in Wartime Shanghai (1930s-1940s) “ Haoran Ni, The University of Kansas

This paper explores how American beverages promoted gendered modernity in China and how the sexuality they presented became cultural targets of criticism that stimulated Chinese nationalism during wartime (1930s –1940s). First, the images of sexy modern Chinese women wearing Cheongsam or swimsuits were often featured in Coca-Cola posters. Watson’s Mineral Water Company, the bottling company for Coca-Cola in Shanghai, used these women’s images to arouse public desire for sexuality, as well as for the American Coca-Cola. These posters reveal that Coca-Cola became a common beverage at fashionable women’s gatherings, through which the bottling company built a natural connection between American beverages and Chinese modernity. Second, the images of Coca-Cola and ice cream usually emphasized the intimacy and romance between the two sexes: men and women hugged and even flirted with each other in the context of consuming American beverages. This mixed-gender socialization and romance conflicted with the Chinese tradition of physical segregation between men and women. Third, in the 1930s, because ice cream was the favorite of Hollywood actresses, the Chinese audience used the term “ice cream for the eyes” to refer to men’s pleasure in watching the erotic scenes in Hollywood movies. It was a time when Japan was invading China, thus Chinese patriots criticized ice cream, as well as the sexy Hollywood movies as American indulgence that would weaken Chinese nationalism in the war. Overall, through discussing the relationship between Western food and sexuality, on the one hand, and modernity and nationalism, on the other, I argue that American cold beverages promoted gender modernity in China; yet, Westernized sexuality and romance stirred up great resentment among the Chinese people during wartime.

  • “Departure from the Household Kitchen: Great Leap Forward towards Women’s Employment in China (1958-62)”, Hanchao Lu, Georgia Institute of Technology

The Great Leap Forward (1958-62) was the economic and social campaign led by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that resulted in great famines and ecological disasters. Even the CCP today admits that it was a major mistake that the party had made during the Mao era. This paper looks at a “positive” side of the campaign, arguing that the Great Leap Forward marked the beginning of a large-scale and irreversible trend toward near universal employment of women in China’s cities.  It takes Shanghai as a case study to examine urban neighborhood workshops established during the campaign that employed hundreds of thousands of women, mostly former housewives, with lower pay and little fringe benefits. By the end of the Mao era, nearly half of China’s women workers were employed in this kind of non-state-owned enterprises. This employment pattern created an institution that contributed to high employment rate of women in urban China and deserves attention in the study of women, labor, and state-society relations in the People’s Republic of China. It represented a significant departure from the Soviet and communist East European model of industrial development in which the governments during high Stalinist period simply denied that anyone but a worker in heavy industry could be a legitimate part of working class.