Review: Gender, Dating and Violence in Urban China

September 3, 2017


Book Reviewed: Xiying Wang, Gender, Dating and Violence in Urban China. London and New York: Routledge, 2017; 218pp; ISBN 9780415810333.


Gender, Dating and Violence in Urban China, written by scholar-activist Xiying Wang, an associate professor in the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Beijing Normal University, is a timely and important feminist study that examines the various levels of violence at work in heterosexual dating relationships in urban China today. 


Against the backdrop of an unfinished gender and sexual revolution stretching from the May 4th Movement through to the Maoist era and on to post-socialist China, Wang skilfully traces the changes and continuities of gender, sexuality and violence as they play out across the dating scene in China’s rapidly changing capital city.


Based on interviews and focus groups conducted in Beijing over the course of a decade, the book focuses specifically on the issue of dating violence. Wang, taking a qualitative feminist approach, delivers a rich and sophisticated analysis of young people’s dating lives that delves deep into questions of gender, sexuality, intimacy, love and violence within dating relationships.


At the heart of the study is the question of individual agency, desire and resistance in the shadow of a strong state, powerful market, and cultural hybridity. To capture the multidimensionality and complexity of this social reality, Wang weaves together theories of gender, state and market, Western and Chinese feminisms and “the cultural dislocation of Confucian ideas” (p.48) into a theoretical framework of “Chinese intersectionality.”  In doing so, she aims to account for the multiple and interlocking structures of gender, class, sexuality, family and age that characterise the everyday macro and micro discourses of dating violence in contemporary urban China.


Across six prudently structured chapters spread across 195 pages, Gender, Dating and Violence in Urban China sets out to address a number of questions about how young people in Beijing cope with the various contradictions, conflicts and violence in establishing dating relations, as well as how they negotiate, accommodate and resist the hegemony of dating, gender and sexuality.

In Chapter One, Wang provides an erudite contextualisation of dating in China, as well as the core definitions and central objectives of her study. She reflects on the concepts of ‘dating’, ‘violence’ and ‘dating violence’, and how the terms are understood and translate in contemporary China.


Chapter Two moves on to establishing a theoretical framework that brings together research around the women’s movement, violence against women, state and market, differences and overlaps between Western and Chinese feminism, and the dislocation of Confucianism in current violence studies. She coins this “Chinese intersectionality” theory, an approach that seeks to explain “how young people appropriate different cultural discourses to justify their behaviours, strategies and choices” (p.50).


In Chapter Three, Wang looks at the geography of dating and love in Beijing. She describes how personal dating choices interact with different social-cultural discourses and forces. Interests, desires, motivations and experiences in intimate life and dating practices are all carefully mapped out across a wide range of cultural and socio-economic differentiations. The role of household registration (hukuo) and ‘outsiders’ (waidiren) creates both opportunities and obstacles for young people’s personal choices.


Chapter Four describes the transformation of femininity and masculinity from the Maoist era to the Post-socialist era, focusing on the social acceptability of physical, psychological and verbal violence by women in dating relationships. Centring on the subject of the “sassy girl” and the “tender boy”, Wang explores the ways in which young women ‘do’ gender, negotiate multiple expectations and demands imposed upon them by boyfriends and wider society, and resist normative gender roles.


In Chapter Five, Wang looks at sexual coercion in dating relationships. She marks out virginity loss as a critical moment in rethinking one’s self, status and strategy in the competitive dating and marriage market in metropolitan China. She questions why young women are aggressive in their daily dating relationship, but relatively submissive when it comes to sex, and describes the various roles of gatekeepers, ‘victims,’ and sexual agents at different points in time as moments of resistance, autonomy and assertiveness.


In the final chapter Wang reflects on central arguments of the book and their contributions to existing literature. Linking together the micro-politics of dating violence with the macro-politics of a changing state, market and culture in the context of China’s modernisation and globalisation, she argues that several myths about dating, dating violence, and how individuals in urban China navigate their gender and sexual worlds are tackled. She argues against researching different forms of violence separating, and calls for a more holistic perspective that engages the blurred boundaries between physical, psychological and sexual violence. She also takes aim at the notion that only severe violence counts as violence and draws attention to the spectrum of violence. She then moves on to what she sees as a persistent dichotomy of ‘abusive men and abused women’, which she troubles by noting the fluid and interchangeable roles of perpetrators and victims. Her final point argues that romantic love and violence need not be considered as mutually exclusive phenomena, but are instead intricately interlinked and indeed often co-exist since violence often results from love and violence sometimes becomes a means of preserving love.


Covering very broad ground, the book is much more than just a study of dating violence. It goes beyond exploring how people navigate romance, sexuality, gender, and love, to also delve into broader questions around youth and society, interpersonal relationships with parents and peers, virginity, abortion, education, career and ambition against the backdrop of modernisation and globalisation in contemporary Beijing. Yet, as Wang herself notes a number of times, it focuses solely on heterosexual relationships in urban China, with only a scattering of references to gender, dating and violence among the LGBTQ+ community. Dating experiences and their relation to rurality, ethnicity, and (dis)ability are all further issues in need of more attention. 


Gender, Dating and Violence in Urban China is a compelling read and offers many important insights on violence in heterosexual dating culture in contemporary China. It is thoroughly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about gender, sexuality, love and violence in urban China today.

Séagh Kehoe is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. They tweet @seaghkehoe and blog at Image credit: Routledge.


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