Sexing the Chinese Body: A Brief History of Gender and Sexual Difference in China

March 5, 2018


As we seek to interpret and debate the contemporary status of women and LGBTQ individuals in China, it is useful to take a step back and reflect on the historical roots of contemporary gender formations. Here I ask some basic questions and explore how pioneering work in Chinese gender history can help us answer them. Was gender in China always conceived of the way it is today? How have biological sex and gender difference historically been portrayed in China, particularly in medical discourses? What implications have these discourses had on the status of women?


As in other places, conceptions of sex and gender in China have evolved along with the changing sociopolitical landscape. In Chinese medical texts dating from Han times (206 BC-220 AD), bodies were—at least in theory—treated as androgynous. By the Song dynasty (960-1279), however, anatomical and physiological differences were being used to justify differential medical treatment for men and women, as well as the subordination of women within the gender hierarchy. During the Republican Period (1911-1949), in the context of the fall of the Qing dynasty, Western imperialism, and wars with foreign powers, debates about the correct role of the modern Chinese woman abounded. Elite reformers sought to substantiate their claims about correct gender roles by invoking the authority of Western science. Gender roles were reconfigured once again in the Mao era (1949-1976) when efforts to promote gender equality and erase gender difference in the People’s Republic of China were juxtaposed with gendered violence in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and other mass campaigns. Since the reform and opening up of China (1976-present), as Nuala Gathercole Lam has noted on this site, gender equality in China has taken some notable steps backward with the resurgence of the commercial sex industry, violence against self-proclaimed feminists, and strict state control over reproductive life, something that disproportionately targets women. As Howard Chiang’s work on trans and queer history illustrates, reflecting on the evolution of assumptions about gender and sex in China is useful for interpreting the naturalization of these categories.


It is worth stressing that contemporary ideas about gender difference were not always standard. Charlotte Furth has shown that the foundational texts of traditional Chinese medicine, namely The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon (黃帝內經), depicted male and female bodies as theoretically equivalent and containing balanced levels of yin (陰) and yang (陽). Yin and yang are the two complementary components of qi (氣), “the essence of matter” in “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM). In contrast to the theoretical model of the ideal body as having a perfect balance of yin and yang, in practice, bodies functioned along a continuum with a surplus of yin indicating feminine traits and a surplus of yang signifying masculine traits.


In addition, gender was not perceived as static. Although women tended to have more yin and men more yang, the ratio of the two shifted constantly within a single body throughout life and with the seasons. For example, prepubescent girls and postmenopausal women were considered to be much like men in terms of yin and yang. Bret Hinsch has demonstrated that male homosexuality—sometimes referred to academically as “same sex relationships” among men because of the culturally specific meanings associated with them in imperial China—was not stigmatized; it was viewed as just another type of sexual relationship between people with complementary levels of yin and yang (the penetrating partner had more yang while the penetrated had more yin). As the constituent parts of all people, the relative quantities of yin and yang in a couple were more significant than the biological sex of either person.


While it is likely that sexual difference had always been acknowledged to some degree in medical practice, Song dynasty texts explicitly highlighted biological differences at a theoretical level, which were then used to justify differential treatments for men and women. This line of thinking can be dated at least to the seventh century when a venerated doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, Sun Simiao (孫思邈), argued that women were ten times more difficult to treat than men and physically weaker due to the problems associated with menstruation and child birth. Anatomical differences, as well as beliefs about the cold, wet, and fragile constitutions of women, justified the cloistering of women in the “inner quarters” of the home. Even as elite women were sequestered away where their bodies could not “pollute” the wider (male) world, this forced gender segregation created a niche in which only female midwives could practice.


Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century and the fall of the Qing dynasty, gender roles continued to be a locus for political and social debate. The “woman question,” or the issue of the best way to modernize and mobilize women to contribute to the development of the nation, was a central point of contention in the Republican period. Under the Communists, this debate continued. The Party sought in theory to elevate the status of women through the abolishment of arranged marriage and erase gender difference through the defeminization of women. Yet, in practice, in the climate of the Cultural Revolution, public political denunciations often included charges of marital infidelity, premarital sex, or even homosexuality. In this way, “inappropriate” sexual behaviour was used as an excuse to enact gendered political violence upon one’s enemies. Harriet Evans (who wrote the first post for WAGIC) and Emily Honig, among others, have argued that despite the Party’s lofty goal of gender equality, the Cultural Revolution discourse on sexuality tended to reinforce the traditional gender hierarchy and the objectification of women.


Since the 1970s, women have continually borne the brunt of China’s rapid economic growth and declining birth rate. As Gail Hershatter has argued, the contention that women are agile and better suited for meticulous and tedious work has reinforced the gender hierarchy of the Chinese labour force with women bearing the primary responsibility for agriculture and becoming the primary low-wage workers in urban factors. Contemporaneously, implementation of the One Child Policy (1979-2015) involved a disproportionately large number of abortions and female sterilizations (tubal ligations) compared with the number of male sterilization (vasectomies). This, in turn, made the responsibility for ensuring a decline in population growth a gendered burden.


As Evans and others have argued, science has long been used as a tool to legitimize fixed gender distinctions and hierarchies in line with the Party’s interests (for an example, see Yanzi Peng’s recent WAGIC article on gay conversion therapy). While the gender binary has become increasingly fluid since the 1990s, contemporary heteronormative sex education, when available at all, conflates sex and gender and reifies conservative understandings of gender identity. In this way, seemingly neutral medical information and access to it also serve to reinforce assumptions about normative sexual and gender behaviour, while alienating and otherizing behaviors that fall outside of this narrow conceptualization.


Clearly, the meanings of “man” and “woman” in China have evolved dramatically since ancient times. While gender difference today is rarely articulated exclusively in terms of yin and yang, as was the case in Han dynasty medical texts, certain assumptions about the biological basis for gender roles and behaviours grounded in TCM have endured with very real implications for women. Investigating the historical malleability of conceptions of gender and sex is important for denaturalizing the gender binary still very much the norm in China—and elsewhere—today.

Sarah Mellors is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on modern Chinese history, gender and sexuality, and the history of medicine. Her dissertation, “From Vinegar and Cotton Balls to Diaphragms and Vasectomies: Birth Control in Republican and Mao-Era China,” examines birth control practices in twentieth century, urban China before the implementation of the One Child Policy.  Image credit: Made in China.




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