Marriage, Gender, and Sex in a Contemporary Chinese Village

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Marriage, Gender, and Sex in a Contemporary Chinese Village, by Sun-pong Yuen, Pui-lam Law and Yuk-ying Ho. Translated by Fong-ying Yu. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2004. xiv + 295 pp. US$69.96 (hardcover), US$26.95 (paperback).

Marriage, Gender, and Sex in a Contemporary Chinese Village is an expanded and translated version of a book originally published in Chinese in 1998. The original edition was based on fieldwork by three Hong Kong academics in a Pearl River Delta village during the mid-1990s. This English version includes two additional chapters based on return trips during the late 1990s and 2001.

The authors frame the book in terms of the tension between a collective, patriarchal, lineage-based familial culture and a modern, capitalist sense of individual autonomy. They examine how this tension plays out with regard to marriage, sexual practices and, in the appended chapters, village elections.

The authors theorize familial relationships in terms of Francis Hsu's emphasis on the centrality of the father-son dyad as the basis of Chinese kinship, and Fei Xiaotong's conception of a differential mode of association in which the importance of relationships is ranked in terms of concentric circles that move outwards from a given father-son dyad. They argue that the economic growth of the post-Mao era has led to a greater erosion of familial culture than the Maoist campaigns did. The shift from agricultural labor to a combination of factory labor and petty entrepreneurship has meant that income is paid in the first instance to individuals rather than household heads. This shift has given young people of both genders more autonomy from their parents in everyday decisions. Yet the authors also show that familial culture is still strong in many respects. For example, while all seem to be obsessed with the pursuit of wealth, in most cases the wealth is pursued in order to enhance the well-being and status of some grouping of the family in which one is enmeshed.

Though perhaps not unusual for the Pearl River Delta, the village's socioeconomic and demographic profile differs markedly from most of rural China. In the late 1970s, the village consisted of about 2,000 people, almost all of whom belonged to one or another branch of the Wang lineage. During the post-Mao era, foreign investors built scores of factories, in part because of the village's location near a main highway. These factories recruited laborers from both inside and outside the village, and by the mid-1990s the village was home to 20,000-30,000 migrant workers, 70 per cent of whom were female.

Though many villagers worked in the factories alongside the migrant workers, the locals had much better opportunities for promotion within the factories and for setting up local businesses. For migrant workers, the only options were factory labor or, for the women, the rapidly expanding sex industry. Divisions between locals and non-locals took many forms, and were especially marked among women. Patriarchal culture forced local women to portray themselves as chaste and family-oriented, while migrant women were sexualized by the association of some with the sex industry. From the perspective of local men, local women were for marrying while migrant women were playthings and sex was completely commoditized. …