Festivals, Feasts, and Gender Relations in Ancient China and Greece

By Brindley, Erica | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Festivals, Feasts, and Gender Relations in Ancient China and Greece


Brindley, Erica, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Festivals, Feasts, and Gender Relations in Ancient China and Greece. By YIQUN ZHOU. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2010. Pp. x + 373. $95.

Flipping through recent scholarship that compares ancient China and Greece, one will notice that much of it involves philosophy, intellectual culture, and the social structures of the elite. (1) Yiqun Zhou's Festivals, Feasts, and Gender Relations in Ancient China and Greece provides a unique contribution that addresses areas hitherto largely ignored by this comparative scholarship: human solidarity, gender relations, the public and civic spheres, and ancestral cults and hero worship. Her book is an insightful account of social relations in the two unrelated cultures as expressed in convivial contexts in literature and other textual sources during the first half of the first millennium B.C.E. Not only does Zhou deftly shed light upon distinctive or outstanding characteristics of each cultural sphere, she discusses her chosen texts with such finesse and hermeneutical rigor that she is able to elevate the discourses on social relations in each respective culture.

In Festivals, Feasts, and Gender Relations, Zhou contends that the main difference in social relations between the two cultures stems from the ancient Greek idealization of the spirit of equality and agon, or rivalry and competition, that helps define Greek extrafamilial social ideals, as opposed to the logic of zong fa (Lineage Law) that helps undergird Chinese social relations. In every set of comparisons that Zhou makes, she usually concludes with the same abiding distinction between the cultures: the ancient Greeks aimed to transcend family and kinship bonds in an idealization of the public sphere, so that friendships or relationships of all kinds are celebrated precisely as achievements of equality and distinction. On the other hand, the ancient Chinese (i.e., the early Zhou) aimed not for equality or competition and distinction in the public sphere, but for harmony within the patriline, as constrained by hierarchies of familial power.

This is an acceptable and interesting distinction to make, even if it reinforces common stereotypes associated with each culture. After all, there is hardly a scholar of China who will argue that Zhou culture was not influenced strongly by its powerful patrilineal ideals and rituals, stemming from certain interpretations of the ancestral cult. Similarly, for the case of ancient Greece, there is a plethora of scholarship that discusses the birth of democracy and the development of a civic sphere in relationship to the ideals of competition, rivalry, and equality. The author's strong, even convincing case for upholding such cultural distinctions is based on a thorough analysis of text after text, as well as all sorts of permutations in social bonding, including gender relations and female homosocial bonding. Her nuanced readings are likely to persuade the reader that the difference in each society's ideals was not only real, but that it was deeply embedded and had tangible, profound effects on society, culture, and history in each culture.

I do not wish to refute or challenge the basic claims that Zhou makes in her book. What is most rewarding about the book, I think, is not the overarching framework of agon vs. conformity to hierarchy, chy, but the many, nuanced, and subtle readings the author provides, each of which contributes to this overarching theme. Another brilliant aspect of the book lies in the author's ability to take her conclusions, drawn from micro-analyses of many individual passages, and apply them to a much larger, sociological sphere of inquiry involving such issues as the creation of a public and civic sphere, male-female relations and rivalry, and even, in the conclusion, the propensity of women in each culture to bond in ways that may or may not support feminist goals. These aspects of the author's analysis help make an already insightful book even more thought provoking, and will no doubt spawn much scholarly response, especially in the understudied area of gender relations in these ancient societies. …

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