"Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs": Gender Unity and Gender Equality among the Lahu of Southwest China [under Confucian Eyes: Writing on Gender in Chinese History]

Article excerpt

Shanshan Du, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, xvii + 237 pages (paper).

Susan Mann and Yu-Yin Cheng (eds.), Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001, xiii + 310 pages (paper).

Reviewer: Lorne Holyoak University of Saskatchewan

The tendency to gloss Han culture as Chinese culture and furthermore to essentialize Han culture as identical throughout time and space is an ongoing issue in the Western representation of cultural Others. This is further manifested in the instance of Chinese cultures by the unsubtle gender critiques applied to China that can only be characterized as monolithic. Yet, as demonstrated in these two volumes, gender roles and relations in China need to be understood in terms of interdependency and complementarity, rather than division or separation (Farrer, 2002).

There can be little doubt that the popular imagination in the West is dominated by images of Chinese women with bound feet, of forced marriages and of female infanticide. The historic imagining ignores the majority of the female population, including the peasantry, minority women and the members of the ruling elite (Manchu women were forbidden to bind their feet). Similarly, popular conceptions of contemporary China tend to neglect the conditions of educated, urban women, especially female professionals, and the prominence of rural women in local leadership and entrepreneurship. And as Charles Stafford has demonstrated, women are indispensable to the process of creating social relationships among the Han (Stafford, 2000).

Shanshan Du examines gender relations among the Lahu, a Tibeto-Burman speaking people who live in the highland border regions of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. She is specifically concerned with the Lahu of Yunnan province, in China. However, before describing the Lahu way of life and of constructing gender, Du begins by asking whether there are any gender-egalitarian societies on earth. Her answer is a solid critique of the biases of Western dominated feminist thought, and feminist anthropology in particular. After pointing out that descriptions of gender-egalitarian societies are always qualified as "relative" or "possible," while patriarchy, though necessarily always limited in its implementation, is not described in such an equivocating fashion, Du writes that "according to the academic double standard, inequality and hierarchy can be of any degree, but equality must be perfect" (p. 6). She proceeds in this book to document a society in which male and female members are equally valued, regardless of the role they play--unqualified gender equality. Yet at the same time Du is careful to avoid the essentialising trap that is so common to sinology by acknowledging the complexities and regional variations in Lahu culture.

What renders Du's characterization of the Lahu so compelling is her grounding of gender equality within a dyadic worldview that emphasises the need for balance and complementarity in all things. This is clearly expressed symbolically in Lahu mythology and ritual, and throughout the life cycle. This is best expressed in terms of male-female blending:

By defining and evaluating personhood according to one's standing in the husband-wife dyad, Lahu classification and symbolism of the life cycle fully elaborate the cosmological ideal of male-female unity.... Specifically, Lahu ideals for men and women tend to blend femininity and masculinity in their religious definitions of human nature and ultimate morality, as well as in personality, social traits, and standards of beauty. (p. 71)

Part of what makes Du's analysis convincing is the attention that is paid to the nuanced reality of gender equality. While a strict sexual division of labour is not practiced by the Lahu, the desire to optimize the contribution of both spouses to the family's task schedule does not mean that differences do not exist. …

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