Harriet Evans, the Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China

By Ma, Yuxin | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Harriet Evans, the Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China


Ma, Yuxin, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Harriet Evans, The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. xi + 233 pages.

Harriet Evans' new book explores how the transformation of gender practices and representations over the past half century have shaped Chinese women's lives and self-identifications. Evans studies the intimate aspects of their lives as daughters and mothers in their respective experiences of separation, communication, domestic and public worlds, difference and male privilege, the body and filiality. The author treats mothers and daughters as constructs within specific historical and discursive contexts. Her subjects are two cohorts of Beijing-based academic and professional women from different social and family backgrounds--those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and those who grew up in the economic reform era. Evans argues that gender difference and discrimination were constructed and performed in diverse forms across time and that Chinese women both sustained and contested gender discrimination in understanding themselves as gendered subjects.

Evans investigates how family separations of various forms--physical, spatial, temporal--imposed by the Communist party-state affected the lives of daughters and mothers in chapter two. She finds that women who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s had memories of their mothers absent from home due to work and political demands, as well as to their embracing the intellectual, social and travel opportunities offered them for self-fulfillment. Evans notes that daughters' memories of separation from their mothers "speak of a yearning for a kind of attachment they had not experienced" (42). Their desire for recognition from their mothers is shown to be crucial to their self-identification. In doing what the state expected of them, their mothers were caught between their own aspirations for public achievement and the requirements of marriage and motherhood. Their exhaustion and frustrations made them "impatient, stern and difficult mothers unable to connect to their daughters" (50). Evans reports that daughters of the reform era found their mothers "figures of a comfortable dependability and support" (55), anticipating separation from the mother as a "feature of growing up as independent women" (56).

Evans explores daughters' affective attachments to their mothers in chapter three by analyzing younger women's desire to have a special bond of communication (goutong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) with their mothers. She finds that such a communicative bond involves both a sense of connectedness to the mother and the desire for the mother to recognize the daughter. Evans notes that the discourse of individual expression and communicative intimacy that gained prominence throughout the late 1990s offered daughters the language to describe their changing relationships with their mothers. They described their growing emotional bonds with their mothers as "a source of mutual recognition, difference, and attachment" (84). Mothers of the reform era also desired to establish a communicative relationship with their daughters "based on recognition of their independent views, desires, and choices" (90). The author also points out that daughters' sense of connectedness to their mothers and the growing intimacy between mothers and daughters "derived from a notion of shared gender" (95).

In chapter four, the author studies how women's perceptions of their mothers' negotiation of the domestic/public (nei/wai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) boundaries influenced their own gendered aspirations. She finds that the domestic sphere remained a core element of Chinese women's self-positioning, though the meaning and practices of the nei shifted across the political and social spheres during the past half century. She argues that the Communist government's policies on gender equality and female employment in the 1950s were motivated by economic interests, which accorded women's conventional domestic roles with ideological disdain and praised women's productive roles in society. …

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