Biological sex and gender studies in ancient China part 1

May 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Today, the definition of a man and a woman lies chiefly in biological sex. That is to say, reproductive organs form the basis for identifying a person as male or as female. And, in today’s society this difference is fundamental.

Since the 1970’s, some scholars have divided sex and gender into two categories.  Second wave feminists emphasised the distinction between sex and gender. The social sciences have been dominated by this perception, termed social constructionist. In this vein, gender is understood to be learned from behaviour resulting from historically specific processes of socialisation. This position developed from the views of early feminists, such as Simone de Beauviour.  Sex was taken as fundamentally biological, with particular reference to reproductive capacities and external genitalia, while gender was introduced to refer to and emphasize a social or cultural construction.

Howevr,  Foucault (1978), in The History of Sexuality volume I, argued that our understanding of sex is shaped by our discourse on it. Because notions of sex are always situated within a discourse, there can never be a fixed and absolute notion of sex. The focus on defining sex through reproductive capabilities, for instance, is ultimately a modern Western one. Foucault argues that the body of women became sexualized in the nineteenth-century because of its role as a child bearer. Thus, being female was defined through this bodily function. Following on from Foucault, Thomas Laqueur (1990) has tracked perceptions of the body from antiquity to Freud revealing the significance of eighteenth-century thought in shaping modern categories of sex and gender. He argues that sexual difference between men and women was not voiced clearly until the end of the eighteenth century, when such distinctions between critical to feminist and anti-feminist debates over women in education and public life. In the classical and medieval worlds of Europe, for instance, a one-sex model had prevailed, in which men and women were perceived as more or less the same sex (Gilchrist 1999: 55). This view originated from Aristotle (322 BC) and Galen (199 AD). Galen believed that women were cooler than men and therefore a less perfect version. As Lacqueur points out, from Galen to the Enlightenment, it was believed that males and females actually shared the same reproductive organs, with males carrying his outside and female containing hers inside. In order to explain reproduction, Galen suggested that females lacked heat to extrude the organs of reproduction, and, therefore, the situation provided a safe place for gestation. Lacqueur concludes that the classical and medieval metaphysics of hierarchy in the representation of women in relation to men was replaced in the Enlightenment by an understanding based on anatomy. Lacqueur charts an understanding from changeable, more of less perfect bodies, to fixed and different bodies.

So, if this definition is a modern western phenomenon, then it highly unlikely that ancient societies characterised men and women through reproductive organs alone.

Moreover,  the historical evidence suggests that this sex/gender division within the Western social sciences is inapplicable in a Chinese context. According to the pioneering study of gender in ancient China (from 400 BC onwards and based on textual evidence only) undertaken by Rosenlee, the discourse on gender where the category of “woman” is seen as biological and social is a very recent phenomenon in modern China, since in traditional philosophical writings, the discourse concerning women centered on the propriety of social relations embodied in familial roles. Clearly, we need to radically rethink how we might conceptualise gender in ancient China.

So what does all this mean for gender studies within the archaeology of China? Well, many studies of gender within the field take biological sex as the starting point for any analysis. These archaeologists then immediately start discussing male and females as two binary oppositions linked to biological sex (as in today’s society) and only conceive of two genders. So, we see statements such as “men were buried with X and women were buried with Y”. However, very little consideration is given to the idea of how a person might have been gendered (and gendered through material culture) and the idea of multiple gender identities. And, the idea of two genders immediately presupposes gender was defined through biological sex and that grave goods were interred in tombs based on this definition. Thus, the Shang and Zhou (the peoples of the Neolithic) may have buried a male with a selection of gender specific grave goods because they defined and categorised that person through his reproductive capabilities.

In part 2 of this post, I will propose a different way of thinking about gender identities utilising a selection of graves from various Zhou cemeteries.

DNA evidence of ethnic diversity in China

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

The recent findings that some villagers who live in north-western China contain 56% of DNA which is Caucasian in origin, bolsters the idea that ancient China was a mishmash of diverse peoples. This cultural diversity remains today. Simply travelling to Urumqi, for instance, one can observe peoples of very different cultural habits than those in central China. The archaeological evidence for these remote parts of  China is also strikingly different to that of other parts of China. More and more, archaeologists are revealing the extreme diversity of the peoples of ancient China.

However, while ethnic diversity seems important to us today, we need to contemplate the importance of this aspect of social identity for those in the past. Within Shang and Zhou archaeology for instance it is increasingly common to speculate on the ethnic identity of the tomb occupant based on certain types of burials goods. This idea presupposes that ethnic identity needed to be reified materially at burial and that certain objects stood as markers of an ethnic identity. The case of tomb M54 at Anyang (discussed in a previous post) shows the problems with such simplistic archaeological interpretations.

In short, sure we might get excited about this diversity in modern-day China, but we cannot assume that ancient peoples also shared this excitement or even thought about ethnic identity in the same way that we do.


Inscriptions, bronze objects and funerary implications

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Much has been written on the inscriptions commonly found on bronze vessels and other bronze weapons at Anyang. The process of inscribing bronze ritual vessels and bronze weapons with clan insignia or titles (Fu 妇- consort; Ya 亚- a military position) appears to be unique to Anyang. Such inscriptions have not been found on vessels of the Erlitou and Erligang – the pre-Anyang periods of the Bronze Age. Thus, at Anyang, we see a new development with regards to writing and inscribing bronze objects.

Due to the position of the inscription on the bronze vessels, such as under the base or inside the rim, scholars have suggested that they were meant to be read by the ancestors and not necessarily by people who attended a ritual banquet for the ancestors. Jessica Rawson of Oxford University has posited that since the vessels were filled with food and drink, perhaps the ancestors were meant to read the inscriptions as they consumed the contents at a ritual banquet.

Moreover, scholars also surmise that the owner of the ritual vessels inscribed the pieces with his or her name or clan while he or she was alive. At the time of his or her funeral, vessels were then culled selectively from an altar and placed in the owner’s tomb.

However, Robert Bagley has proposed a different scenario, and one which has quite different implications for Shang funerals and the role of bronze ritual vessels and other bronze weapons.

Bagley, in his article on writing at Anyang, argues that there is little evidence to suggest that these vessels were used above ground. Unlike in the proceeding Zhou period where hoards of vessels have been recovered near the palace-temple area of the Zhouyuan, suggesting that such pieces rested on altars in temples, in the Late Shang at Anyang, no such comparable hoards have been unearthed.

Furthermore, if vessels were only used within a funerary setting, and were then buried with an individual, then it would follow that the individual to whom these vessels belonged (I use this term loosely as we should not envisage modern, capitalist notions of ownership in Bronze Age China) most probably did not cast them himself. Instead, we might be looking a scenario whereby a family cast a set of vessels for the deceased, dedicating them to him or her, and then buried them at the funeral.

The other possibility is that individuals cast vessels prior to their death and then perhaps stored them away, but this seems quite unlikely in reality.

The implication that bronze vessels were only used within funerary settings places enormous emphasis on funerals within the Late Shang period. An importance which we might have underestimated. Large amounts of resources and time would have been invested into objects which were then never seen again. The vessels would have had to have been molded, cast and decorated. Moreover, if ritual vessels categorised individuals and expressed identity, then a new identity would have been created at the funeral for the tomb occupant and perhaps for his or her family. These pieces then perhaps helped fix a particular image within the minds of the onlookers, and the funeral would have a pertinent occasion for creating identities.

Within Shang studies, the funeral is often treated as some fossilised indicator of social status and a passive reflection of the personal attributes of the deceased. As Bagley has also pointed out, funerals were prime settings for ancestral worship and veneration. Alongside this ancestral worship, a funeral might also have been about making some last comments on the tomb occupant and his or family. If the Shang believed that the deceased would use these vessels in the afterlife, then presumably the family would send him or her off with a fitting set of bronze vessels. Therefore, funerals may have been active arenas and were possibly competitive displays of power, and theatres for the (re)creation of identities.

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