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.

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