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.

Gender differences between Europe and China

April 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

The recent (media-sensationalised) story of a male who was buried in a way usually reserved for females got me thinking about some of the stark gender differences between this burial, and by extension those of the Corded Ware culture of Europe, and those of Bronze Age China (the Shang and Zhou – roughly between 1600-500 BC).


According to the Daily Telegraph:

The male body – said to date back to between 2900-2500BC – was discovered buried in a way normally reserved only for women of the Corded Ware culture in the Copper Age.

The skeleton was found in a Prague suburb in the Czech Republiwith its head pointing eastwards and surrounded by domestic jugs, rituals only previously seen in female graves.

“From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral ritesvery seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake,” said lead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova.

“Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual,” she added.

According to Corded Ware culture which began in the late Stone Age and culminated in the Bronze Age, men were traditionally buried lying on their right side with their heads pointing towards the west, and women on their left sides with their heads pointing towards the east. Both sexes would be put into a crouching position.

The men would be buried alongside weapons, hammers and flint knives as well as several portions of food and drink to accompany them to the other side.

Women would be buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, copper earrings, as well as jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.

A post by Rosemary Joyce ( discusses some of the problems with the terminology banded around by the media and the interpretations of the burial as reported in the media.

What is of interest to me is the seemingly strict gender distinctions in Europe at this time relating to the positioning of the body in the tomb and the array of grave goods buried with the deceased. Due to these strict burial traditions and the way in which the distinctions were rigidly upheld, any discrepancy in the  manner of the burial is immediately noticeable, and leads to various interpretations (third-sex, etc). I suppose that one would call these burial traditions highly gendered, with gender acting as a fundamental structuring principle at burial.

By contrast, in Bronze Age Chinese burials – by this I mean those the Shang and Zhou Dynasties of the Central Plains in Henan/Shaanxi – gender seems to have been a much less important structuring principle than in European burials.

Perhaps the biggest gender difference between China and Europe was the position of the body and the left:right dichotomy. Both males and females in the Shang and Zhou periods were interred in a supine position. The bodies might point north or south and the head might face east or west. In short, there are no observable and rigid differences between the positioning of the body in male and in female tombs.

Another big difference between prehistoric Europe and China was the way in which weapons and ornaments were interred in male and female graves. In the Zhou, bronze weapons are only found in male tombs. However, both males and females were interred with a selection of jade, stone and bone ornaments. At the Yu site of Baoji, both men and women were buried with bronze hairpins and combs, and sets of beads that were placed on the body of the deceased. Thus, the same ornament types were placed in both male and female tombs.

Moreover, it appears (correct me if I am wrong) that females in Europe were deposited with a selection of ornaments that relate very specifically to female tombs (earrings, etc). In the Shang and Zhou, there are no discernible object types that relate specifically to female burials. And, objects found in females burials (bronze vessels, chariot fittings) also occur in male burials.

So what gender differences are observable in Shang and Zhou burials? In the Zhou, bronze weapons, bronze tools (chisel, adze, spade) and bronze bells are found only in a few male burials. The objects do not always occur together in a tomb, but when one of more of these object types are found in a Zhou burial, the tomb occupant is always a male (ascertained through skeletal testing).

At the same time, a large proportion of male burials in the Zhou did not contain weapons, tools or bells. Even though most Zhou cemeteries have only been partially excavated, it is clear that aside from the few male burials with bronze weapons, tools and bells, most male and female burials are remarkably similar in structure and layout. These male and female burial yielded primarily a selection of bronze vessels and bronze chariot and horse fittings.

Gender, therefore, seems to have been much less of a structuring principle in Zhou tombs than in Corded Ware culture tombs. Gender differences in the Zhou are observable and indeed pronounced at burial, manifested through three categories of bronze object types. But, these objects are confined to a small group of elite male tombs, and are not always found together within a burial deposit. There does seem to be some relationship between the expression of gender at burial and the social position of the tomb occupant (a member of the elite). In other words, at burial,  gender seems to have been marked out in a few elite burials.

With this data in mind, I keep thinking about the the validity of the application of biological sex (reproductive capabilities) as the starting point for gender analysis in Bronze Age Chinese studies. The result of such a (modern) application is that material culture becomes linked to biological sex – a man is buried with a weapon because he has a penis, which categorised his as a man, and not because the status of warriorhood created the notion of a what is was to be a man.

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