Holding Up Half the Sky: Chinese Women in History

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses

What was it like to live as a Chinese woman? What were their concerns and worlds like? This intermediate seminar looks at women in the Chinese past (covering roughly the period from the Tang dynasty, 618-907 CE, to the present). Primarily historical in approach, this class will not be heavily theoretical but is designed to introduce some of the key issues of historical understanding of women in the Chinese context. No prerequisite knowledge of China or gender theory is required—just an enthusiasm to understand people who are separated from us by time, geography, and culture. We will encounter and explore the lives of concubines and fashion models, goddesses and demons, housewives and prostitutes, empresses and peasants, writers and revolutionaries. Beyond this biographical lens, we will treat women as a historically constructed category, too, by examining how “women” have been imagined and portrayed, made and mobilized, at different times. A recurring theme will be the relationship of women (and the idea of woman) to power in its various modes: social, familial, economic, and political. We will ask questions such as: What are the implications of viewing Imperial Era Confucianism as male oppression of women? Where do we find, and how do we understand, women’s agency within the permutations of the traditional Chinese family system and gender norms? Addressing the topics of intergenerational conflict within families and the practice of footbinding, we will explore issues of female agency within, and complicity with, the gender hierarchy. Family reform and feminism in the 20th century will open up questions of women’s problematic place within modern nationalism and women’s participation in the political, social, and cultural revolutions that have fundamentally shaped and reshaped modern China.