Power Dynamics, Nationalism, and Public Image of Women in the Chinese Nation-State
Bamberg, Jeneil M.
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Culture dictates the rituals that we do with and to our bodies, and cultural norms dictate the acceptability of said rituals within discrete cultures. To some, the ritual of female genital circumcision in certain African tribes seems horrific, whereas by the same token, others view the practice of piercing earlobes in order to display jewelry, popular in the United States and elsewhere, with abhorrence. In some cases, such cultural rituals affect power relations and allow certain groups to hold power over others in a variety of complex imbrications. In the case of footbinding in traditional China, this cultural ritual proved to be a double-edged sword for Chinese women. On the one hand, the practice of footbinding invited Chinese females to match a social norm that represented their actual or eventual sexual maturation as a woman, and more importantly, as a desirable woman, simultaneously increasing their opportunities for upward social mobility (Zito ). On the other, the ritual of footbinding systematically made literally half of the population, that is, Chinese women, subservient to the patriarchy for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It is evident in this case that men held power over women, so much so that women were unable to even be very physically active. Footbinding in traditional China helped define the spheres in which men and women were allowed to travel; outside of the house was the territory of men, who controlled commerce, politics, and society, whereas inside the house was the realm of women, who may have had some control over inner household goings-on, but little else. As China found itself having to adjust to a modernizing world throughout the nineteenth century and perpetually molding and remolding itself after the fashion of the society it wished to become in the twentieth century, Chinese conceptions of gender equality were and are perpetually challenged and rearticulated in new forms; for the first time many women were freed from the bondage of foot binding, and with the introduction of the importance of fitness, sport, and hygiene, their bodies became healthy and strong. It has not always been for Chinese women's sake alone, however, that they have been allowed to become healthy and fit; issues such as nationalism have historically been caught up in the encouragement of healthy bodies on behalf of the citizenry by the Chinese government. Chinese women's new-found vigor and powerful body image have been used for everything from birthing "strong soldiers" for the Nationalists to a tool symbolizing national unity and cohesion by the current state apparatus. Women in all patriarchal societies find themselves operating within the patriarchal system and even using men's language to articulate themselves and their way of being, which can never be purely a woman's way of being when encapsulated within the patriarchal system. The story of Chinese women over the past one hundred and fifty years is one of the greatest stories of human liberation through physical emancipation known in history. However, the trajectory of Chinese women's physical emancipation along with their subsequent success and image in daily life, sport, and public culture, as well as foreign women in China and their image and contributions in these areas, reasserts the dominance of the Chinese nation-state construct and patriarchy when said success, image and contributions should instead be contributing to the full emancipation of women from the patriarchy and the realization of women's full subjectivity. The modern challenge, then, seems to be at best the transcendence, or, at least the reconciliation, of notions of fitness, health, sport and body, power, public image and language, in ways that are beneficial purely for women, above the desires of the state to exploit these notions in a bid to maintain its hegemony through upholding the idea of a dominant Chinese nation. National Image and Cultural Conceptions of Women in Historical China.
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