Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 1, September 1998

Introduction to the Inaugural Issue of Intersections
September 1998

    Welcome to the inaugural issue of Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, an issue dedicated to women's texts and gendered discourses in the context of China. It has been not so much a long, but an intense road to this issue and, in many ways, a voyage of discovery and learning at first hand: in terms of technology, certainly, but more importantly in terms of the relationships between technology, presentation of research and research itself. And of course, about dealing with people and unforeseen circumstances.

    This journal was conceived as a refereed publication and interactive forum for new research and teaching in the area of Gender Studies in the Asia-Pacific region. As such it is interdisciplinary and proposes to look, across time, at the relations between gender patterns, of which none is taken as given, identities and discourses in the context of specific power relationships and dominant narratives. Information technology, in this context, we wrote in this presentation page, was 'not seen as an end in itself, but as a place where oral, written and visual history can tangibly cross paths allowing for new connections to be made'. In this sense, the electronic medium allowed for one more kind of intersection, this time a methodological one, thus echoing the interdisciplinary character of the journal contents, in a way particularly suited to gender research, this jigsaw puzzle exercise par excellence.

    Easily said. What we had not entirely foreseen was the small Pandora box of issues such a project effectively opens. Editing electronically, to give one example, offers the possibility of presenting primary sources in their original medium and language to a wide audience. This can be done in a way which, past the establishment of the necessary infrastructure, avoids the limitations of the print media. Then again, in doing so, are we going towards a more transparent and challenging presentation of research and the establishment of a 'shareware' of sources, so to speak, or are we simply introducing more elaborate constructions, or both? A corollary issue is that of the dilemma that arises when weighing what is useful in terms of presentation of research, the problems of disk space and downloading time, and what might be no more than a gimmick. These issues, in other words, have mainly to do with navigating between the huge possibilities and temptations offered by editing for the web instead of the print media, contemporary methodological and ethical criteria about presentation of research and findings, and technical dilemmas. In turn this also affects the modalities of research itself.

    Taking pre-modern and contemporary China as a case study, the three first papers presented here (Anne McLaren's, Harriet Evans' and Tamara Jacka and Josko Petkovic's) focus on women's words and on words about women. Ranging the spectrum of possibilities, from written, theoretical presentations, to multimedia presentations of findings, together they emphasise the impossibility of monolithic gender paradigms and tackle issues of empowerment as well as disempowerment, marginalisation and alienation in a Confucian and/or revolutionary and post-revolutionary context. Along with Stephanie Donald's 'Mapping China' article, they also constitute a multi-stranded discussion about the implications of textual presentation and interpretation across cultures and/or media.

    Anne McLaren investigates the central characteristics of the nüshu script writings invented by village women of an isolated region of Hunan to inscribe the performance arts of their community, and pursues her exploration into the neglected area of women's orally-transmitted literature. She shows how the recent discovery and publication of texts in nüshu script has opened up a tantalizing new field of enquiry and argues that any assumption concerning the 'orthodox' nature of Chinese society in pre-modern times must not overlook the extent to which women appropriated Confucian norms in ways subversive of the dominant orthodoxy. In this way she enters the debate on what constitutes women's voices, separate women's spheres or women's culture, and contends that the nüshu script provides an unequivocal glimpse of a separate women's culture in a Chinese community. This gender specific culture, she contends, differs from elite, literary women's culture in that on the whole, it constitutes an active manipulation of Confucian notions of fixed gender roles.

    At the same time, Harriet Evans, traces the use of, and meanings ascribed to the term funü Jiefang [women's liberation], through a textual analysis of documents and articles from the Chinese communist movement between 1919 and the early 1950s. In doing so, she unravels the way this term became rapidly appropriated by the Communist Party as a term central to its discourse on women and placed women in a double bind in terms of 'their own and society's liberation'. As such, she argues, funü Jiefang progressively reinforced an essentialist and hierarchical approach to gender relations. The meanings ascribed to the term marginalised and delegitimized any interpretation not focused on a specific class and on collectivity, as well as any terms defining the women's movement and women's role in a competing way. This in turn denied women's agency in their own process of liberation and established them as 'vehicles of others' power' for goals divorced from issues of gender relations, thus bringing a theoretical and practical closure of women's liberation, and in many ways, gender roles.

    Juxtaposing written texts, still images and video-clips, Tamara Jacka and Josko Petkovic focus, through a series of interviews, on the position and status of rural migrant women who have become part of what has been termed the floating population of Hangzhou and explore issues of alienation, identity and self representation. In so doing, they present a methodological and epistemological analysis of the possibilities and the implications of the use of video as a research tool and in the presentation of research findings in ethnography. Video recording, they argue, allows for more transparency and immediacy, and for the juxtaposition of subject and context, words, silences and body language, it also 'tends to take over'. Interestingly, they highlight the way the use of video modifies the process of research, particularly through the issue of performance. The questions Tamara and Josko raise in relation to the process of choice involved in filming and editing for dramatic effect or otherwise also bring out questions about the exploitation of the objects of research in academic work in general.

    The issue of presentation of data, and the challenge it presents for both authors and readers, is also the topic of Stephanie Donald's report on and analysis of the process of mapping China for the large readership of a China Atlas. Although not specifically focussed on gender, her paper raises theoretical and methodological problems which are very much germane to those raised in this issue. Positing that mapping has to do with spatial discourses about identity and relations of power, she scrutinises the problem inherent to 'mapping China' from the west and into the world. She explains that the juxtaposition of different, sometimes seemingly contradictory, texts, for a computer and image literate readership, allows not only for connections between image and words, and between past, present and future projections, but also makes obvious both silences and the unknown. In this context, and amongst other examples, the difficulties inherent in gathering data about gender and textualising research in terms of gender differentials are made all the more obvious.

    Also in this issue, Maria Degabriele opens Intersection's review section, which in future will include reviews of academic works as well as novels and films. This time, we start with Sandra Wilson's review of Vera Mackie's book Creating Socialist Women in Japan: Gender, Labour and Activism, 1900-1937, and with Maria's review of Hanifa Deen's Broken Bangles.

    Finally, we wish to thank Murdoch University ex-School of Humanities (now part of the Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education) which, through the provision of a SCHRAF grant, helped start this journal, and the School of Asian Studies for hosting it and providing infrastructure support. We especially thank David Hill, Alec McHoul, Peter Stuart, and Gary Roberts for their support in various capacities, as well as all the people who have provided enthusiastic encouragement for the project. Our deepest thanks also extend to Archie Zariski, the editor of Murdoch University's electronic journal E Law and De Stanton, CWIS Coordinator, Information Technology Services, for their invaluable advice. Our gratitude also goes to Ian Henderson for advising us on the artwork and logo design. We also thank Stephen and Omar Dobbs for constructing the web site and unstintingly going well beyond the call of duty; and to Leo Van Dalsen who gave his time with enthusiasm and generosity. Without him, Tamara Jacka and Josko Petkovic's video clips might still be on the drawing board. Indeed, the involvement of Omar and Leo, especially, shows how such a project creates links between the university and the wider community, definitely to our benefit. Finally, our gratitude goes to the two Ian's for their unceasing support and encouragement.

    Anne-Marie Medcalf
    September, 1998.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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