Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

Harriet T. Zurndorfer (ed.)

Nan nü:
Men, Women and Gender
in Early and Imperial China,

vol. 1, no. 2 (October, 1999)

E.J. Brill, Leiden. Pp. 187-316.
Annual subscription for two issues per year:
institutions NLG149/US$ 85; individuals NLG135/ US$ 77.

reviewed by Louise Edwards

  1. Professor Harriet T. Zurndorfer of Rijksuniversiteit Leiden edits this important new journal in the study of gender in China. Published semi-annually by E.J. Brill, the volume attains the high standards of scholarship and presentation expected of Brill. The editorial board comprises major scholars in the field-Glen Dudbridge, Beata Grant, Clara Wing-chung Ho, Angela Leung, Susan Mann, and Paul Ropp - providing representation with a geographic spread across Asia, Europe and the USA. In its two issues, the first volume (1999) included six articles, one review article and thirteen book reviews. All contributions are published in English but references include Chinese and Japanese characters. True to its title, the journal includes studies of both men and women and masculinity and femininity. Gender is not 'code' for 'woman' in this journal.
  2. The journal is interdisciplinary in focus welcoming contributions from all branches of the humanities as well as other disciplines. The 'call for papers' flier noted that the editors seek 'manuscripts presenting new research in areas which can range from archaeology to zither performance.' Despite their disciplinary breadth, contributions from the field of literature dominate in this first volume. Only two of the six articles adopt a non-literary historical focus. The dominance of literature indicates the centrality of literary materials to gender studies as well as the wealth of readily available materials on Chinese literature. No doubt, as the journal establishes itself within the field, a broader range of disciplines will be represented. Nonetheless, the potential for literary studies to inform other fields of scholarly endeavour is aptly demonstrated in the articles. For example, Chloe Starr's article 'Shifting Boundaries: Gender in Pinhua Baojian' provides not only an insightful analysis of this nineteenth century novel, but also presents convincing arguments about marriage practices and homosexuality in Qing China.
  3. The journal invites contributions focusing on all periods in China's history up to the early twentieth century. The founders of this journal clearly noted the absence of outlets for the pre-twentieth century period. In this regard, Nan nü complements the Academia Sinica's multi-lingual journal Research on Women in Modern Chinese History. Articles in the first issue of the 1999 volume include David Keightley's examination of the status of women in Neolithic and Shang China and Paola Zamperini's study of the education of courtesans in the Late Qing. Undoubtedly, this coverage of materials across a vast sweep of China's history will be a major attraction for readers whose interests lie in understanding the multiple transformations in gender relations in one of the worlds most enduring and important cultures.
  4. The articles in the second issue of this volume indicate a high standard of scholarship is demanded of authors for the journal. Each article begins with a brief abstract providing an overview of the work and is extensively footnoted. The first article is Qian Nanxiu's ' Milk and Scent: Works about women in the Shishuo xinyu genre.' It discusses two works from the late imperial era that 'appropriated the female body as a cultural metaphor to express their dissatisfaction with mainstream male values (p. 193).' Milk and scent, fluids implicitly connected with the female body, are identified as key motifs in the exploration of these works. The second article is Daria Berg's 'Reformer, Saint and Saviour: Visions of the Great Mother in the novel Xingshi yinyuan zhuan.' Berg examines the multiple transformations of the female protagonist, Madame Chao, for their symbolic significance. In this late Ming novel, Madame Chao is variously reformer, saint and saviour and in these roles provides readers with a vision of new moral leadership during a period of social and political decline. The third article, Chloe Starr's aforementioned study of the Pinhua Baojian explores the gendered representations of boy actors in this nineteenth century novel. It argues that the novel's discussion of coerced adoption of female gender identities and homosexual sexual roles by the boy actors exposes how masculinity and femininity are 'highly socialized constructions (p. 268).' All three articles stand to make a considerable contribution to our knowledge of gender as well as literature in China.
  5. The book review section surveys English and Chinese materials published on women in China. The publication in English of serious analyses of books in Chinese will provide an invaluable resource for scholars unable to regularly peruse the bookshelves in China, Taiwan or Hong Kong. The second issue in each volume provides a useful index of published materials for the year. The editors may consider adding to future volumes a 'notes on contributors' page to facilitate the development of scholarly links around the globe.
  6. In sum, there is no doubt that all scholars interested in gender in China will welcome the appearance of this excellent, new journal.


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

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 20 March 2008 1503 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright