Monday, September 25, 2017

[Friday Seminar Recap] The Politics and Ethics of Patriarchy in 21st century China: A Conversation about Sex, Family, and Power


Date: September 15th 2017 (Friday)
Speakers: Petula S. Y. HO (何式凝) (Social Work, HKU)
Teresa KUAN (關宜馨) (Anthropology, CUHK)
Gordon MATHEWS (麥高登) (Anthropology, CUHK)
Gonçalo SANTOS (江紹龍) (HKIHSS, HKU)
Moderator: Minhua LING (凌旻華) (China Studies, CUHK)


Chinese society has been radically reshaped by the successive waves of revolutions since the 19th century. Patriarchy, which defined the familial social structure for a very long period in Chinese history, seems to be altered or even reversed. Is patriarchy “dead”, or is it still relevant for understanding power and intimate life in contemporary China? Discussing the book Transforming Patriarchy: Chinese Families in the 21st Century, Prof. Ho, Prof. Kuan, Prof. Mathews and Prof. Santos shared their views in the Friday Seminar titled “The Politics and Ethics of Patriarchy in 21st century China: A Conversation about Sex, Family and Power”.

Prof. Santos started by stating that he finds it important to bring family and intimate life back into the focus of research on contemporary society and investigate their intertwinement with institutions and technologies. He then examined and critiqued the theoretical “enemies”: two previous theories of the transformation of families, i.e. modernization theory and individualization theory. Modernization theory argues that as industrialization spreads, there is a shift from the patriarchal family to the nuclear family, in which more emphasis is put on companionship and romantic love, leading to a more egalitarian mode of intimate life. The individualization thesis, as a successor, highlights how intimate relationships have been privatized and become thinner, more fragile and liquid in the age of globalization. Prof. Santos pointed out that these theses assume the change to be linear, and overstate the importance of individual agency, without articulating clearly the link between individual choice, state policies and global forces.

As an alternative, in Transforming Patriarchy, it is argued that the rising significance of romantic love, conjugal units and individualized intimacy should be conceptualized as the transformation of patriarchal inequalities, rather than the end of them. Based on the Chinese context, Prof. Santos discussed a spatial-temporal model of domestic inequality, which includes two key axes: generation and gender. Furthermore, this system is not historically constant but subject to the influence of extra-domestic forces in the surrounding environment. Prof. Santos argued that while the classic patriarchal structures have been effectively shaken in contemporary China, the growing salience of individual choice in people’s private life does not equal to absolute freedom from social ties, institutional constraints and normative intervention. The focus should be two-fold. In the end, Prof. Santos looked into the case of Ma Rongrong, a pregnant Chinese woman who committed suicide presumably due to unbearable labor pain after being denied a C-section, and discussed the relationship between birth-giving, authority of hospitals and power of the husband’s family.

Other speakers at the Seminar all gave insightful comments. Prof. Ho discussed the various forms of patriarchs from a Hong Kong perspective and emphasized the interplay of gender and macro politics. Prof. Kuan went into the details of Transforming Patriarchy and pinpointed a contradiction: the forces that constraint and compel are also those that create meaning and generate affection. Prof. Mathews compared the cases of China and Japan from the perspectives of generation wealth difference, state intervention and economic prospect.

A full house!

Prof. Ho

Prof. Kuan

Prof. Mathews

Prof. Santos

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