I want to return to something that comes up in Jiwei Ci's book, Moral China in the Age of Reform, and elaborate on it in reference to struggles over changing constructions of gender in contemporary China.
Ci takes as his starting point the brute reality of a rapidly changing China (I blogged his book here and did a longer review of it here) . Modernization is happening here so rapidly and so extensively that many people feel at a loss: they no longer have a clear sense of what values hold the society together and they experience this as a "moral crisis" of sorts. A big part of this story is the increased social and cultural and economic (but less so political) freedom that Chinese people have now compared to just about anytime in the country's long, long history. My summer school students, 18-21 year old Chinese undergraduates at Renmin University in Beijing, are much more free to find the job of their liking, a spouse that they love, a career and lifestyle of their own making, than was the case for older generations. Their parents and grandparents did not face nearly as wide an array of personal life choices, and so the generation gap is massive. At this point, it is simply impossible to undo the urbanization and social mobility and consumerism and materialism of the times. Thus, Ci contends that this new found freedom must be thought through and defined in a manner that helps people understand who they are and who they can be now. He frames this issue like this:
Whatever alternative to this [new modern] life we find attractive or feasible, I for one believe that a radically more individuated moral subject must figure in it and so, correspondingly, must a kind of freedom that makes such a moral subject possible. Only this kind of moral subject can give us any hope of making the best of the new form of life in China today and, if necessary, transcending it through critique and struggle from within. (4)
So, what can freedom be in China now?
This question confronted me directly in my class. A little background: I was teaching (just finished Friday!) a summer school class on "Confucianism in America" to Chinese undergraduate students at Renmin (People's) University. Interestingly the majority of my students this year, as in the two other years I have taught it, were female. Indeed, 25 out of the 30 students were young women (and, yes, we discussed the misogyny to be found in The Analects). Since it is a bit unusual for them to have an American professor, I would start each class session with "question time," during which they could ask me any question they wanted about the United States. They asked about many things: the peculiar American fascination with guns; attitudes toward the South China Sea decision; how people feel about their communications being monitored by the government.
And then they asked about sex.
To be clear: one young woman asked what Americans thought about premarital sex and about extramarital affairs.
I was a bit taken aback: what should I say as an older American man in a quasi-public forum with mostly young Chinese women? As I formulated my response, I was happy that she had felt comfortable enough to raise the issue. I had been encouraging them to ask any question they wanted, and she had.
I told them that attitudes on premarital sex had changed over the years, with more and more people and institutions coming to see it as natural and acceptable. At my college, I pointed out, the issue was framed in terms of consent and safe sex. We do not try to stop young people from having sex but to make sure that if they chose to do so they make those choices responsibly. I mentioned recent problems of sexual harassment and assault. In concluding, I said that how one defines ones sexual orientation and practice is up to the individual him- or her- (or their-) self; it is an expression of one's individuality.
A couple of follow up questions were raised, which was interesting in that the students would usually not pursue a topic with multiple questions. They were clearly interested about this. Another young woman asked about sex education in the US, how we talked to children and students about sex. I told them it was built into middle school and high school curricula and that at my college there was a fairly significant effort to continue to make students aware of consent and safe sex. The discussion continued for about ten minutes.
And thus it became evident that they were not only questioning American attitudes and practices, they were questioning Chinese attitudes and practices.
It seems that in June a controversy had erupted on Weibo, when a teacher in Guangdong province called out a Chinese sex education text book that referred to young women who have premarital sex as "degenerates". On social media women fought back, arguing that they should be able to determine their sexuality for themselves, without public opprobrium. And what about men? Why weren't they, too, being tagged with the "degenerate" label? Many of the young women in my class were likely aware of these debates, and they wanted an American perspective. Also, they are certainly all too aware of the continuing social construction and reproduction of gender norms and expectations that subordinate women socially and economically, as described in Leta Hong Fincher's book, Leftover Women.
As I reflected on this conversation, I realized that this is precisely the kind of thing Ci is writing about. The young women in my class are, in various ways, more free than their mothers or grandmothers. A wide variety of personal choices and opportunities lay before them. But that freedom is not fully articulated and theorized. How free can and should women be when it comes to their sexuality in China today? Clearly, there are still attitudes and practices here that run counter to the expectations and identities of the younger generation. To what extent and in what manner should the prospect of freedom be subordinated to existing or reinvented social norms?
Ci's analysis is especially helpful here because his notion of freedom is not a crude anything-goes egoism. He invokes Foucault's notion of a "mode of subjection" to recognize that individuals are always already embedded in social contexts, with their attendant norms and practices, and that we are constantly engaged in a process of shaping our individual preferences and habits and interests in light of social and political and economic forces. We are not wholly free, we are subjected (subjugated?) by various aspects of modernity. My own sense is our subjection to economic pressures, the market, might be most powerful. We often limit ourselves in the face of material incentives and disincentives. But, as my female students made clear, subjection to gender norms is also powerfully at play (there seems to be a cycle: young people press for more freedom which in turn produces a conservative reaction for a return to "tradition").
Ultimately, the women in my class were thinking about how certain social forces work to define gender roles ("degenerate women") in such a manner as to limit their sexual, and ultimately social, freedom. They were pressing back against this narrower mode of subjection, and actively engaging in the process of subjection. They were resisting certain conservative limitations and defining for themselves their freedom within a newly created, and perhaps somewhat expanded, mode of subjection. They are not wholly free, but they want to be freer and they want to have more of a say in what that freedom means.
A parting thought. All of this happened in a class that was considering possible modern meanings of Confucianism. I encourage more liberal interpretations of The Analects and Mencius, readings that recognize the historical patriarchal qualities of the texts but insist on a contemporary gender-neutral understanding. In the multiform Confucian revival in China now there are people who are bringing Confucian ideas into their personal lives in a manner that helps to expand and make sensible the social-cultural freedom they enjoy. But there are also those who use "Confucianism" in a more limiting manner, imposing a top-down neo-traditionalist mode of subjection that works against freedom. My sense is that these projects will ultimately fail here. The young women in my class will not accept a "Confucianism" that pushes them down into someone else's definition of who they should be; they want to define themselves. If Confucianism is to have a significant modern presence in China, it has to work with freedom not against it.