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Sex, Culture, and Modernity in China

March 19, 2010

Frank Dikötter. Sex, Culture, and Modernity in China: Medical Science and the Construction of Sexual Identities in the Early Republican Period. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.

Matthew Johnson (2003)

The theme of modernity in China has become inextricably commingled with images of China’s pre-war and pre-socialist ‘early Republican’ period. A combination of transformative social atmosphere, weakened state institutions, and encounters with foreign imperialism, culture, and capital created modes of experience whose diversity nonetheless strikes many scholars as recognizably modern in nature. Author Frank Dikotter traces this movement from the traditional to modern in the context of a discursive sexual revolution following China’s political revolution of 1911. While the former revolution’s scientific discourse cannot be reduced to merely a “derivation from the ‘West'” (69), it can be understood as an emergent mode of knowledge by which a generation of Chinese intellectuals and writers sought to employ the epistemology of medicine to challenge a discredited Confucian order, and contribute to the salvation of a recently-discovered nation and race.

As suggested by the title, Dikotter’s work treats sexual(ized) categories of gender distinction, procreation, population, disease, and youth in their appearance across more than 350 publications produced by the presses of Republican China, with particular attention to the constructions of human identity – individual, national, and racial – embodied therein. As each publication treats some aspect of ‘sexual nature’ (xing), they can be taken together to form “an interconnected textual network, a relatively coherent web which can be analyzed” (8). Insofar as they treat sexual nature in terms of a recognizably scientific discourse, they can further be taken to express an “allegiance to modernity” (6). In Dikotter’s view, such publications are the work of an intellectual ‘vanguard’, independent of the state but whose interests nonetheless converged in the discipline and regulation of Chinese bodies, for the good of a Chinese nation. While seeking to liberate the corpus of such patriotic knowledge from accepted ‘hagiographies’ of major intellectual figures, the author’s interest remains to “uncover the deeper historical shifts which have transformed culture and society in China in the twentieth century” (15).

The close and extremely fluent reading that follows ultimately reaches the conclusion that there ‘deeper’ shifts reveal increasing tendencies toward the association of sexual regulation with the foundation and strength of the state, and a reductionist attitude toward sexual behavior that focuses on its purely procreative – or economic/productive – function (thus breaking with another sexual modernity that, in taking sex qua pleasure/consumption as its object, developed as an obsessive catalogue of fetishism and monomania rather than restraint and patriotism). Moreover, Dikotter convincingly links these changes to ‘pre-Western’ discourses concerning the relationship between sexuality and society that circulated during the mid-Qing, and to perceptions of social crisis and threat that accompanied the encroachment of a Western ‘outside’; there is thus a double-edged truth to the statement that “syphilis was a disease of modernity” (132). But if ‘biological mechanisms’ displaced ‘cosmological foundations’ as epistemologies of social order, it is somewhat difficult to understand (for this reader) how discourses of patriotic (sexual) self-restraint in the Republic differed fundamentally from the relation of “moral theory” (108) to human behavior under the emperor. In other words, is ‘discipline’ an entirely modern concept, marking a radical break with the pasts preceding it?

Perhaps it is the fine attention to textual detail that serves to undermine one of the major assumptions of the work itself: namely, that such a diverse body of texts, produced by a diverse and socially elite group of writers, could ever attain such unity of meaning. This rich discursive inquiry would benefit immensely from a more rigorous approach to historical materials beyond the central texts themselves. As it stands, the authors appear as little more than an undifferentiated chorus, speaking for ‘modernization’ while bereft of context, modern or otherwise. The lacuna serves to strengthen the hand of the Author, yet offers almost no elaboration of what emerges as an absolutely crucial (and, elsewhere, by no means unexplored) question: why such urgent conceptions of nation, and race, should emerge as meaningful in the period of ‘early Republican’ China. What does emerge is the notion that medical science and sexuality formed one of several sites upon which a connection between human behavior and political ends was forged. Yet the undeniably vicarious nature of many of the more ‘popularized’ works seems to discount the notion that such a connection is so purely exclusive of other (perhaps more pleasurable) behavioral modes.

Mixed reviews highlighted these tensions: one praised Dikotter’s “fine study of how Chinese intellectuals re-conceptualized the place of sexuality in daily life (The China Quarterly, Sept. 1996,147:1001-2), while others criticized the work’s overdetermined analytical approach and, more directly, “the jargon that clouds Dikotter’s writing” (Current History, Sept. 1996,95:291-2).

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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