CHANGE and challenges

Launching the China Academic Network on Gender
at Université libre de Bruxelles

14-15 May 2018


Dates: 14-15th May 2018
Location: Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Belgium
Keynote Speaker: Prof. JIANG Jin (East China Normal University)

Participating scholars: Dr. Jennifer Altehenger (King’s College London), Dr. Stijn Deklerck (KU Leuven), Dr. Colette Harris (SOAS), Prof. Vanessa Frangville (ULB), Prof. Peter Jackson (Australia National University), Prof. Katrien Jacobs (Chinese University of Hong Kong), Prof. Françoise Lauwaert (ULB)

Conference aims and overview:

On 14-15 May 2018, the inaugural conference of the China Academic Network on Gender (CHANGE) was held at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB, Belgium) in partnership with SOAS, King’s College London and East China Normal University. The event was conceived both as the network’s official public launch and as its first scientific manifestation. Titled ‘Articulating Gender in Modern China: Retro-Prospective Encounters’, the conference brought together researchers from Europe and China whose research focuses on gender issues in modern China from the humanities and social sciences perspective.

Day 1: Monday 14th May

The conference was officially inaugurated with a short speech from representatives of  the partner universities including Dr Jennifer Altehenger (KCL), Dr Colette Harris (SOAS) and Prof. Laurent Licata, the Vice-Rector in charge of Diversity and Gender Policies at ULB. Conference participants were also welcomed by representatives of ULB’s Maison des Sciences Humaines, EASt (ULB’s research centre on North and South East Asia), and Striges (ULB’s interdisciplinary structure on Gender, Equality and Sexuality). The CHANGE network founders Jennifer Bond, Liu Chang and Coraline Jortay also introduced the network, with a short talk on its history, its current projects and future aims. The conference was then opened with the keynote speech from Prof. Jiang Jin (ECNU) on the ‘State of the Field of Gender and Women’s Studies in China.’

After a brief historical overview emphasizing how women’s liberation through the 1950 Marriage Law effectively served as an important  benchmark for modernity and legitimacy for the CCP after the founding of the PRC, Prof. Jiang brushed a panorama of the field dating back to the 1980s when the first generation of western scholars such as Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig started to research gender issues in China after the Cultural Revolution. Prof. Jiang highlighted the cultural and historical background that scholars researching gender in China and the West brought with them to the field. As China emerged from the Cultural Revolution, Chinese scholars of gender, such as Li Xiaojiang 李小江, started to unpick the gendered norms of the previous decades.

The 1990s saw a boom of publication, translation and institutional building. Efforts were made to establish women’s studies as an academic discipline within the  curriculum of universities in China. This was supported by a host of organisations such as the Ford Foundation. Although these efforts ultimately failed, the beginning of the twenty-first century saw the establishment of research centres dedicated to women’s studies, including the Center for Culture and Gender Studies at ECNU. Prof. Jiang then showed how Chinese scholars had explored strategies to create a Chinese theory in gender studies. Starting from the 1980s, gender issues have also gradually attracted broader public attention in China.

A final remark underlined how women’s studies in Chinese academia had since its foundation in the 1980s lacked a corresponding social movement, which has recently begun to take shape along with the MeToo movement. Zhu Yuhang from ECNU outlined how recent sexual harassment cases in China have also had an impact as students start to rethink gender relations. These recent discussions about gender and sexual harassment in public, particularly on social media, are supposed to align with academics’ continued efforts to establish a field. Nevertheless, the extent to which these recent discussions about gender and sexual harassment in the public realm, particularly via social media will ally with Chinese gender scholars’ continued efforts to find a more central and permanent home for their subject is a question which has yet to be answered.

The afternoon began with a roundtable discussion facilitated by Prof. Françoise Lauwaert (ULB), entitled ‘Methods, Practices and Challenges of Gender Research in China’. Participants included Jiang Jin who works on Shanghai, Katrien Jacobs on Hong Kong, Séagh Kehoe on Tibet and Nepal. Jennifer Altehenger’s research focuses on propaganda, popular culture production and material culture in the PRC, while Colette Harris has been working on masculinities and femininities in Central Asia and Africa. Bringing together scholars working on art, literature, history, anthropology, sociology, politics and film studies, the roundtable discussed different challenges (practical, institutional, fieldwork-related, etc.) and practices of doing gender research in China today, contrasting the differences and similarities depending on different disciplines and places.

Various questions were raised and debated during this lively session, with much engagement from the audience: How does gender become one of the many lenses through which we can analyse our sources? How to use alternative (artistic, performative …) methods to teach students in relation to gender? What are the risks and benefits of social media compared to traditional ethnography for gender-related topics? Does building an academic field of gender studies make one an activist? The session also discussed ethical issues of doing research in China, and the sexual challenges and opportunities that research students are faced with in conducting their fieldwork. These challenges often stem from notions of reciprocity that research entails and the suitability of universities current ethics committees and frameworks for the practicalities of doing gender research in China was also questioned.

The first day of the conference ended in a session titled ‘Gender & Asia in Dialogue’.  The papers complemented each other in their discussion of how magic in fiction and practice has intertwined with ideas about class, gender fluidity and border crossing from historical and modern perspectives in China and southeast Asia. Prof. Peter Jackson (Australia National University) brought together queer and religious practices in contemporary Thailand in a talk ‘A World Ever More Enchanted: Modernity Makes Magic in 21st Century Southeast Asia’. Françoise Lauwaert (ULB) gave a fascinating paper ‘Crossing the Borders Between Genders and species in Chinese Religious Fiction’.

Day 2: Tuesday 15th May

On the second day of the conference the first panel entitled ‘Intervention and Interaction: Individual, Organisation and State’, chaired by Vanessa Frangville (ULB), brought together scholars working on issues of gender, religion, class and ethnicity in China. Panel participants included Zhu Yuhang (East China Normal University), Hollie Gowan (University of Leeds), Kailing Xie (York University) and Séagh Kehoe (University of Nottingham). The panel helped us to draw comparisons about the interactions between individuals and the state in gender negotiations in China both in the past and at present. The question of the relationship between gender, religion and female agency in China was raised in Zhu Yuhang’s and Hollie Gowan’s papers. Hollie Gowan’s talk also provided interesting methodological insights into conducting interviews with women in faith based organisation in China, giving examples of the type of questions she asked when attempting to unpick women’s understanding of selfhood and identity.

The next two papers highlighted the intersection of ethnicity, gender and class in the feminist movement in contemporary China. Kailing’s Xie’s presentation on China’s well-educated urban daughters highlighted the challenges and paradoxes that this group of privileged middle class women face in their pursuit of an increasingly unobtainable vision of ideal womanhood as portrayed in state and social media discourses. Séagh Kehoe’s talk discussed the intersectionality of Gender and ethnicity in China and the problem currently facing the middle class feminist movement in urban China of how to bring non-Han perspectives and experiences of gender into the debate.

The second panel entitled ‘Deciphering Sexuality and Gender: Literary Works, Visual Sources and Social Space’, asked us to shift our perspective to a more grassroots approach, considering how individuals negotiate the heteronormative discourses that permeate state sponsored discussion of gender identity and sexuality in modern China. The session was chaired by Colette Harris and participants included Florine Leplâtre (INALCO), Katrien Jacobs (Chinese University of Hong Kong), Lucas Monteil (Paris 8 University), and Stijn Deklerck (KU Leuven).

Florine Leplâtre’s paper dissected the types of female activism displayed in two late Qing novels and questioned to what extent the concept of Femo-nationalism can be usefully applied to this type of fiction. Katrien Jacobs’ research into gender and pornography explores the positive ‘after-glow’ felt after viewing pornography and her research encompasses participatory group based research in Hong Kong. Questions relating to queer pornographies and different cultural influences in pornography across Asia and the West also arose. Lucas Monteil’s research looks at the individual negotiations that male homosexuals in modern China face when negotiating the heteronormative expectations of society about marriage. Stijn Deklerck highlighted collective strategies of the LGBTQI community in these negotiations and also touched on the relationship between his status as an activist and research on LGBTQI issues in modern China. This promoted a broader discussion which is applicable to all researchers in the field, as well as for CHANGE on how to negotiate these identities as researcher and activist. Both Lucas and Stijn shared visual sources with the group to allow an understanding of the spaces and methods used by the LGBTQI community to articulate their gendered identities in China.

Our workshop came to a close with a talk by Prof. Jiang Jin, entitled ‘Women Playing Men: Same-Sex Relations in Shaoxing Opera in Republican Shanghai’, based on her book Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-century Shanghai (Washington, 2009). Prof. Jiang explored how female opera stars could, by adopting the dress and characteristics of men, push at the boundaries of what was considered permissible between the sexes in terms of on-stage intimacy as the viewers were aware that both players were female. According to Prof. Jiang, female opera stars playing men’s roles could experiment with new subject positions and strategies for asserting their identities.

We would like to reiterate our thanks to all the participants and sponsors who helped to make this network launch a success, including East China Normal University Center for Culture and Gender Studies, King’s College London History Department, SOAS China Institute and Center for Gender Studies, and especially to Striges, EASt and the Maison des science humaines at ULB for hosting our inaugural conference.

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