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Gender and Everyday Life in 20th Century China


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Dr Amanda Zhang
  • Assessment: class discussion and a presentation with 1000-word write-up (20%), a 500-word essay plan (0%) and a 4000-word essay (80%)

Module description

Twentieth-century China was a period of profound social, cultural and political changes. It witnessed the collapse of the imperial Qing Empire in 1912, the devastating human cost brought about by the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945, and eventually the Communist takeover in 1949. How did the non-elite experience these changes, if at all, in gendered ways? What were the accompanying continuities and transformations regarding gender norms and everyday practices?

In this module, we will delve into the gendered aspects of how people lived their lives. The module will be chronologically organised, but each week's class will have a different thematic focus, such as footbinding, marriage, family, prostitution, model workers, youth subculture and martial arts. We will critically examine some of the grand narratives about reforms and changes during this period, corroborating, contextualising and counterbalancing them with granular analysis of individuals and their stories.

This class will use a wide range of sources, including essays, travel writings, life-writings such as autobiographies and memoirs, archival documents, comics, photographs, films and advertisements to tease out the tensions that manifested from the convergence of the state, society, culture, gender politics and everyday life.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction: gender and everyday life - a historiographical review
  • Foot binding
  • Sex work as life: sexual labour and regulation in modern China
  • Women and modernity in urban China
  • Women in conflict: women, war and revolution
  • The perils of the 'hooligan': youth subculture and deviant masculinities
  • Family and national revolution
  • Model workers: Iron Ladies and Iron Men in the Mao era
  • Market reforms: consumption, migration, inequalities
  • State feminism and sissyphobia: the future of gender and everyday life

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • display a good knowledge of major themes in debates about modern Chinese social and gender history
  • compare and contrast modern scholars’ approaches on the subject
  • write an argumentative essay and ask interrogative questions that engage and intersect with existing scholarship and primary sources
  • handle primary sources with confidence and use them as a means of critiquing current paradigms.