Gender and the Politics of Female Infanticide and Prostitution Regulation

Margaret Kuo, California State University, Long Beach

Michelle T. King. Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014. 264 pp. $50 (cloth/e-book).

Elizabeth J. Remick. Regulating Prostitution in China: Gender and Local Statebuilding, 1900-1937. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014. 288 pp. $45 (cloth/e-book).

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The two works under review are both compelling historical studies that use gender as a category of analysis to make important contributions to our understanding of the construction of the modern Chinese state, the periodization of modern Chinese history, and the political and cultural significance of controlling the female body. While both books engage with gender as broadly construed, they adopt different approaches. Michelle King’s analysis focuses on discursive representations that took place, for the most part, outside the context of the state—what Confucian elites, foreign experts and missionaries, and Chinese nationalists wrote about female infanticide over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This discursive approach has been used before but rarely to such insightful effect. King’s research deepens our understanding of gender and imperialism in the nineteenth century by illustrating how imperialist notions of China as a backward and heathen place were constructed in part on dubious claims that identified female infanticide as an emblematically Chinese cultural practice. Elizabeth Remick’s gender analysis, in contrast, centers on the state institutions that were developed in the early 1900s to regulate prostitution, including tax policies, licensing fees, zoning regulations, medical examinations, and police supervision. Her study of the newly erected local and provincial government regulatory regimes is a pathbreaking demonstration of how the regulation of gender roles was at the heart of state-building efforts in early twentieth-century China....