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The Gender of Communication: Changing Expectations of Mothers and Daughters in Urban China*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2010

Harriet Evans
University of Westminster. Email:
E-mail address:


In the flow of the material, cultural and moral influences shaping contemporary Chinese society, individual desires for emotional communication are reconstituting the meaning of the subject, self and responsibility. This article draws on fieldwork conducted in Beijing between 2000 and 2004 to discuss the gendered dimensions of this process through an analysis of the implications of the “communicative intimacy” sought by mothers and daughters in their mutual relationship. What could be termed a “feminization of intimacy” is the effect of two distinct but linked processes: on the one hand, a market-supported naturalization of women's roles, and on the other, the changing subjective articulation of women's needs, desires and expectations of family and personal relationships. I argue that across these two processes, the celebration of a communicative intimacy does not signify the emergence of more equal family or gender relationships, as recent theories about the individualization and cultural democratization of daily life in Western societies have argued. As families and kin groups, communities and neighbourhoods are physically, spatially and socially broken up, and as gender differences in employment and income increase, media and “expert” encouragement to mothers to become the all-round confidantes, educators and moral guides of their children affirms women's responsibilities in the domestic sphere. Expectations of mother–daughter communication reshape the meaning – and experience – of the individual subject in the changing character of the urban family at the same time as they reinforce ideas about women's gendered attributes and the responsibilities associated with them.

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2010

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1 I describe this conversation in greater detail in The Subject of Gender: Daughter and Mothers in Urban China (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), pp. 7071Google Scholar.

2 Yan, Yunxiang, The Individualization of Chinese Society (London: Berg, 2009)Google Scholar.

3 Ibid. pp. xvii–xviii. See also Yan, Yunxiang, “The Good Samaritan's new trouble: a study of the changing moral landscape in contemporary China,” Social Anthropology, Vol. 17, No. 1 (2009), pp. 924CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a fascinating analysis of extortionists and public responses to them as an illustration of the multiple and inconsistent implications of the recent changes in China's “moral landscape.”


4 This view has been most notably associated with Ci Jiwei's claims that China is in “moral crisis.” Jiwei, Ci, Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution: from Utopianism to Hedonism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

5 Yan, Yunxiang, The Individualization of Chinese Society (London: Berg, 2009), p. xxviiGoogle Scholar. See also pp. 273–94 for his analysis of the contrasts and intersections between what he sees as the individualization of Chinese society and the individualizing processes of Western societies.

6 Lutz, Catherine A. and Abu-Lughod, Lila (eds.), Language and the Politics of Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 9Google Scholar.

7 Yunxiang Yan, put forward a similar argument with reference to family and intimate relationships in rural areas in Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949–1999 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 8182Google Scholar.

8 My focus is not on the state in its various external and internal effects on subject formation, but I should point out that my reference to the state does not presuppose a uniform, let alone monolithic entity. Sara Friedman discusses this in her analysis of the relationship between state power and subject formation in the intimate lives of women in Hui'an county, south-eastern China, using a Foucaultian notion of governmentality. Friedman, Sara L., “The intimacy of state power: marriage, liberation and the socialist subjects in southeastern China,” American Ethnologist, Vol.32, No. 2 (2005), pp. 312–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Evans, The Subject of Gender, pp. 92–93.

10 Beck, Ulrich and Beck-Gernsheim, E., The Normal Chaos of Love (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Giddens, Antony, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

11 Gabb, Jacqui has written a useful comprehensive review of recent sociological literature on intimacy in Western culture, especially the UK and the US, in Researching Intimacy in Families (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Jamieson, Lynn, Intimacy: Personal Relationships in Modern Societies (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

13 Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, pp. 2–3. Giddens, Antony, Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy.

14 Bauman, Zygmunt, The Individualized Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001), p. 24Google Scholar.

15 Ibid. p. 6. This brings to mind Richard Sennett's earlier “tyranny of intimacy” as “the product of the dislocations caused by nineteenth century capitalism and secular belief.” He wrote: “The reigning belief today is that closeness between persons is a moral good. The reigning aspiration today is to develop individual personality through experiences of closeness and warmth with others. The reigning myth today is that the evils of society can all be understood as evils of impersonality, alienation, and coldness. The sum of these three is an ideology of intimacy: social relationships of all kinds are real, believable, and authentic the closer they approach the inner psychological concerns of each person.” See Sennett, Richard, The Fall of Public Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 259Google Scholar.


16 Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy, pp. 3–6, 58.

17 Jamieson, Intimacy, p.2.

18 Ibid. p. 488.


19 See particularly Potters, Sulamith Heins and Potter, Jack M., China's Peasants: the Anthropology of a Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kipnis, Andrew, Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

20 Yunxiang Yan, Private Life, p. 83.

21 Yan draws a distinction between the concepts of individualization and individuality, in order to distinguish the emphasis now given to the “individual” in Chinese society from that which is embedded in the philosophical heritage of Western societies. He defines the notion of the individual within the changing balance between individual person, groups and institutions, and as necessarily differing across time and place. See the concluding chapter to The Individualization of Chinese Society.

22 See Yan Yunxiang's discussion about songbang (untying) as a process redefining the relationships between the individual person, family, collective and state since the early days of the Mao era. See ibid. pp. xviii–xxiii.

23 Ci Jiwei, Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution; Jiwei, Ci, “The moral crisis in post-Mao China: prolegomenon to a philosophical analysis,” Diogenes, Vol. 56, No. 1 (2009), pp. 1925CrossRefGoogle Scholar,

24 Yuhua, Guo, “Daiji guanxi zhong de gongping luoji jiqi bianqian: dui Hebei nongcun yanglao shijian de fenxi” (“The logic of fairness and its transformation in cross-generational relations: analysis of a case of elderly care in rural Hebei”), Zhongguo xueshu (Chinese Scholarship), No. 4 (2001), pp. 221–54Google Scholar.

25 Xin, Liu, The Otherness of Self: a Genealogy of the Self in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), p.183CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Jankowiak, William, “Market reforms, nationalism and the expansion of urban China's moral horizon,” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, No. 33 (2004), pp. 167210Google Scholar.

27 Fong, Vanessa, Only Hope: Coming of Age under China's One-Child Policy. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

28 Yan Yunxiang, “The Good Samaritan's new trouble,” p. 22.

29 See ‘Reproducing filiality,’ chapter seven of The Subject of Gender.

30 The Subject of Gender, pp. 46–47. The names of the women to whom I refer in this article are the same as those I use in The Subject of Gender, and all are pseudonyms to protect my informants' anonymity.

31 See also ibid. p. 53.

32 In a paper on “Filial piety and personal happiness: redefining the moral person in intergenerational relationships” given at a workshop on Ethics of the Ordinary (Anthropology Department, London School of Economics, 25–26 March 2009), Yan Yunxiang noted how traditional Confucian notions of intergenerational relationships, typically expressed through filial piety, did not include attention to children's personal happiness. Rather, it was the parents’ happiness that was crucial, even at the expense of their sons’ and daughters’ happiness. The collectivist ethical discourse of the Mao era continued to deny the place of personal happiness in the constitution of the socialist subject.

33 See e.g. Wei Junyi who noted women's “natural duty” (tianran yiwu) to bear children, in “Yang haizi shi fou fang'ai jinbu?” (“Does bringing up children impede progress?”), Zhongguo qingnian, No. 21 (1953), pp. 13–14, quoted in Evans, Harriet, Women and Sexuality in China: Discourse of Female Sexuality and Gender since 1949 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), p.122Google Scholar.

34 Davin, Delia, Woman-Work: Women and the Party in Revolutionary China (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 180–90Google Scholar.

35 Croll, Elisabeth J., China's New Consumers: Social Development and Domestic Demand (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 3839Google Scholar.

36 I discuss some aspects of Yihua's experience in The Subject of Gender, pp. 86–87.

37 “Qian ming Zhongguo mama diaocha: Ni liaojie nide haizi ma?” (“Survey of a 1,000 Chinese mothers: do you understand your child?”), Zhongguo funü (Women of China), No. 11 (2004), p. 24, cited in Evans, The Subject of Gender, p. 89.

38 Gill Jones noted that many young people felt that they could talk more easily with their parents once they left home, and once they no longer needed to negotiate their independence within their parents’ household; see Jones, Gill, Leaving Home (Buckingham: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 74Google Scholar.

39 Jamieson, Intimacy, p. 489.

40 This paragraph derives from The Subject of Gender, p. 71. I discuss Shumei's narrative on pp. 72–77.

41 See e.g. ibid. p. 90.

42 Ortner, Sherry B., “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” in Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist and Lamphere, Louise (eds.), Women, Culture and Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974)Google Scholar.

43 Interestingly Deng Yingchao was one of the very few who in the public discourse of the time gave a positive gloss on the emotional qualities of individual relationships. She advised her listeners not to forget the importance of “temperamental harmony” (xingqing rongqia) in deciding on a marriage partner. Deng Yingchao, “Tan nannü qingnian de lian'ai, hunyin wenti” (“On the question of love and marriage for young men and women”) (first pub. 1942), in Chang'an, Zhao et al. (eds.), Lao gemingjia de lian'ai, hunyin he jiating shenghuo (Love, Marriage and Family Life of Old Revolutionaries) (Beijing: Gongren chubanshe, 1985), pp. 114Google Scholar. The term peiyang ganqing (literally “nurture feeling”) was frequently used in texts of the 1950s to indicate the importance of political, social and emotional compatibility in selecting a marriage partner. See e.g. Kunru, Ren, “Yansu duidai jiehun he lihun” (“Marriage and divorce are serious matters”), Zhongguo qingnian (Chinese Youth), No. 76 (1951), p. 30Google Scholar.

44 See e.g. the associations between women's emotionality and the dangers of passion in Jia, Luo, “Feizao pao si de aiqing” (“Soap bubble love”), Zhongguo funü (Women of China), No. 4 (1955), pp. 89Google Scholar.

45 Zhang Jie and Yu Luojin were two of the best known of this period. Zhang Jie's autobiographical story “Love must not be forgotten” was one of the first to explore individual emotion and passion in intimate relationships. For an analysis of the debate provoked by Yu Luojin's revelations about her marital experience in “A winter's fairy tale,” see Honig, Emily, “The life and times of Yu Luojin,” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 57, No. 2 (1984), pp. 252–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 For further discussion, see Evans, Women and Sexuality, pp. 96–97.

47 Evans, The Subject of Gender, pp. 92–93.

48 In response to a question about which parent daughters turned to first to talk about their “problems,” 82.65% of the 1,020 mothers who responded to the survey answered “me.” Cited in ibid. p. 93.

49 Wuliu, Si, “Mama yongyuan shi nüer de baohu shen” (“Mother is always her daughter's guardian spirit”), Zhongguo funü, No. 5 (1999), p. 10Google Scholar, quoted in ibid. p. 93.

50 In the UK, the logic of neo-liberal market economies has sustained wide gender differentials in income, employment and the division of domestic labour. A recent 700-page report on “How Fair is Britain” published on 11 October 2010 by the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission on discrimination and disadvantage in Britain delivered a devastating critique of the continuing widespread gender divisions in British society. The culture of “disclosing intimacy” shaping expectations of family and interpersonal relationships does not, so it appears, lead to any automatic diminution of gender equalities.

51 Robinson, Jean, “Of women and washing machines: employment, housework and the reproduction of motherhood in socialist China,” The China Quarterly, No. 101 (1985), pp. 3257CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 The survey data were collected from 48,401 urban households across China's 35 largest cities in 1999 and are analysed in Cohen, P. N. and Feng, Wang, “The market and gender pay equity: have Chinese reforms narrowed the gap?” in Davis, Deborah S. and Feng, Wang (eds.), Creating Wealth and Poverty in Post-Socialist China (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009), pp. 3753Google Scholar. Significantly, the authors of this article point out that as in developed capitalist economies, “gender bias [in pay] also could be expressed through an increasing tendency to relegate women to more nurturing roles, whether by families or by employers” (p. 52).

53 Berlant, Lauren and Warner, Michael, “Sex in public,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 2 (1998), p. 553CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Ibid. p. 560.


55 My thanks go to Gail Hershatter for this formulation.

56 Hird, Derek, “Models of masculinity? White-collar images at work in contemporary China,” in Donald, S. Hemelryk, Schilbach, T. and Cucco, I. (eds.), Other Stories/Missing Histories: Reflections from the Jiu Year in China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, forthcoming 2010)Google Scholar; Derek Hird, “White-collar men and masculinities in contemporary urban China,” unpublished PhD thesis, University of Westminster, 2009.

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