Li Yinhe 李銀河
Beijing: Chung Hua Gong Shang Lian He Chu Ban She中華工商聯合出版社, 2014
Reviewed by Tuen Yi Chiu (Ph.D. candidate, Department of Sociology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Observations in Sociology is an academic book that is based on feminist theories and empirical evidence but targeted at the general public. The author, Li Yinhe, is China’s first sexologist. Being a pioneer in gender and sexuality studies, she was regarded as one of the most influential people in China by the magazine Asiaweek in 1999 and the number one person among 30 social figures in 30 years of post-reform China. This book is divided into four parts: Gender, Love, Sexual Orientation, and Sexual Ideologies. Throughout the book, the author discusses a wide variety of contemporary social gender phenomena (such as weekend couples, LAT [living apart together] couples, contractual marriage, polyamory/open marriage, leftover women/spinster, straight with a twist, etc.) to untangle the intertwined relationships among gender, love, marriage, sex, morality and civil rights. Using laymen’s language, she outlines the structure of gendered power, the evolution of various strands of feminism, and the circumstances of sexual minorities in China. Her arguments are based on evidence from empirical research and cross-country and cross-cultural comparisons, which make them more convincing. She upholds a liberal standpoint and emphasizes the importance of recognizing individual differences and embracing sexual diversity. Building on this stance, she endeavors to fight for gender equality in political rights and calls for public concern about the rights of sexual minorities. By devoting an extended section to demystifying various taboos about sex and love affairs, she hopes to build a healthy and constructive ecology such that every member of the society, including heterosexuals, homosexuals, and transsexuals, could fully exercise their sexual rights, eventually leading to an increase in the wellbeing of the general public in China. Overall, this is an intriguing and inspiring piece of work. It can also be a useful reference for those who teach gender and sexuality in Chinese societies. Yet, the author also leaves some room for further discussion and investigation.
First, the author primarily focuses on explicating the situations of “minorities” such as women, homosexuals, transsexuals, and people with special sexual desires; the situation of the “majority” – i.e., those who have vested interests in the society, basically men and heterosexuals – receive scant attention. Although the minorities are often “weak”, “subordinate” and “victimized”, the author argues that traditional patriarchal gendered norms not only oppress women, but also men. While the situation of minorities is worth our attention and intervention, we should not neglect the possible fact that the “dominant” and “mainstream” members of society might be oppressed as well. For instance, while most women are confined by feminine domestic roles, men are also pressured to embrace their masculine breadwinner role. The stress of performing “up to the standard,” and the gap between cultural ideals and economic realities, have led to a crisis of masculinity among working class men who lack economic resources. In other words, the dominants majority are not a homogeneous and singular group; rather, hierarchies and heterogeneity exist. Readers would benefit from further discussion on how men are also oppressed, and how heterosexuals are pressured to act according to cultural norms.
Second, throughout the book, the author is very optimistic about the future development of gender equality and sexual rights in China. She remains hopeful that, with the modernization and urbanization of China, conventional ideologies about sex and gender will gradually fade and more liberal ones will develop. She believes that in a rational and legitimate society (the ideal state) every member would receive minimal suppression (as a state without any suppression is not possible), and men and women could express and realize their sexualities freely, ultimately enhancing the wellbeing of both genders and sexual minorities. Nevertheless, these visions are not anchored in concrete solutions to tackle deeply rooted traditional gender ideologies and sexual hierarchies. It seems that the author has “diagnosed” the etiology of some problems concerning both genders and sexual minorities, but she has not given much thought on how to “cure” the problems and what factors or agents might inhibit such progression, leaving a large gap between the gloomy reality and the promising future. For example, she highlights the need to recognize the wide spectrum and continuum that exist between the two ends of the masculinity-femininity dichotomy, thus blurring the sexual differences between men and women, but she does not tell the readers how this could be achieved in light of the status quo of gender inequality. Advancing a transformation of social norms is never easy, as they seem sticky and enduring. What are the catalysts for such change? What are the impediments? What are the processes of social change? Perhaps this ideal state could be achieved someday in the future, but a great deal of concerted efforts from all stakeholders in the society would have to be made before then. Readers look forward to hearing how the author would suggest that different stakeholders in the society might work to advance gender inequality both in the short run and in the long run.