Women’s domesticity and the reinforcement of masculinity: a spatial gendered analysis of the Sino-Western relationship in Canton during Qing dynasty

by Andrea Zuliani (he/they)

Why are women and their positionality/absence in society essential in history? And why particularly in the history of Sino-Western interactions? 

The history of the Sino-Western commerce in China is characterised not only by the exchange of goods, but also by its intrinsic human and multicultural interactions. These must be understood within theories of space: as Michel de Certeau underlines, space is not the preliminary factor for constructing social relationships; rather space is built upon the interactions which characterise it. In the case of Canton, human interactions must be analysed under the lens of gender and class. As the scholar Sara Ahmed explains, when studying history we tend to create a parallelism between gender, class and ethnicity. But why? We need to recognise these have always been factors that influenced our social interactions. Therefore, the practice of everyday life must be understood as an intertwined lens through which to study the history of Canton. 

Figure 1: “The Pearl River Delta”. Map of the Pearl River Delta and the protected position of Canton. The former justifies the stricter ruling against Western settlement as it was in the inner land, and therefore more vulnerable than other cities such as Macao.

Canton became an important city during the commercial exchange between the West and China (See Figure 1). The trade between the two increased at the beginning of the 16th century, and under form of tribute to the emperor, it lasted until the Opium War in the 19th century. After the Portuguese, other companies, such as the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, expanded their dominion and joined this commercial exchange (See Figure 2). While at the beginning, following the monsoon winds, the trade was strictly seasonal, the new technological discoveries strengthened the boats’ ability to independently enter and exit the region. This facilitated the prolonging of the stay of Westerners, who attempted to settle in China, especially in Canton. However, the establishment of Westerners was redirected to Macao, thus strictly maintaining Canton a commercial city. It is important we remember this dualism between the two cities, as this differently impacted social interactions between Chinese and Westerners, women and men. In this blog, we will engage just in the gendered analysis of space in Canton. This text distinguishes Chinese women from Western women, as their presence and absence within Canton’s geographical space enclosed different reasonings and consequences. 

Figure 2: “Chinese Fan with Foreign Factories at Canton”. Fan manufactured for the foreign market. It represents Canton, the centre of the commercial exchange. Here are seven Western national flags on the shore, which underline Sino-Western interactions.

Canton’s space was characterised by the constant inclusion and exclusion of individuals. The foreign quarters, where the factories were situated, were positioned outside of the walls of the city, thus positioning Chinese people within the walls: City of Canton (See Figure 3). I find Lisa Hellman’s definition of China as a “walled empire” very efficient in the description of the spatial dynamic of Canton. This separation was very rigid, as only supercargoes, with their slaves and servants, could reach Canton, and they still could not enter the city, unless accompanied by Chinese people. The Chinese officials, therefore, had the power to limit and expand the mobility of foreigners. Thus, movement, within Canton and its Delta, became a synonym of freedom, and the limiting of space permitted the avoidance of interactions between Chinese people and foreigners. Interestingly, this dynamic was furtherly imposed between Chinese women and foreigners. In fact, Chinese women were prohibited to meet foreigners: as described by Von Schantz, within the city there was another walled city, called ‘City of Women’. This was also contrasted by the absence of women in the foreign quarters: ‘foreign’ women were prohibited on Cantonese land. This was established to prevent the European settlement, as women were seen as the determining factor for its successfulness. The Chinese administration did not want to render Canton a ‘home’ for Westerners, as it wanted to simply maintain a commercial relation with the West. 

Figure 3: “Canton, City and Environs”. Map of Canton: the perimeter shows the City of Canton within its walls, while the external part was the one dedicated to the foreigners and their factories. This shows how Canton even had a geographical structure intertwined with discourses of both inclusion and exclusion.
Figure 4: Needle silk picture which represents a man saying goodbye to his lover, who is positioned next to stereotypical objects of a home. There is the contrast between home, femininity, domesticity and emotions against the rational masculine figure. This is the emblem of the intrinsic values which characterised the gendered space of travels.

But why were women the ones determining such factor? Interestingly, women have been associated with the idea of domesticity, and this intensified within the sailors’ culture. Following the analysis of the historian Joanne Begiato, the longing of a home and a lover became fundamental in the characterisation of a new type of masculinity. Home was the motherland which a man had to leave for the prosperity of the nation, and this gendered view of the land was consequently transferred to the physical home, thus one’s lover. This created a new narration: to travel became also a hyper-masculine duty. Men were now longing to go back to their lover, and their journey acquired a new purpose: going back to one’s wife. Travels became a masculine duty with a feminine purpose, and this gendered division constructed a thin line between “watching and witnessing” (See Figure 4). It is within these gendered analyses that men started traveling to earn enough money in order to go back to their land and settle down. The uncle of the Swedish Jean Abraham Grill said: ”two journeys as a supercargo […] and then you should earn enough to settle in your fatherland”. Through this, altogether with Doreen Massey’s analysis of gendered spaces, we can clearly understand how this period of hyper-commercialisation, was also a period a decentralisation. Nationalist discourses of domesticity and masculinity expanded and intensified themselves through the figure of women: their absence meant the impossibility of a true establishment of a place to be called home. Moreover, in the case of foreign Western women, in the Chinese cultural context a foreigner was someone who you did not need to be known because it did not hold any purpose within a determined context. Therefore, women did not hold any purpose in Canton if not a disruptive one, as it would have instigated a full integration of the Westerners in China, therefore disrupting Chinese cultural and political integrity. This clearly affected the Sino-Western relationships as the prohibition of ‘foreign’ women in Canton symbolised a constant exclusion of Western settlements, and the basis for cultural-political disputes between Canton and the Westerners.   

One might ask, what motivated the exclusion of Chinese women from the rest of Canton, instead? Firstly, following the discourse of domesticity, the separation of Chinese women from foreign men prevented their mixing. This could have differently facilitated the establishment of Westerners, as it would have originated an intercultural and interethnic population. Secondly, the exclusion of women lies within Confucianism, and it has been intensified during the Qing dynasty. In fact, Confucianism reinforces the familial patriarchal hierarchy, and consequently this scheme was transferred within the political system. The first chapter of the Analects determined the increase of a woman’s duty: to respect the authority of elder brothers and parents. This clearly underlines women’s submission to male figures, which automatically included the one of husbands.

Especially in the Ming and Qing dynasty there has been an increase in the separation of women’s and men’s gatherings, such as religious ones, and in the supressing of yin shu (licentious books). These included explicit sexual discourses, or narrations of disrespect towards authority. This decision was motivated also by the increasing importance of chastity in the Qing dynasty as a determining social morale. While sex and coercion have always resided at the core of Chinese laws, from the 18th century there was an intensification of punishments for rape and illicit sexual interactions, as they built upon discourses of women’s chastity. Women would die rather than survive the sexual contact with a man who was not their husband, and therefore there is an increase in the figures of zhen lie fu nü (chastely martyred wives and daughters). This is essential in understanding the hierarchical and patriarchal system of Qing China as it evaluates the submission to men and patriarchal discourses around feminine sexual purity. Moreover, this helps us understand Chinese perception of sex and marriage. A sexual interaction outside of marriage would end in the punishment of both men and women, and at times, as it was so intertwined with women’s moral of chastity, women would kill themselves or be killed. This underlines how sexual encounters were perceived differently, compared to the Western world. Marriage was also seen as a cult of morality as “to be married was the mark of social adulthood in China, and among the poor peasantry marriage served as an important status symbol for men”.  

Therefore, where does this bring us in the discourse of Sino-Western relationships? As we have seen domesticity, and chastity for Chinese women, were two main factors which justified women’s exclusion and segregation in Canton. This cultural difference had been used by both Westerners and Chinese as a tool to damage masculine discourse of nationhood, of which women became the common denominator. The Western neediness for women was not fully understood by Chinese men, as they perceived it not only as a means through which settling down, but also as a mere sexual desire. One of the examples that I find most remarkable is from a nineteenth century Frenchman who complained about the Chinese ban of women, and a man replied to him to try with a boy so to forget about women. As we will analyse later, within the Cantonese water space there were many prostitutes, both female and male. Here, the connotation to prostitution was perceived by Westerners as disrespectful, and moreover the male-to-male sexual interaction demolished one’s social image. In fact, prostitutes held a damaging meaning for the integrity of both Chinese and foreigners. While foreigners visiting them symbolised the Western instability, their presence also represented the Chinese decadence. Therefore, the Western desire for women was also understood in different frameworks: in a Chinese generalised perspective it was a mere sexual desire which could be satisfied somehow else. This, therefore, was used to attack discourses of masculinity and self-control of European men, and therefore the patriarchal symbolism of nationhood.  

Figure 5: Two women during the Qing dynasty playing Weiqi within the home. The male figures instead are outside practicing physical activities. This represents the delimination of Qing Chinese feminine space within the home environment. This is contrasted by the freedom of movement of men. Interestingly, the absence of the representation of women’s feet not only depended on the long dresses but also on foot-binding practices, which intensified women’s limitation of space.

Similarly, Westerners used the same strategy to attack the integrity of Chinese patriarchal system. A famous example which I would like to present you is the one of Ekeberg who in the 1770s wrote: “It is known, that all Orientals have adopted polygamy, and even the Chinese are taking as many wives as they can afford to buy and provide for.” In fact, it was very common within Swedish travellers to underline Chinese polygamy in order to use it as a synonym of barbarity. This was a very common practice in China, as a master held sovereignty over his servants, and especially in the Qing dynasty, they could have sexual interactions with female servants. This would automatically raise their social status, and they could become concubines. In the Westerners’ eyes, influenced by a Christian morale, this resembled the objectification of women, which was also perceived through the practice of foot binding, used by the Chinese to restrain women to home duties (See figure 5). While this was a practice which resembled the hierarchical and patriarchal order of families in Chinese culture, many Westerners believed, as Von Stockenström underlined, this was a punishment towards Chinese women’s favouritism of European men. This clearly shows the misunderstanding of Chinese culture: a cultural and social incompatibility which damaged Sino-Western relationships.  Practices such as foot-binding were used to represent Chinese men as barbaric and tyrannical in order to demolish Chinese cultural and national equilibrium.

Figure 6: “Loading Tea at Canton”. On the flag it is written “Heavenly women” which shows it was a flower boat. Behind it there are commercial cargos. The image represents the coexistence of both flower boats, therefore Tanka women, and commercial ones. This dualism underlines the fluidity of the water space and the harbour, contrastingly from the land region.

Now that we have analysed the gender dynamic of Sino-Western interactions on land in Canton, we will explore its water space. The former had completely different dynamics, as it held its own rules. While on land women were restrained in or excluded from the space of the home, here the spatial gendered equilibrium was constructed by the physicality of boats. The nearness to water, in fact, resembled the fluidity of such place. As mentioned before, Chinese prostitutes, also called Tanka women, resided in the Pearl Delta river, in boats called ‘flower boats’ (See Figure 6). While the ruling of female spatiality was strict on land, Tanka women enjoyed more freedom, although they were still restrained to those boats, as their survival depended on foreigners coming to them for their services.

This for the Westerners, as stated by the British artist George Chinnery, represented the inaccessibility of the women of the East, however by applying a historical analysis of space, their exclusion from strict ruling was intertwined with their ethnic and class origin. In fact, as I have presented you earlier when assessing the accessibility and isolation of women, these varied depending on their ethnicity: foreign vs. Chinese. This partially explains the exclusion of Tanka women: they were “neither noted nor counted” as they were not perceived as Chinese neither from local people nor from foreigners. 

However, their class allocation also influenced this outcome, as they were not part of the Chinese elite class. This is justified also from testimonies of foreigners: as we explored, foreigners demanded women because of the discourse of domesticity; their purpose was to create a place to call home. This would have been possible if in contact with Chinese women belonging to elite classes, but with prostitutes this would have not been possible. Their low social status would have not brought them any advantage in settling in China, also given their partial exclusion from Chinese authorities. Similarly to women in Macao, Tanka women therefore were not seen as a good prosect. From one of the testimonies of the Swedish trader Michael Grubb, we know that once arrived in Cape Horn he laments of not seeing a woman for a long time and of not sexually engaging with one. However, given the presence of Tanka women this would have been rather impossible as an official of mid Qing dynasty testified us that there were around 8,000 women who were prostitutes at the time.

Figure 7: The view from the factories of the Pearl River in Canton in 1825. The high number of boats highlights the life on the Pearl River and the difficulty of navigation, but also the relevance of the presence of Tanka.

Moreover, from the limited range of resources we have, it was estimated that around 1833, for example, there were almost 80,000 boats, which made navigation very difficult, and Tanka people lived in the majority of those (See Figure 7).  Their presence, in fact, was so omnipresent along the river that a French anthropologist described the normality of such public scenery. This shows us, as testified by Paul A. Van Dye and Susan E. Schopp that when talking about women, foreigners meant higher class women: individuals through which they could settle down. This shows how in the analysis of gender and space in Canton China, class was also a main factor which instigated the discontent of foreigners and the efficiency of Chinese strict policies on women.   

Therefore, the history of Sino-Western relationships in Canton must be analysed through a gendered lens regarding women’s spatial distribution, as it enables us to understand the dynamics of everyday life. The micro social and cultural interactions highlights the agency of individuals, which permits us to distance ourselves from the generalised history of the collective.


About the Author:

Andrea is a third-year History and Politics undergraduate student in the department of History at the University of Warwick. He is interested in queer history, more specifically at the relation between gender and sexuality. He is passionate about the importance of queerness in determining different social relations in both the past and nowadays society. As a part of queer/disrupt he mainly concentrates on providing admin support as well as helping with subtitling some of our work.


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