AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Contemporary studies of rural China are notable for their lack of attention to sexuality. Most implicitly accept a prevailing view of rural society as ruled by conservative sexual mores and a procreative imperative, institutionalized through near-universal marriage rates.(1) When I began research in southeastern China's Huian county, I too assumed that given the prevalence of arranged marriages and patriarchal family organization, the expression of sexual desires and pleasures would be suppressed, if not inconceivable, among the women with whom I worked.(2) However, the rapidly changing nature of local marriage customs and sexual practices soon made apparent the limitations of understanding sexuality as a singular, unified discourse structured by compulsion. Although as a dominant institution, reproductive sexuality may appear unified and coherent, in practice sexual pleasures and desires are more diffuse and variable. Thus they reveal the work that must go into producing conjugal, procreative sexuality as the taken-for-granted arrangement of sexual acts and pleasures (Rich 1986).
In this article I examine the institutions and discourses in rural China that have produced a dominant construction of sexuality as marital and reproductive in orientation.(3) In particular, I show how the vision of sexuality promoted through local marriage customs converges with the reproductive focus of state population policies to create an official discourse of "reprosexuality," which privileges reproduction over pleasure, and conjugal sexual behavior over non-marital (Warner 1991).(4) At the same time, I also argue that despite the institutional power of this discourse, it cannot fully determine the sexual practices of young women and men in rural Huian, or the meanings attributed to such practices. The greater opportunities and flexibility offered by a market economy, together with the unintended consequences of the state's population control policies, enable a proliferation of sexual desires, behaviors, and pleasures that exceed the bounds of a normative, conjugal model of sexuality.
This excess, however, does not reflect the simple liberation of a natural sexuality that has long been repressed by patriarchal societal and state forces. Foucault's negation of the repressive hypothesis has shown us how sexuality operates as a particular construction of knowledges, practices, and desires both produced by and productive of configurations of power. Rather than "a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or ... an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover," sexuality, for Foucault
is the name that can be given to a historical construct, ... a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power. (Foucault 1978:105-106)
By de-naturalizing (one might say de-biologizing) sexuality, Foucault rejects a vision of sexuality as a basic physiological need kept in check by an array of social, political, and economic forces. Instead, he argues that sexuality emerged as a historical product of bourgeois, capitalist society.
David Halperin (1993), in his commentary on the comparatively short history of this particular understanding of sexuality, provides a compelling model for analyzing sexual practices in a more diverse array of contexts than the Euro-American world of the past three centuries. He documents how sexual desires in ancient Greece were sparked not by gendered object choice, but by the citizen/non-citizen status relationship around which Greek society was organized. Refuting the widespread applicability of a concept of "sexuality" defined by identity, Halperin instead calls for analyses of what he terms "the cultural poetics of desire," or, in other words, "the processes whereby sexual desires are constructed, mass-produced, and distributed among the various members of human living-groups" (1993: 426).
By shifting analytic attention away from sexual identity, Halperin illustrates the important role of sociopolitical institutions and cultural values in making particular sexual configurations culturally intelligible to social actors. Similarly, I demonstrate how in eastern Huian, the convergence of state population policies with a distinctive local marriage system has created a prevailing discourse of reprosexuality that shapes sexual desires and practices in specific ways. Yet I also argue that this configuration fails to encompass all forms of sexual expression, thereby suggesting that Halperin's notion of "cultural poetics" perhaps goes too far in assuming recognized conventions of feeling and behavior subscribed to by all members of a society.
Halperin himself points to individuals whose sexual behavior transgresses those very conventions, drawing examples from a medical text based on the practice and teaching of an early Greek physician (1993: 421-423). I underscore this feature of his analysis not only to draw attention to the act of transgression itself, but more importantly to highlight the means through which we learn of such individuals. Halperin encounters transgressive cases because they have been spoken of and recorded. His access to deviance through a record of speaking or interpreting recalls Foucault's concern with the Victorian compulsion to "speak of sex," a compulsion embedded in the confession or the medical examination. Rather than interpreting the act of speaking as creating a certain kind of sexual or cultural subject, I suggest instead that we look more closely at how "speaking" sex produces and even enhances the potential dangers of sexual practices and pleasures. In short, as I delineate how various state and societal institutions and discourses in rural Huian promote a dominant vision of conjugal, reproductive sexuality (at the same time that they unintentionally enable a proliferation of non-conjugal, non-reproductive sexual practices), I also stress the consequences of the expression of sexual experiences and pleasures for different social groups. In particular, I elucidate the dangers faced by young women when they openly acknowledge pleasures that fall outside the sphere of marital, reproductive sex.
Marriage and Sexuality in Eastern Huian
Eastern Huian county lies midway up the coast of Fujian province, a predominantly rural area with an economy oriented around fishing, stone-carving, and agriculture. Despite the official status of its inhabitants as members of China's Han majority, the county is known for the practice of a distinctly non-Han set of marriage customs, termed extended natal residence marriage (chang zhu niangjia). Unlike women in most Han Chinese villages who assume immediate virilocal residence upon marriage, women in eastern Huian return to their natal homes after their wedding and reside there indefinitely, making periodic conjugal visits. Only after they bear a child do they begin to live with their husbands, and only then do women define themselves as "truly married."(5) In the past when most women were forced into arranged marriages in their teenage years, they sought to delay this shift to conjugal residence by avoiding sexual relations (which might lead to pregnancy and then cohabitation). Young wives often refused to visit their conjugal homes altogether, or, when they did visit, they would not sleep with their husbands, instead spending the night standing against the wall or sitting in a chair, reluctant to get into bed or even undress. Given the dominance of a Confucian moral framework that confined women's sexual expression to marriage, this particular pattern of marital practice made female sexual desire difficult to imagine, much less openly express.
By the time I conducted fieldwork in the mid-1990s, however, both marital and sexual practices in eastern Huian had begun to change dramatically. Although most young people continued to observe extended natal residence marriage customs in name, the very practices comprising such customs looked quite different from those experienced by older generations. In past decades, for instance, non-resident wives had to wait for a female member of their husband's family to call for them before they went to visit. This expected passivity gave wives the power to refuse visitation requests and thereby avoid engaging in sexual intercourse. At the same time, pervasive expectations of female modesty and the disciplinary power of same-sex social networks created an environment that made it quite difficult even for those women who had "feelings" for their husbands to agree to marital visits, much less initiate them on their own.(6)
In the mid-1990s, by contrast, the growing popularity of an ideal of romantic …