Hsiao-wen Cheng

Divine, Demonic and Disordered considers the phenomenon of the “manless woman”, as depicted in Chinese writings from the Song period (960-1279). These women were considered peculiar because their sexual bodies did not belong to men. This innovative study offers a fresh look at the unstable meanings attached to women’s behaviours and lives, even in a time of codified patriarchy.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read it?

Hsiao-wen Cheng: It is about the epistemology of what I term the “manless women.” By epistemology I mean the sets of vocabulary and conceptual frameworks available to both men and women to understand what they see and to describe what they do or who they are. I use “manless women” to refer to women whose sexual and reproductive bodies were not available to their present, future, or late husbands. (So it doesn’t include widows.) It could be a maiden who was believed to be possessed by a demon and thus deemed unfit for marriage, a married woman who requested a separate room and not sharing a bed with her husband, or a woman who left home to become a nun while still at marriageable age or while her husband was still alive. This was not an explicitly delineated category in premodern China, nor does it fit modern classifications of sexual identity or sexual orientation. But it is a productive category because it reveals distinct configurations of gender and sexuality that we otherwise would not see.

NOTCHES: What did Song society make of women without men, and what wider assumptions about sex and gender underpinned these attitudes? Was female sexuality (and female identity) constructed solely in relation to men?

Cheng: In Song sources we rarely see the assumption that women necessarily desire men or that women must have sex with men. It was also extremely rare to associate women’s desire for men with procreation. Widowhood did not require explanation. “Manless women” by the aforementioned definition did. Women’s manless condition was understood very differently in different sources. But the shared assumption was that a wife who does not share a bed with her husband or a maiden who cannot marry was a phenomenon that needed explanation.

Was female sexuality constructed solely in relation to men? Oftentimes yes, and that is why manless women needed explanation. That does not mean that women only experienced anything that we now call “sexuality” in relation to men. Rather, in Song and pre-Song sources, women’s sexual experience was almost always only legible and explicable in relation to men. That is why manless women fell outside of existing epistemology. (There is only one textual reference of potentially sexual intercourse between women that I have seen in pre-14th century Chinese sources. I did not include it in my book. It was in a seventh-century medical treatise, in the context of so-called “yin-yang exchange,” a unique condition where men and women who have not fully recovered from a “cold damage” illness and who pass the illness to the other sex whom they have intercourse with. The text says, “It does not exchange between two men or two women.” But there is no further discussion in the text.)

Was female identity constructed solely in relation to men? It was not. There were many kinds of gendered identities, and those identities were embedded in more complex social relations than men versus women. Celibacy was a way of removing one’s womanhood and becoming a non-woman, especially in a religious context. But not every woman who practiced religious celibacy viewed herself or was viewed by others as a non-woman.

NOTCHES: How far was sex seen as part of a healthy lifestyle in Song China? And what role did medical knowledge play in construction/ reinforcement of gender and sexual norms?

Cheng: I cannot answer the first question because the notion of sex as a neutral and naturalized phenomenon was not there in pre-20th century China. In pre-20th Chinese texts, there are many references to things that we would now identify as “sex”; but those things were not necessarily understood as sharing the same nature and distinct from other things in their original contexts.

In pre-20th century China, health was not an average condition of a (racially superior) population, as in the eyes of European doctors in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was on a spectrum of sick—healthy—healthier—and even immortality. (Not everyone believed in immortality. But for those who did, it was often on the same spectrum as being healthy.) Norms were not established on a statistical basis. Similar to the meaning of the original Latin word for norm, norma (meaning a square used by carpenters, builders, and surveyors to obtain a right angle), what was considered correct, orthodox, or healthy in pre-20th century China was not conflated with what was common or average.

For instance, in previous scholarship, Song medicine was understood as normalizing a female body centered around its reproductive function. However, in Song medical texts, childbirth is always considered extremely dangerous and detrimental. No Chinese medical text before the 18th century ever claims that a smooth birth is optimal and common. All physicians of women’s medicine tried to help women through childbirth, but none claimed that a woman could only be healthy (or healthier) if she had previously given birth. Quite to the contrary, they asserted that childbirth damaged women’s bodies and was a threat to their lives. In premodern China, such a medical opinion did not serve to reinforce patrilineal family’s expectation for women to give birth—it is difficult to see how characterizing something as life-threatening and damaging to health would serve to reinforce it. Such a medical opinion reflected popular demand for medical service and practitioners’ attempt to elevate their own authority. Unlike in modern societies, however, the family system in premodern China never relied upon medical opinions as a source of its legitimacy.

NOTCHES: Many of the writers in your book were preoccupied by the problem of intercourse with ghosts. What did this involve, what caused it, why was it a problem, and were there any solutions?

Cheng: Intercourse with ghosts was an established category of disorder in medieval Chinese medical literature. It happens to both men and women, but the symptoms are sometimes gendered. Mental or behavioural symptoms appear more frequently in discussions of women’s such program than in those of men’s. Medical writers and “bedchamber” texts authors identified different causes. The former considered it a general bodily disorder, while the latter associated it with the lack of sexual intercourse with the opposite sex. Daoist cultivation manuals, on the other hand, deemed intercourse with ghosts simply a symptom of being ordinary, just like having tears, nasal mucus, saliva, and sweat. There were many solutions, but marriage was not one of them.

NOTCHES: To what extent was celibacy/ virginity admired in China at this time? Or was it chiefly seen as a problem?

Cheng: Virginity was rarely discussed in the texts I read for this book. Celibacy was different for men and for women. Both men and women were expected to marry and to produce offspring. But social expectations differed for male and female sexuality. To be free of desire and to reduce or even eliminate sexual activity with women was a much-discussed ideal among elite men, regardless of their marital status. While women were frequently praised for not being jealous of their husbands’ other consorts, they were rarely praised—except in Buddhist and Daoist hagiographies—for being indifferent to their husbands. The different expectations for (elite) men and for women situated their practice of religious celibacy in opposite positions: celibate men conformed to the expectation that a morally cultivated man should be immune to desire, whereas celibate women defied the norm that women’s sexuality should be guarded by their husbands.

NOTCHES: What sources did you use to research this book, and did you face any particular challenges when working on it?

Cheng: My main sources include medical treatises, “bedchamber” literature, manuals of exorcism, literary tales, “anomaly accounts,” anecdotes, and Buddhist and Daoist hagiographies. There are two major challenges: 1) The sources were predominantly written by elite men. 2) What I write about (“manless women”) is neither a modern/contemporary concept nor an explicit category in the Song dynasty. At first I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.

The first challenge became an opportunity for me to re-evaluate historians’ analyses of discourse and authorship. Simply because a text is written by a woman doesn’t mean it carries an unmediated “authentic” female voice. Simply because a text is written (or written down after circulating orally) by an elite man doesn’t mean we can only take it as a straightforward representation of elite men’s voices. Discourse in my sources is often inconsistent and heterogeneous in nature. Instead of representation and authorship, I pay more attention to the frustration of not knowing (or the inadequacy of established language and epistemology to describe certain forms of experience) and to the instability of claimed discoveries of truth.

The second challenge is a part of my methodological intervention. Historians have been critical of such anachronism as imposing modern concepts and categories onto the premodern world. But the solution is often too simply: to find a term or an obvious category in the primary sources and trace its history. Going back and forth between my sources and my analysis helped me identify “manless women” as a meaningful category that sheds light on what mattered in the Song dynasty and how modern categories fall short.

NOTCHES: This is a book about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

Cheng: It also speaks to the question of agency, gender identity and the body, and the social significance of medical knowledge in pre-20th century China.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Cheng: I became interested in the history of sexuality after reading Tze-lan Sang’s The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China, James Schultz’s “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” and Karma Lochrie’s Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom?

Cheng: I can see this book being useful in courses of history of sexuality, gender and religion, and history of medicine. My book doesn’t treat sexuality as a given. It introduces the terms used in premodern China in referring to sex related matters and their contexts. It provides a non-Western example of the history of sexuality before the modern notions of sexuality took shape. It writes a queer history that questions assumptions about gender, sexuality, normalcy, and the body. It defines agency not by intent or “free will” but by interaction and mutual evolvement, so that stories about women who are possessed by spirits and about women who adopt celibacy in response to divine callings become meaningful. The book also demonstrates a different analysis of gender discourse in a historical context where neither medical knowledge nor state regulation nor any particular system determined the truth about the human body.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Cheng: It questions today’s assumptions about gender, sexuality, identity, agency, medical discourse, health, norms and normalcy.

NOTCHES: What are you working on now that your book is published?

Cheng: My next book project is about the notion of norm in premodern China—how notions about time and history mattered in the construction of norms, and how that mattered to gender and sexuality.

Hsiao-wen Cheng is associate professor of Chinese history and religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on issues related to gender and sexuality, medicine and healing culture, and notions of norm and normalcy. Her new book, Divine, Demonic and Disordered: Women without Men in Song Dynasty China, is out now from University of Washington Press. 



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