Chinese intellectuals adopted the concepts minzu (ethnicity or “nationality”) and zongjiao (religion) from Japan in the late nineteenth century as part of the wider discourse of modernity. This article examines the gendered dimensions of these concepts through writings about sexuality in two examples from Dali, Yunnan (home to the Bai minzu)from the late Republican period (1911-49) to the early years of the People’s Republic of China. The first example, the Gua sa la festival, involves sexually explicit songs, cross-dressing, and possibly also sexual encounters with strangers. The second example, the cult of the local goddess Baijie, celebrates the fidelity and chastity of an eighth-century queen who committed suicide rather than marry her husband’s killer. The examination of writings about Gua sa la and Baijie demonstrates how intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s selectively invoked concepts of minzu, zongjiao, and sexuality to affirm these apparently opposing phenomena as representations of Bai ethnic culture. Though the political and discursive climate changed significantly throughout this period, in the 1940s and 1950s Gua sa la and Baijie both remained positive images, which was only possible because intellectuals elided either zongjiao or sexuality in their descriptions.
Louisa Schein, Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China’s Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 239; Charlene Makley, The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 10.
Prasenjit Duara, “Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Modernity: The Campaigns Against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century China,”The Journal of Asian Studies 50.1 (1991): 67-83, and see page 76.
Joan Judge, The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 178-79. Judge distinguishes between different views of chaste women and women warriors in the late Qing, with ‘presentists’ denigrating the former and celebrating the latter, and ‘eternalists’ taking the opposing view.
Xu Jiarui, Dali gudai wenhuashi, 176. Zhang Fengyu was a Ming jinshi who gave his grain to the people during a famine and was worshiped as a benzhu after dying at the hands of invading troops. Duan Chicheng was worshiped as a benzhu after he sacrificed himself to kill a giant serpent that was terrorizing Dali.
Xu Jiarui, Dali gudai wenhuashi, 249. I suspect that Xu’s line about the infiltration of Confucian thought is a later interpolation that was not identified as such in the 2005 edition of his work, given that it directly contradicts his explicit praise for Confucian virtues on page 176.
Thomas S. Mullaney, “Ethnic Classification Writ Large: The 1954 Yunnan Province Ethnic Classification Project and Its Foundations in Republican-Era Taxonomic Thought,”China Information18.2 (2004):207-41, and see 212, 217.