|Title||Idle consumers or productive workers: Leisured ladies in the urban commercial culture and the discourses of modernity in Late Qing China (1860–1911)|
This study examines the daily life of daughters, wives, and concubines to reveal the marginalization of the traditionally valorized domestic sphere during the last five decades of the Qing dynasty. With the rise of industrial and commercial development, women in well-to-do urban households abandoned the “womanly work” of spinning, weaving, and embroidery — traditional symbols of womanly virtue — in favor of ready-made and tailored clothes, shoes, and other commodities available through the growing fashion industry. Thus adorned, they began to appear in public spaces as consumers and as leisured pleasure-seekers. This dissertation accordingly reveals the complex engagement of women in urban commercialization. Within the household, women continued their substantial role building the wealth and status of the family, using their investment skills, personal networks, and sensitivity to the new media. Yet in the context of the late Qing efforts to save the country, womens domestic contributions were ignored. Instead, reform rhetoric criticized womens confinement in the home, their lack of education, and their extravagant consumption as contributing to the ongoing political crises. This dissertation also highlights the pivotal function of merchants who made efforts to educate the younger generation of women in their families and networks, establishing girls school to respond to the reform rhetoric. The dissertation situates wives, daughters and concubines in the current historiography of talented High Qing women poets, passionate late Qing female reformers, modern “new women,” and Republican bourgeoisie housewives. It outlines a gradual cultural shift away from the “talented women” tradition of the Qing guixiu. In her place, we see womens growing involvement in the monetary world. The conclusion links the marginalization of domestic work in the inner quarters during the late Qing era with the privatization of the domestic sphere under the Communist regime, stressing the modern states silence on womens domestic burdens during campaigns to increase their labor outside the home, and the governments continuing insistence on viewing women solely in the context of marriage and family.
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