This discussion addresses the making of woman as postsocialist class-object, developing our core notions of class-making and spiritual homelessness through an exploration of the forms of the feminine in the taste structures in contemporary urban China. The key observation is that beautification, sexual styling, and spiritual/cultural cultivation are consistently linked in narratives of “becoming-woman” in a newly successful genre of aspirational literature, which we are calling “manuals of elite civility.” We argue that these narratives may be understood in reference to catachresis (Tani Barlow, 2005), in the sense that we engage it as a descriptor both to the underlying term of analysis middle-class (which has several translations but no absolute referent) and to the middle-class nuren (feminine person) of our attention here. The second, related point is that the construction of the “new” modern woman in China, as made-to-be-looked-at in these manuals, betrays a fascination with class that responds to the emerging masses who aspire to, or have achieved, middle-class levels of wealth. Such fascination reinscribes women with a sexual ontology (as in nuxing) as well as an evacuated, reformed historicity (as in the exit of funu and the reentry of nuren). These manuals of elite civility on bookshop shelves hint at the effort of becoming that characterizes contemporary Chinese identity. Place, gender, beauty, consumption, and memory are brought into a relation with one another as they service the emergence of a self-identifying middle class. Becoming woman and becoming class is possibly twee in these coffee-table iterations but is never ultimately a cozy story. Performative female narcissism will conflict with the agency of women in Reform China as they go about the business of making class work for them in their everyday lives. The market is itself an ambivalent master, complicated yet further under the encouraging gaze of the Party-State. While the books perform a perfected loop of timely nostalgia and aspiration, the boundaries of class and taste will remain contentious in practice, and the search for distinctive femininity with its more unabashed dreams and longings may well exceed the “safe cool.'”
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Research Article| August 01 2009
A Taste of Class: Manuals for Becoming Woman
positions (2009) 17 (3): 489–521.
Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, Yi Zheng; A Taste of Class: Manuals for Becoming Woman. positions 1 August 2009; 17 (3): 489–521. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-2009-012
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