My familiarity with Asian culture isn’t extensive, but neither is it non-existent. I had a boyfriend who was Vietnamese-Australian; I lived in a part of Sydney that had a large Asian population (Randwick & Kingsford); Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is one of favourite films (especially the scene of 1960s Hong Kong ladies cooing over a new gadget, a rice cooker) and H & I travelled around Thailand for a bit. Thus I was pleased to be asked to review Jui-Shan Chang’s text, Making a Meal of It: Sex in Chinese and Western Settings, for it added to my limited bank of knowledge.
Chang is an academic who grew up in Taiwan and studied there and in Michigan, and has worked at the Universities of Tasmania, Iowa and Melbourne. Her cross-cultural experience has fed into her research which, in this book, spans from the 1950s to the 1990s and canvasses the societies of Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and America.
Chang shows that the process of becoming a modern, non-Western society is never as simple as adopting Western customs. Rather, there is a process of absorption and renegotiation of existing ideals. She demonstrates how, while non-Western countries might industrialise like their Western counterparts, Western concepts still ‘tend to be filtered or reworked as a new means to achieving old Chinese ends’ (291), for example, children buying top brands for their parents, or working and studying overseas to become successful and bring stability to their families back home. It seems obvious now, but I needed to read the book to see that the makeup of non-Western cultures, and in this instance, the influence of Confucianism, means that these countries will never be completely the same as Western countries, despite modernisation. Which is refreshing, because the world would be incredibly dull if we were all the same.
One of the recurring themes in the text was the impact of the Confucian emphasis on family and the effect of the one-child policy in China. This has resulted in the expectation that children will take care of their parents in old age, and that people tend to identify themselves in terms of the family rather than in terms of their individual selves. For example, as Chang notes in one study, in response to the question, ‘How do you define yourself in terms of being a man or a woman?’, men answered that to be a man was to take responsibility for his family and ‘to live through all the stages of being a son, a husband and a father’. Meanwhile, women replied that to be a woman ‘means being a wife and mother’ (157).
One effect of this emphasis on family stability and harmony has been that, ‘at worst, the infidelity of Chinese men is a detour’ (231). They return to the family in shame, but the family remains bound together. By contrast, the infidelity of Chinese women ‘is not a detour. It brings permanent damage – divorce’ (232). This was such a breathtaking double standard that I would have liked to have read more about women’s experiences of it, particularly in relation to the divorce rates in Western societies.
The discussions on homosexuality were interesting. Chang notes that homosexuality was tolerated (although not endorsed) in historical China, providing that the family line was maintained and that men produced children. With the advent of communism and Marxist ideology, which posited that homosexuality was morally degenerate, same-sex desire has been condemned (137). In order to now normalise homosexuality, activists are appealing to the ‘globalised secular Western values of human rights and entitlements’ (137). The irony of this, as Chang notes, is that the Chinese government tends to blame homosexual activity as if it has only emerged in recent times due to a Western influence.
In her final chapter, Chang indicates the limitations of applying Kinsey-type studies, which examine the rates of specific sexual practices across societies (242) to Chinese societies, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. As she notes, ‘the direct comparison of Kinsey figures is inadequate because while these sexual behaviour may look the same, they may not meanthe same in different cultural settings’ (243). Crucially, sex in Chinese culture is seen as something that provides sustenance, whereas in Western culture it is seen as integral to identity. In the former instance, as Chang writes, ‘the metaphor of sexual encounter can be seen as a meal because Confucianism treats sexual appetite as a natural urge’ (264) and, as with other appetites, it shouldn’t be overindulged. In Western contexts however, particularly those with a Christian background, sex is seen as something that completes us, makes us whole, and validates us. It was a really interesting premise, and I’m glad this book introduced me to it.
As sociology is not my background, I’m not in a position to comment on the research methods Chang uses. However, with each study she articulates her methodology clearly, so anyone versed in sociology would be able to arrive at their own conclusions with ease. As a reader more accustomed to assessing books on their literary merit, I did find the data and methodological descriptions a little dull (though not unfamiliar as I do read this kind of writing at work), and the aspects that grabbed me most were of the cultural history and how this impacted on sexual attitudes and mores. I think this book would appeal more to people with a specific interest in this area, rather than to general readers. However, as far as academic texts go, it was an easy and accessible read, which I always find laudable.
Book details: Chang, Jui-shan. Making a Meal of It: Sex in Chinese and Western Cultural Settings. Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, 2011.
Copy supplied by the author.
This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.