Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

On the run: Women, city, and the law in Beijing, 1937–1949
by Ma, Zhao, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University, 2008, 288; 3288612
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation examines the relationship between the evolving process of urban transformation and lower class women's choices and strategies in 1940s Beijing. The city had been through dramatic changes in the period studied. The "tenement-ization" of courtyard neighborhoods, the rise of various forms of affordable amusements, and runaway inflation during war and Japanese occupation combined to produce opportunities as well as dangers for women. To explore women's experiences, this dissertation relies upon ethnographic evidence drawn from legal cases of bigamy, adultery, and seduction prosecuted by Beijing District Court in the 1940s. Individual accounts of desertions, pursuit of romantic relationships, and survival strategies under wartime economic pressure provide invaluable insights into the ways by which lower class women struggled to re-adjust individual choices in relation to the changing urban landscape.

The first two chapters examine the formation and operation of women's social networks in courtyard tenements, and the ways they helped women engage in a rather fluid pattern of marriage. Chapters three and four study the link between the rise of affordable entertainment options in courtyard neighborhoods and commercial facilities on the one hand, and women's sexual agency in the process of their pursuit of personal pleasure on the other. The last two chapters study wifely desertion as a survival strategy, to argue that lower class women reconfigured customary roles of husband and wife in response to economic dislocations.

Women's choices and strategies demonstrate that urban transformation penetrated the fabric of ordinary women's life. However, women did not merely respond to changes; they played an active part in reconfiguring urban space and redefining the socioeconomic structure. To do so, women did not rely upon institutionalized channels such as political participation or organized actions like labor strikes. Instead, they re-conceptualized the city through individualized survival strategies, through manipulations of pre-existing social practices and cultural preferences, and through their daily life choices. Women's adjustments to the dramatic changes in the urban landscape and their strategies of survival neither conformed to, nor posed a conscious challenge to, the official formulation of the meaning and function of the city. But their appropriations of urban transformations helped them to become an invisible force that left visible marks on the city's social and moral geographies.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Rowe, William T., Meyer-Fong, Tobie
School: The Johns Hopkins University
School Location: United States -- Maryland
Source: DAI-A 68/11, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: History, Womens studies
Keywords: Beijing, China, Courtyard neighborhood, Japanese occupation, Law, Urban reform, Women
Publication Number: 3288612
ISBN: 978-0-549-31329-8
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