The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Research Grants/Awards

Title of Project:
The Last Generation of Spinsters in China: Revisiting a Regional Tradition, Its Gendered Implications and Transnational Perspective

Total Fund Awarded:
HK$739,826

Principal Investigator:
Professor YIP Hon Ming, Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Funding Source:
RGC General Research Fund 2014/15

Abstract of Research:
         In recent years, the “last generation of spinsters in China” has become a popular narrative motif of the mass media, drawing even the attention of Hong Kong’s movie and television enterprises. Although Chinese sworn spinsterhood has been a research topic in the academic circles and spinsters as an “endangered species” in China today does stimulate ethnographic interest resulting in a body of scholastic publications, authors of these works tend to focus their studies on certain dimensions of the phenomenon, which actually concerns interrelated issues of spinsters’ subjectivities, customs of marriage resistant spinsterhood and sisterhood, the influence of religious beliefs, ethnic interactions, gender relations, social formation, migration, and even the transnational market for female labour.
         To enrich the existing scholarship, I propose to address the aforesaid issues, while highlighting the characteristics of this regional tradition, its gendered implications, and the transnational perspective as significant (yet under-explored) themes for an integral inquiry, in revisiting popular spinsterhood in the south China region where the age-old custom seems to have been tolerated by Chinese patriarchal society and further sustained by the opportunities for spinsters to work away from home or abroad.
         This proposed project has the potential to bring breakthroughs to the studies of the subject by verifying some of the hypotheses concerned with a cross-generational comparison of various old and new case stories from different locales in the region after in-depth interviews of the surviving elderly spinsters are conducted. An explanation for the disruption of the tradition in the late 1940s is also in order.
         Based on oral information and other kinds of materials including local documents, inscriptions, sources of material/non-material culture, etc., this project will contribute to the field by generating original analytical works, including one, for example, that details the negotiation between the spinsterhood tradition and the male-dominated mainstream culture. Studies of regional gender interactions of this kind may shed light on the features of Chinese gender ideologies and relations, especially that in this region under the rubric of Lingnan culture.
         In rounding off the effort to analyze as many spinsters’ life histories as possible, it is also expected that micro experiences and the regional socio-cultural system can be better linked up with the macro process of global migration when studying Cantonese spinsters as transnational migrant workers, their role in forming emigrant communities in south China, and the implications of their circular migration in the perspective of transnationalism.