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New women

The appearance of the “new woman“ (xin nüxing, modeng nüxing), a term that underlies the perception of profound change in the relationship between man and woman in the public space, is closely related to representations generated by cinema and the mass media. The new woman came into prominence in the first decade of the twentieth century. The portrayal of this woman is characterized by blatant ambiguities: she represented an ideal to be defined and constantly redefined throughout the Republican period. She is the obvious product of a new age but she also retains many qualities of another, older age, not quite gone by. In all her ambiguities, she is a telltale sign illustrating competing models for the enactment of feminine selfhood in the late Qing and the early Republic.

As modernity became a spiritual adventure for China, this New Woman became its most powerful symbol. She stood for all that was weak and “wrong with China” and at the same time, was seen as the locus of change, the embodiment of what “modernity” could mean for China. The new woman and her counterpart, the new man, is studied here in their visual representations. Some of the work done here traces the figure of the New Woman in newspaper and magazine texts and advertising. This work is related to a larger ongoing project on advertising conducted at the University of Heidelberg (www.sino.uni-heidelberg.de/popcult). It is the purpose of this larger endeavour, which involves a number of PhD students, to investigate the continuities and fissures in gendered advertising through text and illustration since the inauguration of illustrated advertising in the late 19th century and into the 21st century.

The project explores advertising copy from daily newspapers, as well as lifestyle, women’s, family and men’s magazines and finally radio and television. It starts from the premise that in China as elsewhere advertising is one of the most important visual codes in the everyday experience. It also assumes that advertising is not just concerned with communicating information about goods and services. Instead, advertising is involved in the „manipulation of social values and attitudes,“ and thus may even be said to fulfill "the function of art and religion in earlier days!“ What the project investigates is how this manipulation of social values works in the realm of gender.

Building on Goffmann’s seminal study Gender Advertisements, we explore how ways of representing women and men are formed and reformed in advertising. Why is it that particular products are advertised in particular ways: perfumes and nappies with images of women, encyclopedias and cameras with images of men, gramophones with images of families? Do the stereotypical attributions always remain the same? When and how do they change and why? Are they in fact the same in China as elsewhere? Does advertising copy change, for example, when it moves from one medium (such as a women’s magazine) to another (such as a daily newspaper)? Is it possible to write an alternative history to the gender revolution through advertising imagery? In taking seriously image, text and medium context, and the relationship between all of these, our project hopes first to „decode“ one of the most ubiquitous and tenacious forms of communication and ideology in society, and second, to present an alternative reading of gender stereotyping.

Barbara Mittler

University of Heidelberg

Last update Wednesday 7 April 2010 by C. Henriot