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Women’s World

June 19, 2011

“Women’s World” (女世界)
From Hubei Paper (鄂报 e bao, this is not an official translation of the title)
1941 2(10)

This photo essay titled “Women’s World” was published in the early 1940s. I have not focused too much on this period yet but it is a pretty amazing piece and a great example of how much things changed during the Nanjing Decade. I appreciate that the four pages of images show women in a variety of occupations (actress, nurse, policewoman) and situations (relaxing, at home). Of course, I think it can be assumed that these are middle class women who live in larger cities or towns. I apologize that the scans are not very clear, I thought they had turned out well but they did not.

The top photo: A young woman in her room where, as the caption notes, men are forbidden. The caption mentions that although she wears beautiful clothing when she goes outside or when she has a guest over, she changes into more “common” clothing when she is in her room. This glimpse at the inner/private realm is fascinating to me. The home was always considered the woman’s world but the caption here delineates this space as her private space. Of course she shares it with other people since there is more than one bed in the room. But who – Her parents/family? Other young women? In one of my earliest posts about breast binding examinations, I mentioned the breakdown of private/public space during the Republican period. The photo above reminds me of how the definitions of public and private were changing during this period. Although the private realm is still the home, the home pictured above is nothing like the traditional home. The two realms interact with one another and women must navigate between the two.

Bottom left: The caption says that this young woman walked out from the bathroom and her slender (苗条miaotiao) body moved across the room to her bed, where she sat down and read some interesting things. It does not mention that she is nude in the photo. Not only is this image capturing a private, interior moment but it is also an elusive nude image of a Chinese woman, which is still quite a rarity in my research.

Bottom right: Part of the caption is cut off but it the photo is of two women whispering to one another.

Right: A woman lying in the grass on Hu Qin mountain in Suzhou, lost in her thoughts.

Top left corner: A group of theater actresses. They have to change clothes many times throughout a single performance, even in the summer.

Top right corner (left page): This is a group of young female nurses who work in a patient convalescence unit. The caption says that although nurses suffer quite a bit, these nurses have break time which the reader can assume is uncommon for the time. During their breaks they go to the library to read because time is scarce and they are ashamed of resting. I’m not entirely clear on the meaning of the last part but I am intrigued by the “sufferings” the caption hints at. Inequalities in the workplace? Poor working conditions? Low wages?

Bottom left corner: This is a group of Nanjing policewomen. They are “lively and exceptional” and on the job they are not second to men. However, during their leisure hours, sex difference is restored because these women spend their leisure time making clothes for their younger siblings. The caption sets up “male” vs. “female” leisure activities but what is more interesting to me is the extra work these working women have to take on in addition to their primary occupations. Not only do they seemingly work the same hours as men, they are also required to make clothing for their siblings. Even though they are “not second to men,” they are still expected to perform traditional female tasks.

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