In the Dutch East Indies of the 1920s and 1930s, women’s independence, agency and bodies became a subject of heated debates and contestations among the Indies Chinese community, particularly within the urbanizing and modernizing context of Java, with much of the attention focused on female virtue and how it should be protected from the corrupting influences of the west. This fascination with women’s bodies could be traced through the recurring theme of female virtue in many Chinese-Malay novels of the period, which carried sensationalized and didactic tales of rebellious young Western educated women who oppose the traditional Confucian values of the Chinese and as a consequence meet a tragic end. The preoccupation with female virtue is seen not only in literature, but also in newspapers, women’s magazines, and agony aunt columns.
In this preliminary study, I explore the literary fixation on female virtue and how it is tied to classic Confucian discourses on women. I will consider why, despite the generations of assimilation into local society, the Peranakan Chinese were still so fixated with Confucian concepts of female virtue and its related meanings of purity, chastity and morality. I will also address the following questions: How does this fixation feed into cultural prescriptions and constructions of femininities in life and in literature? Is there a split between the imagining of female virtue and actual gender practices, especially in the face of modernization and women’s emancipation movements? In what ways is female virtue important to the racial and political self-identification as Tionghoa?
Grace Chin is a visiting fellow at KITLV. Her research interests include the literatures of postcolonial Southeast Asia and Asian women’s writings, with emphasis on gender identities and subjectivities in contemporary societies and diasporas.
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