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PhD Defence

Gendered Ritual and Performative Literacy: Yao Women, Goddesses of Fertility, and the Chinese Imperial State

29 June 2016
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden


  • Prof. B. J. ter Haar
  • Prof. R. Parkin (University of Oxford)


This research elucidates various responses of the Yao to the social consequences of civilizing projects historically implemented by a powerful ‘Other’ to them, that is, the successive Chinese imperial and post-imperial states. The Yao are one of the 56 nationalities in today’s China. The research reveals that the Yao’s reactions to the state’s civilizing force are gendered, as manifested in a religious domain. The research shows that Yao men embrace the power of ‘otherness’ that an imperial Daoist cosmology and manuscripts in Chinese entail, while Yao women sustain indigenous culture and belief by ‘singing’. A textual analysis of the probable products of female singing—narratives about goddesses of fertility—points to two types of Yao reaction in the position of women. On the one hand, the narratives embody a symbolic ‘space of negotiation’ in which Yao struggle to claim the ir agenc y, but the natural power of female fertility that symbolizes the layer of indigenous culture and belief is eventually domesticated. On the other hand, the narratives convey Yao’s criticisms of the social consequences of imperial Chinese state governance, imposed in the form of patrilineal ideology in marriage and kinship, showing also how different women sought their escape from that.


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