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Powerful Husbands and Virtuous Wives: The Familial Structure in the Leadership of the New Life Movement, 1934-1938


In February 1934 the Chinese Nationalist Party launched the New Life Movement with the goal of making strong and modern national citizens through social and cultural reforms with the emphases on cleanliness and discipline. It was initiated by the Generalissimo, led by officials, and first practiced in the state apparatus—central and local government agencies, schools, and military forces. I call it a male strategy of mobilizing the Chinese nation for a modern state. The presumption of the male political and social subject as the norm resulted in the tactic of turning state agents, overwhelmingly male, into social leaders. But this male strategy turned out to be unsuccessful when male state agents tried to “propagate, implement, guide and inspect” inside the home, even though they themselves were all family members and resided in households. So male New Life leaders transferred the task of modernizing the home to women and made their wives responsible for mobilizing ordinary women to fulfill the task.

This paper focuses on the first stage of women’s mobilization in the New Life Movement from 1934 to 1938 by showing how this approach to women’s organizing emerged. By examining the structure of New Life leadership and the power relations between women’s New Life organizations and male New Life committees, I argue that gendered leadership did successfully mobilized women of the family for, and into, the nation-state-society whole, but also paradoxically reinforced the gendered labor division in between the domesticity and the nation-state-society whole.

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