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Bodily Transformations: Responses to Intersex Individuals in Early and Imperial China

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image of NAN NÜ

This paper discusses the most important accounts of intersex individuals in early and pre-modern China, focusing specifically on the records which describe these people as changing sex at puberty. Contemporary medical knowledge interpreted this as a spontaneous sex change; in fact underlying sex was being revealed. Such transformations came to be interpreted in dynastic histories and other official texts as omens of dynastic change; when the same stories appear in anomaly accounts, they are understood simply as curious or strange incidents. Intersex individuals were uniquely challenging to gender norms, and as such they provide an important focus of discussion about social attitudes towards appropriate roles and boundaries. From the late Ming dynasty onwards, particularly with the case of Li Liangyu, members of the literati elite in China began to do more than simply record the reintegration of intersex individuals into mainstream society through categorization into the opposite gender followed by marriage, as they started to consider the difficulties they suffered.

Affiliations: 1: Seoul National University


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