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Gendering Ethnic Religion in 1940s and 1950s Yunnan: Sexuality in the Gua sa la Festival and the Worship of the Goddess Baijie

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image of NAN NÜ

Chinese intellectuals adopted the concepts minzu (ethnicity or “nationality”) and zongjiao (religion) from Japan in the late nineteenth century as part of the wider discourse of modernity. This article examines the gendered dimensions of these concepts through writings about sexuality in two examples from Dali, Yunnan (home to the Bai minzu) from the late Republican period (1911-49) to the early years of the People’s Republic of China. The first example, the Gua sa la festival, involves sexually explicit songs, cross-dressing, and possibly also sexual encounters with strangers. The second example, the cult of the local goddess Baijie, celebrates the fidelity and chastity of an eighth-century queen who committed suicide rather than marry her husband’s killer. The examination of writings about Gua sa la and Baijie demonstrates how intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s selectively invoked concepts of minzu, zongjiao, and sexuality to affirm these apparently opposing phenomena as representations of Bai ethnic culture. Though the political and discursive climate changed significantly throughout this period, in the 1940s and 1950s Gua sa la and Baijie both remained positive images, which was only possible because intellectuals elided either zongjiao or sexuality in their descriptions.

Affiliations: 1: University of Tennessee


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