Translating “Domesticity” in 20th-Century China

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:50 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Elizabeth LaCouture, Colby College
The English word “domesticity” is translated in contemporary Chinese as jiating shenghuo, or home everyday life. Both of these two character words were introduced into modern vernacular Chinese at the turn of the twentieth century from the Japanese language. As new Japanese words entered Chinese language so did new ideas. Drawing on home economics curriculum, especially from the United States, Japanese educators pioneered a new modern female curriculum that emphasized domestic science. Chinese reformers and women’s periodical literature introduced these new ideas of domesticity to China, adapting this new global vocabulary to the local context. When the new Japanese word jiating entered vernacular Chinese, for example, it replaced the single-character classical Chinese term jia which had meant family, house or household depending on the context. Likewise, jiating came to mean family, house or the new concept of home.

This paper considers both the history and the historiography of translating domesticity in modern China. Looking at women’s periodical literature and textbooks from the first half of the twentieth-century, I argue that Chinese people engaged with global ideas of domesticity and made them relevant to their local contexts. Second, I consider this history of the Chinese family, house and home within the historiography of domesticities in the United States and Europe that have naturalized a history of capitalist modernity in which domesticity and separate spheres is linked to the industrial revolution. The Chinese modern house and home, by contrast, was invented under colonial capitalism in China’s multiply colonized treaty-port cities. Thus, this paper considers the structures of global power that shaped the translation of knowledge in China in the early 20th century and continue to shape historical paradigms today.