China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Ever since Michel Foucault introduced the idea of biopower, modern historians have recognized how bodily discipline produces docile subjects for the modern state. In China, however, both scholars and the imperial state had long recognized the importance of ritual practice as a way to cultivate, discipline, and embody Confucian socio-political values. This paper examines a specifically female form of self-discipline through the ancient practice of fetal education–whereby pregnant women regulated their environment, emotions, and deportment to positively influence the impressionable fetus–and the modern debate over how (or whether) fetal education could be harnessed to strengthen the nation.
As China faced European and Japanese imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, some modernizers called on women to practice fetal education to strengthen the nation in utero. Imperial tutor and Confucian reformer Kang Youwei took a coercive approach to fetal education in his utopian treatise, the Datong shu, proposing to institutionalize all pregnant women in government centers to ensure the optimal gestational environment. Christian translator Song Jiazhao advocated gentler forms of biopower, encouraging pregnant mothers to discipline their bodies and emotions to protect the unborn against the social dangers of modernity. In contrast, New Culture activist Huang Shi denounced fetal education as superstitious and oppressive to women, using the rhetoric of science to “dissect” and expose the practice. The debates over fetal education ultimately produced new hybrid forms of biopower that drew upon both Chinese and Western ideas about national subjects, modern womanhood, and the body.