The politics of fashion : perceptions of power in female clothing and ornamentation as reflected in the sixteenth-century Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei
This thesis examines issues of female power and influence in sixteenth-century China focusing on how women and their roles were perceived in the changing social environment of the mid-late Ming dynasty. Using aspects of a New Historicist approach, information from contemporary literary and historical sources are analysed alongside each other. With its emphasis on the lives of women and preoccupation with the description of material objects, the late Ming novel Jin Ping Mei forms an important element in the thesis. China in the sixteenth century saw expanding urbanisation, the emergence of a new wealthy merchant class, increasing visibility of women and a questioning of traditional morality. Fashion consciousness, as one of the most conspicuous aspects of the new material culture, is a possible indicator of these trends. Traditional Western theories contend that fashion began in the particular context of Renaissance Europe. However, this study argues that a similar fashion awareness existed in China too, and was manifested in a competitive striving for social status, in this case specifically among women. In contrast to previous studies which downplayed the impact women had on defining traditional Chinese culture, this thesis demonstrates how women and their sartorial choices began to redefine the boundaries of material culture, influencing literati discourse which, in turn, re- influenced female behaviour.