Tsui SIT

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Studies

First Advisor

Professor Meaghan MORRIS

Second Advisor

Dr HUI Po-keung


China has speeded up modernization since the reform and open-door policy was introduced in 1978. After accession to the World Trade Organization in 1999, China has been further incorporated into the global track. The national policy of economic development requires a continuing exploitation of natural resources and intensive labor from the rural sector, and over the last few decades, there has been a ceaseless wave of rural women going to the cities and working mainly as assembly-line workers, domestic helpers and sex workers.

Developing a subaltern and feminist perspective, this thesis examines representations of rural women in academic research and literary works, as well as in films, documentaries, TV dramas, photography and popular magazines. The thesis attempts to outline and invoke a spectral figure of the subaltern as the rural woman demonstrably haunting dominant regimes of representations of modernization. In the prevailing mentality of development, a mega-city is portrayed as the ultimate destination; meanwhile, the rural is depicted as residual and as a repository of the past. There is a system of negative equivalences attached to the rural, which is always positioned as the unspoken, invisible or stereotyped other of overwhelming cosmopolitan values.

The thesis reviews how urban intellectuals represent rural women in the contemporary cosmopolitan settings. Drawing on Gayatri Spivak’s discussion of the two kinds of representation—proxy and portrait—the thesis aims to read how urban intellectuals speak for as well as draw a portrait of rural women.

The thesis also tries to read against the grain of the texts to trace the irreducible figure of the rural woman. As the readings will demonstrate, there are contradictions, paradoxes and ambivalences in narrating and portraying rural women as actors of modernization, victims of industrialization, agents of proletarian struggle, consumers purchasing commodities, and as the residual from agrarian society.

From such incongruities within the texts, one can posit the figure of the rural woman as a symbol of resistance to the predominant discourse of modernization. This is not necessarily to suggest a nostalgic return to the past, that is, to the statist industrialization of Mao Zedong’s period and the patriarchal tradition; or an orthodox ruralism that everyone should go back to ancient society; or a romanticization of the primitive. Rather, this figure operates like Stuart Hall’s concept of “black”, referring to a way of referencing the widespread experience of marginalization in contemporary China, and an organizing category of a new politics of resistance among different groups.

This research not only negotiates but also re-adjusts the notion of urban superiority by exploring the spectral figure of the rural woman. Gendering the rural vision means not only making a difference from the present capitalist and patriarchal values and practices, but also taking the excluded majority into serious consideration. It is hoped that this exercise, in the end, will help us to imagine a communal society in which we can recognize the practice of care of others as care of the self.



Recommended Citation

Sit, T. (2005). Specters of the subaltern: A critique of representations of rural women in contemporary China (Doctor's thesis, Lingnan University, Hong Kong). Retrieved from