Modern Homes, Modern Families, Modern China


A review of Modern Homes for Modern Families in Tianjin, China, 1860-1949, by ELIZABETH LaCOUTURE.

Elizabeth LaCouture’s dissertation is structured around the multiple meanings of jiating (家庭)—family, house, and home—and the complicated interweaving of those meanings as China struggled in the early twentieth century to redefine society and nation. Drawing together formerly disparate bodies of scholarship on reform of the family (particularly xiao jiating 小家庭), changing house design, and aesthetics for home furnishing and decorating, LaCouture argues that, as it morphed from the Qing’s jia (家), jiating was a key site in the creation of modern identities. Situating her explorations in hybrid Tianjin (a hybridity that Ruth Rogaski also fruitfully excavated in Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China, Berkeley: UC Press, 2004), LaCouture asserts that jiating was just as important in shaping the emerging discourse on the nation and the saving of it as discussions of voting, industry, or the many other reform issues that preoccupied nationalists.

LaCouture’s narrative tracks the meanings of jiating quite literally, with sections devoted to each of jiating’s aspects. The first section thus explores the modern family, providing a Tianjin case study of family reforms to set alongside Susan Glosser’s Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953 (Berkeley: UC Press, 2003). Like Glosser, LaCouture is primarily interested in the efforts to encourage Chinese families to adopt xiao jiating. She highlights intriguing contradictions for young “middle-class” (zhongchan 中產) people who professed a desire for xiao jiating even while waxing nostalgic about their childhoods in sprawling family compounds or continuing to live with extended family in the city’s concessions. LaCouture chalks these contradictions up to the concerted efforts of both foreign and Chinese social scientists—some of whom misunderstood or misinterpreted data—to link small families with economic, political and social progress and to attribute the differences between the West and China in part to family size.

In exploring the relationship of the new family to society, LaCouture repeatedly raises questions about how the Qing’s nei/wai cosmology was transformed as Chinese intellectuals sought to modernize China’s cities and families. Her answer to this quandary lies largely in the second and third sections of the dissertation, which together look at Tianjin’s houses from outside in. LaCouture begins on the outside in the second section, examining how the notion of “house” changed in Tianjin under the dual influences of colonial planners and a modernizing urban landscape. Drawing on a rich set of resources on Tianjin’s building industry, concession zoning laws, and architectural plans, she emphasizes the role an increasingly vibrant housing market played in shaping the city. While foreign and foreign-trained architects dominated Tianjin house design by the early twentieth century, LaCouture examines several homes that seemingly conformed to Western concession design expectations but that held within them hidden (at least from street-view) Chinese design elements, from an interior courtyard (paired with an Italianate façade) to a rooftop pagoda. The fact that consumers—rather than, say, colonial authorities—wielded such power in shaping house styles and design to suit their tastes allows LaCouture to make a further argument: that through homeownership, Chinese (re: Chinese men) were able to demand political participation even within the concessions, taking part in debates over issues like neighborhood water rights.

Chinese women, for their part, were granted the interior domain. Their growing control of the home, by which LaCouture means the interior space, is the focus of section three. The increased gendering of interior spaces manifested itself in multiples ways. As is noted in section two, sanitation and “cleanliness” were mantras for architects, who saw the mixed-use spaces and certain absent amenities in traditional homes as evidence of their backwardness. Their efforts to design away this backwardness resulted in new fixed-use spaces like dining rooms and sitting rooms that, as LaCouture investigates in detail in section three, women’s magazines and furniture manufacturers capitalized on, encouraging their female customers to signal their modernity through purchases that filled these new spaces.

The new use of space extended to the interactions of interior and exterior, which meant new roles for women within the home but also raised questions about their public presence. In section 2, LaCouture emphasized the way that zoning in Tianjin’s concessions reordered not just the lively, mixed-use nature of Chinese city streets but the “mixed-use” life even within Chinese homes, where courtyards were used for the coming and going of vendors and tradesmen. The increasing separation of modern homes from the roiling commercial street, LaCouture argues, reflected a gendering of the distinct aspects of jiating, as men relinquished the interior (the proper decorating of which, of course, was once an important skill for an educated man) to women.

In the end, LaCouture is interested in explaining how space shaped identity, and she makes the case that the mediation of space and identity by the market was what was uniquely “modern” about this relationship. The part of this relationship LaCouture finds most compelling is the bourgeois (my term, not hers) nature of the material fantasy life constructed by social scientists, architects, magazine editors, and furniture manufacturers, among others. Consumers, in LaCouture’s telling, were not passive participants, but instead actively clamored for a remade material life that preserved certain elements of “traditional” Chinese home and family life even while clearly indicating the owner’s modern sensibilities. This aspiration to acquire a specific set of material markers that broadcast one’s membership in the middling classes was an ambition encouraged, LaCouture asserts, by government policies throughout the twentieth century—even during the Mao years (though then it was transformed into the worker’s paradise)—and one that has come roaring back in recent decades.

LaCouture’s research contributes to a growing body of work on the profound changes that the rise of urban culture and the integration into global markets had on family and home in the early twentieth century. Alongside Glosser’s research, there is the recent monograph by Helen M. Schneider on the development of the home economics field in China (Keeping the Nation’s House: Domestic Management and the Making of Modern China, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011) as well as the research that has emerged from the “Modern Girl” project (see for instance The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity and Globalization, ed. Alys Eve Weinbaum et al., Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008), all of which plumbs the relationship between gender, consumption, and identity. With its unique emphasis on the construction and decorating of the home itself, LaCouture’s future manuscript will surely add new dimensions to our understanding of the identity reshaping that defined early twentieth century Chinese life.

Kate Merkel-Hess
Penn State University
108 Weaver Building
University Park, PA 16802

Primary Sources

Tianjin Municipal Archives
Tianjin Real Estate Gazetteer (Tianjin fangdichanzhi 天津房地產志)
Tianjin British Municipal Council Annual Report and Meeting Minutes, 1910-1937
Republican periodicals on domestic life such as Kuaile jiating (快乐家庭, Happy Home, 1923) and Jiating zhoukan (家庭周刊, The Chinese Home, 1931-37, 1946-48)
Trade journals such as Jianzhu yuekan (建築月刊, The Builder, 1932-1937) and Zhongguo jianzhu (中國建築, The Chinese Architect, 1933-?)

Dissertation Information

Columbia University, 2010. 373 pp. Primary Advisor: Madeline Zelin.

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