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Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China.

Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China. By Janet M. Theiss (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. xv + 281 pp. $49.95).

Janet Theiss' monograph contributes to a growing literature on sexual mores and the role of women in Chinese history. Using over 860 criminal cases (xinke tiben) in the First Historical Archives in Beijing, Theiss analyzes the state-sponsored chastity cult, which honored chaste widows and "chastity martyrs," women who committed suicide to assert their innocence against accusations of unchaste behavior, during the Qianlong reign (1736-1795). The cult was central to Qing political culture, "making female virtue integral to imperial state building and the civilizing project that legitimated it (13)." In reality, however, the process of confirming individuals as models of female virtue engaged not only the emperor and his officials, but male lineage heads, family members, and the actual women whose conduct shaped official action on infringements of the chastity code.

Confucian male definitions of female virtue which centered on chaste widows go back to the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, and accompanied social changes that weakened women's property rights while strengthening the extended kinship organization, the patrilineage. (1) The state tried to control the chastity cult during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but it remained a local community phenomenon that was promoted by elite men, who construed chastity as a symbol of the sentiment (qing) of the literati ethic of loyalty. The conflation of chastity and loyalty had obvious political significance in the context of the Manchu conquest of the Ming during the second half of the seventeenth century. The new rulers of the Qing dynasty inherited the chastity cult but transformed it into an instrument for the "civilizing project" of Confucian rulership.

The individual cases described by Theiss reveal the widely varying local circumstances existing in eighteenth-century China which hindered official attempts to standardize the application of law. These glimpses of the lower layers of Qing society reveal that many of the victims and defendants were poor villagers. The confinement of women in the inner quarters was not so easy in houses that consisted of only two rooms, or when poverty required that a wife work in the fields. Husbands who were sojourners left young wives at home, who were vulnerable to sexual overtures from their husbands' kinsmen, or from poor men who lacked the means to marry. There were also cases of incest. The violence initiated by brothers or husbands' relatives seeking redress on the woman's behalf sometimes resulted in a death that attracted official prosecution. At other times the husband's family tried to "hush up" the outraged young wife for fear of scandal and dishonor, and she would commit suicide. As Theiss notes, the incidents that are recorded in the criminal files constitute a small fraction of marital disputes and women's defense of chastity that were resolved peacefully.

Theiss' analysis of individual cases would have been enriched had she drawn on anthropological work outlining important regional variations in the strength of lineage organizations and in married women's retention of strong ties with their natal families (as in parts of north China). (2) Were instances where lineage heads failed to control the sexual misbehavior of members more common in localities in which lineage organizations had little or no economic power? Were the cases of women who aggravated the marital bond by spending too much time returning to their natal homes clustered in the regions where women retained strong natal ties? Analysis along these lines has the potential to sharpen our understanding of regional variation in family and kinship organizations in eighteenth-century society.

There are several examples of women (85, 86) who married counter to the Chinese preference for hypergamy (women marrying into higher-status households): the behavior of these wives stimulated marital disputes that resulted in wife-killing. In one such case, a man killed his wife because she refused to pay the respect due to his parents (86-87): this was clearly against Confucian norms, but had nothing to do with the virtue of chastity. Surprisingly, given earlier studies blaming them for female suicide, evil mothers-in-law are virtually absent. (3)

From the perspective of the Qianlong Emperor, promotion of the chastity cult was part of a larger Confucian attempt to transform customs through education (jiaohua, also jiaoyang). The Qing tried to insert the state more deeply into grassroots society than ever before. The chastity cult became truly popular, even among non-Han Chinese subjects, as is demonstrated by the canonization in 1752 of a Miao chastity martyr. Theiss argues that the cult was widely accepted because it coincided with the emergence of new ideals of companionate marriage and individual moral responsibility that challenged the prioritization of filiality as a moral value.

From the state's perspective "the primacy of filiality as the relevant paradigm of loyalty and hierarchy was being severely challenged by the paradigm of female chastity as loyal and obedient service to the family and the Qing political order (116)." Individual women incorporated chastity into their self-image. There were women whose extreme reactions forced officials to accept coarse jokes or casual sexual innuendoes as equivalent to rape. Despite the official and popular male skepticism concerning women's rationality and judgment, decisions on individual cases devolved on evaluating female intent. An unanticipated consequence of state promotion of the chastity cult was its reliance on women's actions to define the content of this virtue. Officials sought to discern the individual woman's definition of violation, and if the woman committed suicide, it was difficult for an official to dismiss a case, regardless of the objective circumstances. In that sense, it was individual women who defined the content of the chastity code.

Theiss' monograph joins some recent publications that throw new light on the varied sexual mores existing in Qing society. (4) She explores the juncture between state policy and the lives of individual subjects to advance our understanding of the historical context of state intervention into the private realm of female sexuality. Her analysis of the chastity cult highlights female agency in what has traditionally been considered to be a normative ideal foisted by males on helpless women.

Evelyn S. Rawski

University of Pittsburgh


1. Jennifer Holmgren, "The Economic Foundations of Virtue: Widow-Remarriage in Early and Modern China," Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 13 (1985): 1-27; Patricia B. Ebrey, "Shifts in Marriage Finance from the Sixth to the Thirteenth Century," in Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society, ed. Rubie S. Watson and Patricia Buckley Ebrey (Berkeley, 1991), pp. 97-132.

2. Patricia B. Ebrey and James L. Watson, eds. Kinship Organization in Late Imperial China, 1000-1940 (Berkeley, 1986); Ellen R. Judd, "Niangjia: Chinese Women and Their Natal Families," Journal of Asian Studies 48 (1989): 525-44.

3. Margery Wolf, "Women and Suicide in China," in Women in Chinese Society, ed. Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke, pp. 111-41 (Stanford, 1975).

4. Matthew Sommer, Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China (Stanford, 2000); Paola Paderni, "I Thought I Would Have Some Happy Days: Women Eloping in Eighteenth-Century China," Late Imperial China 16.1 (1995): 1-32.
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Author:Rawski, Evelyn S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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