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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, Calif.: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 281. $49.95.)

The High Qing period in eighteenth-century China was an age in which the imperial state, ruled by the Manchu nobility and administered by an overwhelmingly Chinese bureaucracy, sought to extend and consolidate its control over and management of society. The dynamism of the Ming dynasty in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with a burgeoning commercial economy and the social and cultural stresses and volatility that stemmed from it, had given way to the upheavals of the dynastic transition from Ming to Qing and the efforts of the Manchus to establish their dominance in the later seventeenth century. By the end of the Kangxi reign [1661-1722], the Qing was a secure and prosperous empire, with greatly expanded frontiers and a functioning dyarchy of Chinese and Manchu/Mongol elites. The Manchus fostered a model of society that turned away from the fluidity of the Ming and promoted a physiocratic emphasis on a stable agrarian order with the Chinese literati/ gentry in firm possession of social and economic hegemony. Yet the effects of the social and cultural turmoil of the Ming period were still evident, perhaps with particular clarity in gender relations.

Janet Theiss has produced a fine example of solid archival research that engages the complex and contradictory evidence of how the Qing state, from Manchu emperors down through local Chinese officials, sought to regulate sexual behavior, as a microcosm of social relations in general, through a dramatic proliferation of legal substatutes in the middle of the eighteenth century.

The author's work is based on a careful analysis of the records of 866 criminal cases preserved in the Number One Historical Archive in Beijing. Through these records, she draws out the ways in which the state sought to reach out directly to men and women, in order to reward examples of exceptional chastity through the recognition of female martyrs who either died resisting rape or sexual assault or who killed themselves after being accosted, sometimes only verbally. In pursuing the imperial program of moral reform, Qing officials came to bypass traditional family and lineage hierarchies; they foregrounded the primacy of the husband in patriarchal authority and the moral autonomy of women in defining proper behavior and in valorizing suicide as the appropriate response to disgrace and pollution. Theiss shows how family members and neighbors, including village leaders, often tried to mollify women who felt they had been humiliated and polluted in order to preserve public harmony and avoid entanglement with the state. This left it to the offended women to assert their own agency through the ultimate means of suicide.

Theiss's research is exemplary, and her analysis is subtle and nuanced. This book should serve as a model of what archival research can yield. The writing is clear and accessible, even for nonspecialists. This is a welcome contribution to the literature of the field.

Kenneth J. Hammond

New Mexico State University

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Author:Hammond, Kenneth J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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