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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, California, University of California Press, 2004. xv, 281 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).

Given the relatively easy access to archival material on the Chinese mainland in recent times, several scholars have taken advantage of this wealth of precious resources for their research projects. Disgraceful Matters is an example of Janet Theiss's skillful mastery of such material from the First Historical Archives of China in Beijing. This book demonstrates a remarkable success in adding valuable depth and detail to a somewhat unknown area of the rapidly growing Chinese gender history field. Although Theiss does not define clearly the term "disgraceful matters" in a single sentence, her book gives the impression that it basically connotes adultery, rape, attempted rape, sexual harassment, flirtation, illicit sex, incest, and prostitution. These disgraceful matters run counter to the eighteenth-century Chinese ideal of chastity-centred female virtue, a thematic issue central to this book.

Theiss has organized her book in four parts. Part one examines why and how chastity became politically significant in Qing China, and how it influenced Chinese political culture and social policies. In chapter one, Theiss traces the origins of the imperial award system of canonization and the peak of popularity of the chastity cult during the Yongzheng reign. Chapter two shows Qianlong's civilizing mission of promoting moral transformation in China. It advances our understanding of the meaning of chastity, which had then been expanded to include not just sexual loyalty to one's husband, but also proper female behaviour in social interactions with men in general. Theiss succeeds in putting forward her argument that the political prominence of the chastity cult was an outcome of a complex interplay among imperial agendas and the views of ordinary people.

Part two analyzes the complexities of the state-local interactions and their implications for the practice of chastity. What is most striking in this part is that Yheiss highlights certain major tensions between patrilineal and conjugal notions of family patriarchy within state policy and social practice. As discussed in chapter three, when confronted with disgraceful matters, family elders often identified themselves as guardians of family reputation, preferring to handle such matters internally. This posed a challenge to lineage leaders who, in theory, were arbiters of morality. However, a far greater challenge was posed to the ideal and practice of patriarchal authority by women's natal families. "Divided loyalties"--a term adopted in chapter four--implies the strain of a woman's loyalties between her natal and marital families. When a woman failed to find a balance between these loyalties, conflicts arose over who had the authority to deal with disgraceful matters. Chapter five further elaborates the multiple meanings of patriarchy through examples of adultery and incest. Theiss argues that the primacy of filial piety for sons was being severely challenged' by the paradigm of female chastity as loyal and obedient service to the family.

Patriarchal instability remained the subject of considerable discussion and legislation throughout the Qing dynasty. In exploring this instability, part three presents a rich array of sexual assault cases, with two chapters focusing on the themes of "wanton mixing" and "gender separation." In statecraft discourse, illicit sex occurred because standards of gender separation had been violated. However, the line between coercion and consent, between true virtue and false virtue, was not easy to draw in sexual assault cases. Theiss observes that the Qing code required women to be active moral agents defending their chastity and making their own definitions of virtue.

Part four of Disgraceful Matters takes a further look at the issues of female moral agency and female suicide. It discusses the controversy surrounding the legitimation of female outrage and its implications for women's agency and the family politics of female suicide. Theiss emphasizes that women of the inner quarters were the most public of women. As the imperial state reached into women's inner lives, it placed women at the centre of political culture.

This book demonstrates several strengths. First, it indicates its author's extraordinary capability in handling a complicated set of issues which often conflict. Theiss convincingly shows that the imperial state was never able to "impose a coherent gender orthodoxy without challenge or compromise." Local Chinese officials were "frustrated by the contradictory constructions of family authority, female agency, and chastity itself that were embedded in imperial law and ritual regulation" (p. 211). Second, this book impresses as a coherent piece of scholarly work. For example, the lively and fascinating prologue that heads each part of the book serves as an important thread linking all the individual chapters. Third, Theiss's high-quality mastery of an impressive range of archives, such as the collected statutes of the Qing, imperially rescripted memorials, veritable records of the Qing emperors, and the Board of Punishments routine memorials, makes this book particularly rewarding for historians. However, while these documents focus on the lives of non-elite and non-literate women, it would have been helpful if Theiss had made a comparison of the lives of ordinary women and aristocrats. Although the book may be somewhat difficult for first-year undergraduates, it is well-researched, well-structured, and well-argued. Historians and scholars of the Chinese gender history field will benefit a great deal from reading Disgraceful Matters.

Yuen Ting Lee

Hong Kong Shue Yan University
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Author:Lee, Yuen Ting
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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