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

Janet M. Theiss
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppz0p
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  • Book Info
    Disgraceful Matters
    Book Description:

    Looking beyond the familiar trappings of the cult of female chastity—such as hagiographies of widows and chastity shrines--in late imperial China, this book explores the cult's political significance and practical ramifications in everyday life during the eighteenth century. In the first full-length study of the subject, Janet Theiss examines a vast number of laws, legal cases, regulations, and policies to illustrate the social and political processes through which female virtue was defined, enforced, and contested. Along the way, she provides rich details of social life and cultural practices among ordinary Chinese people through narratives of criminal cases of sexual assault, harassment, adultery, and domestic violence.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93066-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. A Note on Textual Conventions
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. A Note on Dynasties and Reigns
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    This book engages the most familiar and most thoroughly researched topic within Chinese gender and women’s history: the cult of female chastity in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). The institutionalized veneration of chaste widows and chastity martyrs first came to the attention of historians in the 1930s, who approached it from the perspective of the radical critiques and transformations of the old Confucian family system in their day. These scholars described the late imperial chastity award system as a religious cult, invoking associations with superstitious beliefs, unquestioned ritual prescriptions, and rigid patriarchal hierarchy. In one of the earliest attempts to...

  7. PART ONE The Chastening State:: The Qing Chastity Cult in Ritual,Law,and Statecraft

    • Prologue: A Chaste Barbarian Martyrs Herself on the Imperial Frontier
      (pp. 17-24)

      In 1752, the eighteenth year of the Qianlong reign, a twenty-sui-old Miao woman named Wang Aguan, from a walled village in the Puan District of southwestern Guizhou Province, committed suicide after being sexually assaulted by her cousin, Wang Ali. Her suicide embroiled their family in a court case that resulted in a death sentence for her assailant, lesser punishments for various relatives who had failed to report the crime, and Wang Aguan’s official canonization by the Qing state as a chastity martyr, the first Miao woman thus honored in the district.¹ Although the case was set in a remote frontier...

    • CHAPTER 1 Defining Gender Orthodoxy for a Multiethnic Empire
      (pp. 25-38)

      Chinese dynasties had for centuries issued awards for extraordinary virtue to the chaste and filial to provide exemplars for the moral cultivation of their subjects and to enhance their own image of virtue and benevolence. Shortly after the founding of their new dynasty, Qing rulers announced their reestablishment of the traditional imperial award system to canonize “filial sons, obedient grandsons, righteous husbands, and faithful widows.” The clichéd wording of the edict was intended to invoke the age-old link between imperial benevolence, moral authority, and the dynasty’s mandate to rule. However, this ritualized pronouncement masked the dramatic and, for Qing rulers,...

    • CHAPTER 2 Statecraft and Gender Order in the Qianlong Reign
      (pp. 39-54)

      Although the state chastity cult constructed by Yongzheng was a particularly effective and visible example of imperial state penetration of local society, it was only one of many statecraft incarnations of the empire’s civilizing ambitions. Indeed, its full political and cultural significance comes into focus only when we look beyond the award system itself to the web of state technologies developed in the latter half of the century to mold society and transform customs. The intertwined agendas of moral transformation(jiaohua)and state building shaped much of the social policy making of the Yongzheng and Qianlong years, indicating that commitment...

  8. PART TWO Female Virtue and the Politics of Patriarchy

    • Prologue: A Righteous Husband Plays the Politics of the Wifely Way
      (pp. 57-64)

      In 1768, an aspiring literatus named Chen Shiwan of Jintan County, Jiangsu, stabbed his wife, Gao Shi, to death and was sentenced perfunctorily to strangulation after the assizes.¹ At the heart of the marital conflict was Shiwan’s claim that Gao Shi had abrogated the most sacred duty encompassed in the “wifely way”(fudao)by refusing to pay proper respects to his parents and continually fighting with them.² The elders of the Chen and Gao families, their affinal relatives, the Dings, and two magistrates in succession tried unsuccessfully for years to mediate the dispute. The case elucidates the workings of family...

    • CHAPTER 3 Enforcing Gender Order: Between the Ancestral Hall and the Yamen
      (pp. 65-81)

      Ideologically and politically associated with the state through their degree status or aspirations, while at the same time occupying local positions of power through involvement in lineages or less formal village associations, family and community authorities were supposed to be catalysts for moral transformation. They were expected to share the state’s normative priorities, to serve as effective mediators between state and society, and to transmit and enforce the values associated with state orthodoxy.¹ But although mid-Qing emperors and officials hoped that local elites and lineage leaders would function as “models and leaders for the common people, by respectfully obeying established...

    • CHAPTER 4 Divided Loyalties: Natal Families and the Exercise of Patrilineal Authority
      (pp. 82-97)

      The judicial authority of lineage leaders and family patriarchs was debated explicitly in official discourse, social commentary, and social life. But other questions about the nature of patriarchal authority, who had the right to exercise it, and its relationship to the enforcement and defense of women’s virtue were contested more indirectly in discourse and social practice, producing subtle shifts in the state’s and popular understanding of the nature of patriarchy and its relationship to chastity. James Lee and Cameron Campbell’s demographic work on Liaoning Province has strikingly demonstrated that household structure varied tremendously from region to region and from family...

    • CHAPTER 5 Adultery, Incest, and the Multiple Meanings of Patriarchy
      (pp. 98-118)

      The social complexities and contradictions of patriarchy in practice widened the fissure between the principle of patriarchy rooted in generational hierarchy within the patrilineal kinship group and the principle of patriarchy based on the marital relationship. As patrilineal authority was battered in practice and in principle by diverse social forces, most ironically a distrustful state, the romance of the marital relationship continued to flourish in the popular imagination. Despite imperial bans and increasing criticism of widow suicides,¹ martyrs to conjugal loyalty and devotion continued to be revered as exemplary heroines, notably by women themselves. Through their poetry, many women immortalized...

  9. PART THREE Mapping Chastity across Boundaries of Body,Mind,and Space

    • Prologue: A Compromised Widow Sacrifices Her Body to Defend Inner Virtue
      (pp. 121-132)

      One day in the eighth month of 1753, a sixteen-sui-old boy named Du Ming made the daylong journey from his home in the Xiuyan District of Fengtian Prefecture in Manchuria to the village of the local constable(xiangyue)to report that his mother had been raped the night before by a stranger who broke into their house while they were sleeping. Afterwards, he said, his mother stabbed the attacker, who grabbed the knife and stabbed her and Du Ming several times before escaping. According to the constable the boy requested that he arrest the culprit to avenge his mother’s violation....

    • CHAPTER 6 The Wages of Wanton Mixing: Violation and Gender Disorder
      (pp. 133-153)

      As they worked to carry out the dynasty’s civilizing mission, officials contended not only with the fracturing of patriarchal authority but with what they perceived to be the widespread ignorance and wanton violation of the standards of gender separation that defined moral order. Qianlongera memorials reporting on local targets for thejiaohuacampaign were full of shock, outrage, and general hand-wringing about the dismal state of gender relations. As usual, most memorialists suggested that the creation of new substatutes or modification of existing ones was needed to foster propriety in relations between men and women. Lurking beneath concerns about the...

    • CHAPTER 7 “Accommodating Sages”: Gender Separation in Social Practice
      (pp. 154-164)

      The “ethnographic” evidence provided by criminal cases confirms official perceptions of widespread transgressions of norms of gender separation. However, these cases suggest that, contrary to the worst fears of statecraft reformers and moralists, these transgressions worked, not to invalidate the inner-outer paradigm, but rather to shift and complicate its meaning. In their detective work magistrates were confronted with a society that looked quite different from that imagined in morality handbooks.¹ Very few women outside the leisured elite lived and worked in circumstances conducive to strict observance of the inner-outer boundary. While even the simplest of rural houses usually included an...

  10. PART FOUR “Being a Person”:: Female Humiliation and Social Power

    • Prologue: Male Impropriety and Female Outrage Lead to a Tragic End
      (pp. 167-176)

      Confronted with a homicide that resulted from an unwanted proposition in 1753, Liu Shaobin, the magistrate of Taiyuan County, Shanxi, was vexed by what he saw as an utterly useless loss of innocent life over a matter of face and played the devil’s advocate with all parties to the case.¹ The facts of the case were clear and were corroborated fully by the victim, her mother-in-law and brother-in-law, the defendant, members of his family, and neighbors. What bothered Magistrate Liu was that the facts of the case added up not to a clear-cut tale of chastity impugned and requited but...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Problem of Female Moral Agency
      (pp. 177-191)

      Bai Xian propositioned Ren Shi at a time when the stakes for such rude indiscretions were higher than they had ever been and women’s perceptions of insult were given unprecedented weight in law and judicial proceedings. Over the course of the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, the Qing state explicitly incorporated women’s definitions of violation into a series of substatutes that addressed more subtle transgressions of the boundary between inner and outer than assault. They were part of the plethora of new substatutes promulgated in this period to elaborate every possible variation on the crime of forcing people to commit suicide...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Logic of Female Suicide
      (pp. 192-210)

      In the context of an intense politics of chastity fraught with contradictions and conflict, women’s suicides in the wake of sexual assault or harassment became profoundly assertive, public, and political acts that placed women at odds with state, family, and community authorities and the dominant gender orthodoxy they represented.¹ Pervasive rhetoric about the importance of chastity and the dangers of gender disorder fueled a fervid moral climate in the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, as the case record reveals, the unavoidable gap between moral ideals of inner and outer distinction and the muddled realities of women’s lives, shaped by skewed sex ratios,...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 211-218)

    As the mid-Qing state engaged itself with its subjects through the canonization system, education, propaganda, social reform policies, and, most directly, the judicial system, it was never able to impose a coherent gender orthodoxy without challenge or compromise. As officials tried to implement the civilizing agenda, they were frustrated by the contradictory constructions of family authority, female agency, and chastity itself that were embedded in imperial law and ritual regulation. Confounded by the ambiguities and paradoxes of their own mandate, officials then also found themselves engaging in continual processes of negotiation with local people as they responded to their values,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 219-258)
  13. A Note on Archival Sources
    (pp. 259-260)
  14. Character List
    (pp. 261-264)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 265-274)
  16. Index
    (pp. 275-281)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 282-282)