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Polygamy and Sublime Passion

Polygamy and Sublime Passion: Sexuality in China on the Verge of Modernity

Keith McMahon
Copyright Date: 2010
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    Polygamy and Sublime Passion
    Book Description:

    For centuries of Chinese history, polygamy and prostitution were closely linked practices that legitimized the "polygynous male," the man with multiple sexual partners. Despite their strict hierarchies, these practices also addressed fundamental antagonisms in sexual relations in serious and constructive ways. Qing fiction abounds in stories of female resistance and superiority. Women-main wives, concubines, and prostitutes-were adept at exerting control and gaining status for themselves, while men indulged in elaborate fantasies about female power. InPolygamy and Sublime Passion,Keith McMahon introduces a new concept, "passive polygamy," to explain the unusual number of Qing stories in which women take charge of a man's desires, turning him into an instrument of female will. To this he adds a story that haunted the institutions of polygamy and prostitution: the tale of "sublime passion," in which the main characters are a "remarkable" woman and her male lover.

    Throughout the book McMahon examines how polygamy, prostitution, and the story of sublime passion encountered the first stages of paradigmatic change in the nineteenth century, decades before the legal abolition of polygamy. By the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, love stories were celebrating the exploits of street-smart prostitutes who fleeced gullible patrons in the bustling city of Shanghai. What do these characters have in common with their early counterparts as men and women became inhabitants of a new city in an era flooded with ideas from radically foreign sources-all of this taking place in a time of economic and cultural dislocation? McMahon reads late Qing love stories in a historically symbolic way, taking them as part of a larger fantasy of Chinese civilization undergoing a fundamental crisis. The polygamous marriage and the affairs of the brothel became metaphorical staging grounds for portraying the destiny of China on the verge of modernity. Finally, McMahon speculates on the changes polygamous sexuality underwent after the Qing dynasty ended and whether it exerted a residual influence in later times.

    Polygamy and Sublime Passionwill undoubtedly engage those interested in Chinese society, culture, literature, and gender studies as well as comparativists seeking to understand the diverse responses to modernization around the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3764-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-ii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. iii-iv)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. v-vi)
  4. List of Frequently Cited Titles in English
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Introduction: The Male Consort of the Remarkable Woman
    (pp. 1-15)

    Until the early twentieth century in China, the prominent man was someone who deserved multiple women. This privilege mainly took the form of polygamous marriage and the patronage of prostitutes, two closely linked practices that legitimized the man who consorted with multiple women. The ideal example of such a man handled himself well in both the household and the brothel, and then likewise in the social and political world outside these two realms. For a man to have multiple women, however, was not a simple given, but always had to be justified. The order or lack of it in sexual...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Sublime Passion and the Remarkable Woman
    (pp. 16-30)

    The idealization of the woman has a long history in China, but in the late Ming it received a new burst of energy under the influence of the notion ofqing, “sublime passion.” The reason for this translation ofqinghas to do with the idea ofqingas a leveler of boundaries, where it is beyond man and woman, high and low, subject and other.Qingevokes a sense of universality that lifts all burdens of social hierarchy and individual constraint. It is an equalizer, however, that does not extend to the real world outsideqing’s glowing environs. Real...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Qing Can Be with One and Only One
    (pp. 31-47)

    The two common threads between the seventeenth-century Pu Songling and the eighteenth-century Cao Xueqin are the focus on the exquisitely ephemeral nature ofqing, especially as captured in the perfect moment of love that is fleeting or just missed, and the figure of the young man in his blank state, in particular as incarnated in the version of this man inDream of the Red Chamber, Jia Baoyu. Cao Xueqin’s novel stands as the main node of passage between qing in its late Ming–early Qing manifestation and the late Qing during the period of Western incursion. Nothing written in...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Otherworldliness of the Courtesan
    (pp. 48-67)

    In the High Qing landscape of worthy female figures, as I have said, the learned gentry woman is the voice of stability and moral authority, remaining so until the end of the Qing.Dream of the Red Chamber, its sequels, andRadiant Wordsall illustrate this woman, as does much of the literature by women. Beginning around the time of the first Opium War (1839–1842), however, the courtesan-prostitute reemerges as the focal female presence in numerous fictional and autobiographical accounts that are the subject of this and all but one of the rest of the chapters of this book—...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Love Story and Civilizational Crisis
    (pp. 68-83)

    Gong Zizhen’s 1839Miscellany, Hanshang Mengren’sSeductive Dreams, and Chen Sen’sPrecious Mirror of Boy Actressesprecede by half a century the times in which Chinese intellectuals first defined China as a modern nation struggling to divest itself of an outmoded past. It is too early for ideas likegemingin its sense of the complete “overthrow” of the traditional political system, orwenming, which instead of Chinese civilizational order, its original sense, will be redefined in terms of “modern” and “modernity.” The literary and political discourse of the mid-nineteenth century still promotes the idea that the customary exercise of...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Passive Polygyny in Two Kinds of Man-child
    (pp. 84-99)

    Pu Songling’s stories and the sequels toDream of the Red Chamberhave familiarized us with the formulae by which male authors construct a man among a group of women who join him unjealously as wives or concubines. The chief elements of passive polygyny are the simulation of the female arrangement of the marriage and some form of male subservience to and adoration of women. In applying these formulae, the 1878 novelCourtesan Chambers(Qinglou meng), by Yu Da (?–1884), provides the most dreamily suffused rendition of the man’s polygynous affairs of allqing-inspired novels of the Qing dynasty.¹...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Fleecing the Customer in Shanghai Brothels of the 1890s
    (pp. 100-114)

    Two models of master figures stand behind the man who would become a polygamist or philanderer in late-Qing fiction. One is the dry Confucian father who discourages excess and disparages romance (like Jia Baoyu’s father Jia Zheng); the other is the potent polygamist and brothel master who confidently enjoys his many women (like the hero of the erotic romance). A third master enters the picture with the intrusion of Western nations in nineteenth-century China: the wellarmed, technologically advanced European monogamist. In fiction, when does his presence register itself in a way that signals paradigmatic change—in particular, change in the...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Cultural Destiny and Polygynous Love in Zou Tao’s Shanghai Dust
    (pp. 115-125)

    A missed chance to marry a remarkable Shanghai prostitute was Zou Tao’s (1850–1931) inspiration for writing the novelShanghai Dust(Haishang chentian ying).¹ Zou Tao was a close friend to Yu Da, as we have seen, and in addition was a disciple of Wang Tao. His novel, however, takes afterTraces of the Flowery Moonfar more than afterCourtesan Chambers and Later Tales of Liaozhai. Mostly written in the mid-1890s but not published until 1904, it begins with the premise that China has been cruel to women by forcing them to bind their feet and tolerate polygyny (which...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT The Polygynous Politics of the Modern Chinese Man in Nine-times Cuckold
    (pp. 126-136)

    When cultural reformists of the early 1900s declared fiction the ideal format for portraying models of China’s new men and women, they did not have in mind the extremely popularNine-times Cuckold(Jiuwei gui, 1906–1910), by Zhang Chunfan (?–1935). As in numerous other novels of the time, the focus was on men and prostitutes, as if to say that they constituted one of the chief arenas for witnessing what the new Chinese man and woman would look like. SinceNine-times Cuckoldwas a publishing success for decades to come, it must have struck a deep chord.¹ Its fame...

  14. Conclusion: The Postpolygynous Future
    (pp. 137-154)

    The man’s ruin because of his affair with a wanton woman is an ancient motif in times of dynastic decline. The vilification of the Shanghai prostitute in works likeNine-times Cuckoldis a sign of the same motif, as is Zhang Qiugu’s victory over wanton women, which is a metaphor of dynastic renewal. He is a sexual adept and master of the brothel, as if to say that these features represent a fundamental inheritance of the modern, internationally adept Chinese man. Who are his modern female counterparts? If we conjure an image of such a woman based on the new...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 155-186)
  16. Character Glossary
    (pp. 187-194)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 195-206)
  18. Index
    (pp. 207-215)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 216-217)