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WHERE WERE THE WOMEN? RETHINKING MARRIAGE RESISTANCE AND REGIONAL CULTURE IN SOUTH CHINA* Helen F. Siu On reading the section on "Honorable Women" in the 1873 edition of the Xiangshan county local history, I was struck by an entry which ran, "Woman Zhou, wife of Wu Yulin. Age 20. Had not consummated marriage. On hearing husband was near death, rushed to the Wu family. Cared for him for over a dozen days. Grieved loudly when husband died ..." (Xiangshan xianzhi 1873, juan 19, "Honorable Women"). The ambiguity in the language concerning the marital status of the young woman leads to the question of where she should have been at the time. One may argue that it was not uncommon for county local histories to list young women who, though unmarried, devoted themselves to the family of their betrothed. The above could be one such case, which explained why Woman Zhou had not yet settled in the Wu household. However, there is other evidence which allows a different reading. My suspicion is raised by two similarly ambiguous entries in the same local history. One described a woman of twenty-three (old enough to have been married) "betrothed" to a man (pinqi), who returned to her husband's home on the news of his death. The other was recorded as follows: "Woman Li, wife of Wu Peigui. Peigui left home without a trace. At age thirty, Woman Li settled in her husband's home to show her devotion ___"1 Adding to the complexity of the circumstances was an entry in a much earlier edition of the Xiangshan xianzhi, which stated that "the townships of Huangpu, Xiaolan, and Haizhou were slightly tinted 'This article is based on fieldwork conducted in 1986 and funded by the CSCPRC, and on a paper given at the panel "Down to Earth: The Territorial Bond in South China" for the Association of Asian Studies, Washington D.C., March 17-19, 1989. I would like to thank Myron L. Cohen, Deborah Davis, David Faure, Charlotte Fürth, Jack Goody, Liu Zhiwei, Frederic Wakeman, Rubie Watson, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments. 1 Xiangshan xianshi 1873, juan 19, "Honorable Women." Late imperiai Cuna Vol. 11, No. 2 (December 1990): 32-62© by the Society for Qing Studies 32 Where Were the Women?33 with the custom of Shunde, and many married women had not settled with their husbands." 2 Although stories like these from the pens of scholarly authors are couched in ambiguous phraseology, suggesting Confucian chaste widowhood, they may more properly be placed in the context of marriage customs identified variously as "marriage resistance" or "delayed transfer marriage." The cases portrayed in the Xiangshan county local history were not unique. Scholars have described a variety of marriage forms in the Pearl River delta (see Figure 1), and have offered vaxious explanations for their rise and disappearence. Marjorie Topley, for example, focuses her attention on the zishunii in Shunde county where some women ritually pinned up their own hair, formed sisterhoods and took elaborate vows not to marry. Many lived in independent houses where they and other unmarried girls congregated. She terms these activities "marriage resistance," and associates them with the booming silk industry of the nineteenth century which gave women workers economic independence . When the silk industry collapsed in the 1920s, she claims, so did the movement.3 Topley also links the spinsterhoods and sericulture of Shunde with buluojia , a custom she identifies as wives not cohabiting with husbands, in the neighboring Nanhai and Panyu counties. A woman would go through the elaborate ceremonies as in any Confucian major marriage. But after spending the wedding night with her husband, she returned to her natal home. There she remained and visited her husband at the birthdays and death anniversaries of her parents-in-laws and for important festivals. Not until she was about to give birth to a child would she settle permanently in her husband's home. Many tried to stay out until they passed child-bearing age. Although Topley's argument rests largely on the economics of sericulture, she does pay attention to cultural and ideological factors. She is concerned with how locally unique anti-marital attitudes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3257
Print ISSN
0884-3236
Pages
pp. 32-62
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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