restricted access Anecdotal Writing on Illicit Sex in Song China (960–1279)
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Anecdotal Writing on Illicit Sex in Song China (960–1279)

Fei Shu, whose literary name was Daoshu, was a native of Guangdu [in Sichuan]. In the gengzi year of the Xuanhe reign (1120), while on his way to the capital, he stayed at a lodge at Yanzhi Slope near Chang’an [in Shaanxi]. By the time Fei put down his luggage, the sun was already setting behind the mountain. The daughter-in-law of the lodge owner, leaning against the doorframe and smiling, greeted the guest. In the middle of the night, she came alone to Fei’s room and said, “I admire your elegant demeanor and would like to offer you pleasure for a night. Would you allow me?”1

Fei, shocked by her behavior, asked the woman why she acted as she did. It turned out that her father was a silk merchant in the capital (Kaifeng, Henan) and had married her to the son of the lodge owner. Her husband had passed away some time ago, but she was “too poor to afford to return to her own home.” Fei did not accept the woman’s advances. Instead, he offered to help locate her father when he arrived in the capital. He kept his promise, and at the end of the story we are told that the grateful father had his daughter brought home and remarried. As for Fei, he soon passed the examinations and enjoyed a successful official career.

Three observations can be made about this story. First, driven by her sexual needs, a widow offered, in the most straightforward manner, to have a one-night stand with a stranger; second, she did make it clear that, despite her loneliness and desperation for companionship, she would not have had sex with just anyone. She had chosen Fei because he had an “elegant demeanor,” presumably a reflection of his scholar-official credentials; third, [End Page 253] all justifications for her sexual advances aside, the woman readily admitted that she had approached Fei at the risk of “shaming” herself, indicating her understanding of the nature of her act and its potential consequences.

Often referred to as hejian (consensual illicit sexual intercourse) in legal language, the type of relationship the widow proposed to have with Fei was in direct violation of the norms of sexual conduct propagated by Confucian ethical teachings in imperial China and vigorously enforced by the social elites and the local and imperial governments of all major dynasties. These norms of conduct mandate that sexual intercourse take place “within legitimate marriage, sanctioned by the appropriate rites.” Illicit sex, by its very nature, not only implied moral failure on the part of the participants and the loss of chastity for women but also was considered a dangerous threat to family life, lineages, and social order as a whole.2 For these reasons, illegitimate sexual relationships had always been considered serious crimes by the imperial state and were subject to stringent punishments ranging from flogging to imprisonment to execution.3

Illicit sex was also a crime that was difficult to prosecute and consistently underreported.4 Extant legal cases from the Song dynasty and earlier periods provide us with concrete evidence of sexual offenses and government prosecution of the crime. The small size of the sample, however, greatly limits scholarly understanding of the issues at stake.5 The state and the social and political elites made very clear their stances on transgressions [End Page 254] of this nature in the legal codes and public discourses. But how prevalent did they think illicit sex actually was? What would be the most effective means to prevent and police such offenses? Were there differences in elite perceptions of illicit sex for men and women of different classes? In addition, how did the general populace react to their neighbors’ and family members’ illicit affairs? Given the fact that the majority of affairs were never reported to the authorities, what, if anything, happened to those adulterers and adulteresses?6

To address these questions, this article turns to Song biji (miscellaneous notes).7 Authored by famous scholars and obscure literary figures alike, biji works include such staple topics as court...