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Polygamy and Sublime Passion

Sexuality in China on the Verge of Modernity

Keith McMahon

Publication Year: 2010

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. In Polygamy 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 Passion will 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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv

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pp. v-vi

I thank my wife, Deborah Peterson, for the many words and deeds that stimulated this book. I received tremendous impetus from the efforts of Ding Naifei and Liu Jenpeng, who arranged for me to give a three-part lecture series at National Tsinghua University, National Central University, and National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan in 2006, ...

List of Frequently Cited Titles in English

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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: The Male Consort of the Remarkable Woman

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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. ...

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Chapter One: Sublime Passion and the Remarkable Woman

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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 of qing, “sublime passion.” The reason for this translation of qing has to do with the idea of qing as a leveler of boundaries, where it is beyond man and woman, high and low, subject and other. ...

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Chapter Two: Qing Can Be with One and Only One

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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 of qing, 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, ...

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Chapter Three: The Otherworldliness of the Courtesan

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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, and Radiant Words all illustrate this woman, as does much of the literature by women. ...

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Chapter Four: The Love Story and Civilizational Crisis

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pp. 68-83

Gong Zizhen’s 1839 Miscellany, Hanshang Mengren’s Seductive Dreams, and Chen Sen’s Precious Mirror of Boy Actresses precede 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 like geming in its sense of the complete “overthrow” of the traditional political system, ...

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Chapter Five: Passive Polygyny in Two Kinds of Man-child

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pp. 84-99

Pu Songling’s stories and the sequels to Dream of the Red Chamber have 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 ...

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Chapter Six: Fleecing the Customer in Shanghai Brothels of the 1890s

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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). ...

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Chapter Seven: Cultural Destiny and Polygynous Love in Zou Tao’s Shanghai Dust

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pp. 115-125

A missed chance to marry a remarkable Shanghai prostitute was Zou Tao’s (1850– 1931) inspiration for writing the novel Shanghai 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. ...

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Chapter Eight: The Polygynous Politics of the Modern Chinese Man in Nine-times Cuckold

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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 popular Nine-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, ...

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Conclusion: The Postpolygynous Future

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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 like Nine-times Cuckold is a sign of the same motif, as is Zhang Qiugu’s victory over wanton women, which is a metaphor of dynastic renewal. ...


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pp. 155-186

Character Glossary

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pp. 187-194


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pp. 195-206


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pp. 207-215

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About the Author, Back Cover

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Keith McMahon is professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Kansas, where he teaches Chinese language, the history of literature, and the history of sexuality in China. He has published three books—Causality and Containment in Seventeenth-century Chinese Fiction (1988), ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837648
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824833763

Publication Year: 2010