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

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 72, Number 1, June 2012
pp. 148-155 | 10.1353/jas.2012.0004

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Midway through Jia Zhangke's film Haishang chuanqi 海上傳奇 (I wish I knew; 2010), the actress Rebecca Pan tells the story of her mother's unsuccessful struggles to adapt to a polygynous domestic situation in 1940s Shanghai, which resulted eventually in a move to Hong Kong. Assuming that twenty-first-century viewers may require a detailed explanation of the problem, Pan begins by outlining the particular difficulties posed by the concubine system. She goes on to say, however, that imbalanced relations between women and men are a reality around the world, and that people elsewhere simply use other terms, like "lover" and "mistress," and for emphasis she shifts abruptly from Shanghai dialect to Mandarin for these two words alone. In Polygamy and Sublime Passion: Sexuality in China on the Verge of Modernity, Keith McMahon argues that distinctions like these—between ɦi t'ɑt'ɑ 姨太太 on one hand and qingren 情人 or nüpengyou 女朋友 on the other—are not merely terminological; rather they mark the boundaries of a cultural formation specific to late imperial China that deserves careful investigation. Beginning where one of his previous books (Misers, Shrews, and Polygamists: Sexuality and Male/Female Relations in Eighteenth-Century China) leaves off, McMahon examines novels from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century that focus on two specific types of gendered interactions, between polygynous men and their multiple wives and concubines, and between men who frequent houses of prostitution and the courtesans they encounter there. Misers, Shrews, and Polygamists demonstrates the complexity of fictional polygynous relationships; Polygamy and Sublime Passion goes further to argue that polygyny was never simply a given but was always contested and justified, often at great narrative length. Based on his readings of Yesou puyan 野叟曝言, Huayue hen 花月痕, Jiuwei gui 九尾龜, and other novels, McMahon advances three related claims: (1) polygyny was crucial to constructions of "Chineseness" in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; (2) polygyny as a practice was closely enough tied to brothel-going that the two forms of behavior are best analyzed in conjunction rather than separately; and (3) scholars have not taken the polygynous heritage seriously enough in their study of the "new woman" and "new man"-two innovative cultural constructs that appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. Each of these claims, however unsettling, opens up important new avenues of inquiry into literature and gender in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China.

Although the title of the book under review refers to polygamy, McMahon focuses more narrowly on polygyny alone. In terms of the sheer numbers of practitioners, Matthew Sommer has argued, polyandry vied with polygyny for dominance in late imperial Chinese society. Yet, as McMahon points out in his introduction, even though both practices were common, polygyny was sanctioned whereas polyandry was illegal, and polygyny signaled the high social status of its practitioners whereas polyandry implied the opposite (pp. 4-5). As a result, polygyny played a disproportionately large role in processes of symbolic and cultural production in the Ming and Qing; fictional texts—whether written by men or women—regularly recount polygynous situations in detail but tend to shy away from serious discussion of polyandry. The importance accorded polygyny within Chinese society intensified in the late nineteenth century, when the practice began to serve as a marker distinguishing China from Japan and the West. In examining this history, Polygamy and Sublime Passion traces a lineage of polygynous authority and national strength from Wen Suchen's military successes, depicted in Yesou puyan, down to Zhang Qiugu's triumph over student radicals (and Sai Jinhua), as recounted in Jiuwei gui—a lineage with an affine branch that includes tragic outcomes in Huayue hen and Haishang chentian ying 海上塵天影. These novels establish a link between a man's ability to manage successfully his sexual relations with multiple women and his ability to revitalize the nation and take a stand against foreign encroachment. Conversely, national weakness implies personal failure (tragic romance). McMahon uses this implication to explain the resurgence of the courtesan in nineteenth-century fiction—the narrative focus had, for two centuries, been on women in domestic settings—and he draws convincing parallels between the late Ming Qian Qianyi and Wu Weiye and the Qing-dynasty Gong Zizhen...

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