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  • Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China
  • Robert E. Hegel (bio)
Janet M. Theiss . Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004. xv, 281 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 0-520-24033-2.

Even though in this book she addresses a topic that has been relatively well studied in recent years—the political emphasis on female chastity during the Qing period (1644-1911)—Janet Theiss (Associate Professor of History, University of Utah) significantly complicates all earlier readings. This is largely because of the rich diversity of her primary materials, especially the 866 criminal case reports she surveyed in the First Historical Archives in Beijing. But along with insights from the best of recent scholarship, she supplemented them with a rich sampling of jurisprudential advice from bureaucrats, guides to magistrates, and imperial edicts. Theiss focuses on the Qianlong period (1736-1795) to give a very rich description of social practice over a limited time span.

Consequently her study will be widely influential. In contrast to the May Fourth proposition that the Qing era saw the most systematic subjugation of women, Theiss demonstrates that the Qing state "was never able to impose a coherent gender orthodoxy without challenge or compromise." Despite the efforts of successive emperors (including the Yongzheng emperor [1723-1735]) to improve social order through moral education and legal clarifications, officials "were frustrated by the contradictory constructions of family authority, female agency, and chastity itself that were embedded in imperial law and ritual regulation" (p. 211). Theiss exemplifies with great precision the conflicts of authority among husbands, the husbands' families, the women's natal families, and individual women over matters of sexual morality in general and female chastity in particular. She effectively demonstrates that these mutually contradictory agendas came into conflict over the violence (rape and the loss of life through murder or suicide) that so frequently accompanied sexual assault.

Theiss concentrates on six Qianlong reign years for which there are unusually large numbers of crime reports in the "marriage and sex cases" (hunyin jianqing) category of Board of Punishments routine memorials (xingke tiben [End Page 307] ) in the Archives. Since these cases involved loss of life, they generally merited the death penalty, according to the Qing Code. All were committed during a period of social change: the ongoing commercialization of society produced an increasingly mobile male population. Likewise, officials regularly commented on what they saw as a crisis in moral leadership on the part of virtually all males in positions of authority, in the family or in local administration. Both Manchu and Han elites were concerned about moral decline in society and turned to female chastity as the key to moral regeneration. Theiss draws on the publications of Matthew Sommer in tracing the development of this "cult of chastity" and the standard definitions it produced. But her study breaks new ground by interrogating the conflicting results of these judicial, administrative, and social concerns.1

Theiss divides her monograph into closely related but largely independent sections, any one of which could serve as assigned reading in a Chinese history class. Part 1 examines "The Qing Chastity Cult in Ritual, Law, and Statecraft." Theiss begins with a prologue that examines specific cases—here, a Miao woman who committed suicide after being sexually assaulted by her cousin. Not only was her unwanted suitor sentenced to death, but various male relatives were also punished for their failure to report the crime at once. This case exemplifies the program of moral transformation (jiaohua) initiated by the Manchu rulers, in which the state imposed itself as central arbiter of virtue on the personal level. Chapter 1 traces the definition of gender orthodoxy through the Yongzheng and Qianlong reign periods as chastity (jie) was seen as a female parallel to and metaphor for loyalty to the throne (zhong). The Qing sought to ban female suicide but at the same time granted public honors to women who martyred themselves to preserve their chastity. The increasing frequency of such martyrs was an unforeseen consequence of the Qing emperors' efforts to "teach and cultivate" (jiaoyang) their people.

Chapter 2 traces how local officials...


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