- Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China
Janet Theiss' monograph contributes to a growing literature on sexual mores and the role of women in Chinese history. Using over 860 criminal cases (xinke tiben) in the First Historical Archives in Beijing, Theiss analyzes the state-sponsored [End Page 1200] chastity cult, which honored chaste widows and "chastity martyrs," women who committed suicide to assert their innocence against accusations of unchaste behavior, during the Qianlong reign (1736-1795). The cult was central to Qing political culture, "making female virtue integral to imperial state building and the civilizing project that legitimated it (13)." In reality, however, the process of confirming individuals as models of female virtue engaged not only the emperor and his officials, but male lineage heads, family members, and the actual women whose conduct shaped official action on infringements of the chastity code.
Confucian male definitions of female virtue which centered on chaste widows go back to the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, and accompanied social changes that weakened women's property rights while strengthening the extended kinship organization, the patrilineage.1 The state tried to control the chastity cult during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but it remained a local community phenomenon that was promoted by elite men, who construed chastity as a symbol of the sentiment (qing) of the literati ethic of loyalty. The conflation of chastity and loyalty had obvious political significance in the context of the Manchu conquest of the Ming during the second half of the seventeenth century. The new rulers of the Qing dynasty inherited the chastity cult but transformed it into an instrument for the "civilizing project" of Confucian rulership.
The individual cases described by Theiss reveal the widely varying local circumstances existing in eighteenth-century China which hindered official attempts to standardize the application of law. These glimpses of the lower layers of Qing society reveal that many of the victims and defendants were poor villagers. The confinement of women in the inner quarters was not so easy in houses that consisted of only two rooms, or when poverty required that a wife work in the fields. Husbands who were sojourners left young wives at home, who were vulnerable to sexual overtures from their husbands' kinsmen, or from poor men who lacked the means to marry. There were also cases of incest. The violence initiated by brothers or husbands' relatives seeking redress on the woman's behalf sometimes resulted in a death that attracted official prosecution. At other times the husband's family tried to "hush up" the outraged young wife for fear of scandal and dishonor, and she would commit suicide. As Theiss notes, the incidents that are recorded in the criminal files constitute a small fraction of marital disputes and women's defense of chastity that were resolved peacefully.
Theiss' analysis of individual cases would have been enriched had she drawn on anthropological work outlining important regional variations in the strength of lineage organizations and in married women's retention of strong ties with their natal families (as in parts of north China).2 Were instances where lineage heads failed to control the sexual misbehavior of members more common in localities in which lineage organizations had little or no economic power? Were the cases of women who aggravated the marital bond by spending too much time returning to their natal homes clustered in the regions where women retained strong natal ties? Analysis along these lines has the potential to sharpen our understanding of regional variation in family and kinship organizations in eighteenth-century society.
There are several examples of women (85, 86) who married counter to the [End Page 1201] Chinese preference for hypergamy (women marrying into higher-status households): the behavior of these wives stimulated marital disputes that resulted in wife-killing. In one such case, a man killed his wife because she refused to pay the respect due to his parents (86-87): this was clearly against Confucian norms, but had nothing to...