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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.3 (2001) 559-584

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Premodern Chinese Weddings and the Divorce of Past and Present

Christian de Pee

The following verses from the Satires by Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65–8 b.c.e.) appear as the first epigraph in Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1818–1881) Ancient Society (1877), followed by two epigraphs that quote contemporaries of Morgan on the subject of universal, linear development:

Cum prorepserunt primis animalia terris,
Mutum et turpe pecus, glandem atque cubilia propter
Unguibus et pugnis, dein fustibus, atque ita porro
Pugnabant armis, quae post fabricaverat usus:
Donec verba, quibus voces sensusque notarent,
Nominaque invenere: dehinc absistere bello,
Oppida coeperunt munire, et ponere leges,
Ne quis fur esset, neu latro, neu quis adulter.
[When living things crawled forth from the earth, which was still young, they were inarticulate, brutish creatures. They fought over their acorns [End Page 559] and lairs with nails and fists, then with clubs, and so on, step by step, with the weapons shaped by experience. Eventually they discovered verbs and nouns which enabled them to give meaning to their cries and feelings. From that point they began to give up war, to build towns, and to pass laws against theft, brigandage, and adultery.]1

Apart from a universal development of human civilization driven by technological discoveries, Morgan perceived a universal, linear development in marriage systems and family organization, from promiscuous matriliny during the stage of savagery to the patrilineal monogamy that characterizes the stage of civilization.

Morgan’s Ancient Society (and its summary rewrite by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State [1884]) gained a large following in the twentieth century among Chinese scholars who took up this outline of universal development of human civilization to write China, the new nation-state, into world history. The assumption of an objective, universal, linear development legitimated a transparent reading of historical evidence, be it archaeological remains or texts. Where Morgan cited Horace for his assumed memory of prehistorical times, Chinese scholars, too, turned to ancient texts for evidence of prehistorical society:

Concerning endogamous marriage in matrilineal society: although scholars in the past have not explicitly recognized the existence of matrilineal society, texts such as the chapters “Lord and Minister” in the Guanzi, “Opening and Debarring” in The Book of Lord Shang, and “Reliance on the Lord” in The Annals of Lü Buwei all contain statements to the effect that people in high antiquity lived together like animals, not yet joined as husbands and wives, and that in those days people knew their mothers but not their fathers, et cetera. These passages not only implicitly recognize that a matrilineal society once existed, but they speak specifically of consanguine endogamy.2

The assumption of a universal, linear history construes an objective historical reality that exists beyond the historical evidence and that can be read through the text. The modern scholar claims a knowledge that surpasses that of his sources. Instead of depending on the sources, the modern scholar [End Page 560] recognizes universal truths that legitimize the identification of sign and referent and describes these universal truths in universal categories that are imposed on the text. In other words, the scholar reads texts as collections of incoordinate data whose true significance eludes their authors and uses these data to fill out a preconceived, objectivist structure. Devoid of their textual markers, the cited words and phrases stand defenseless against the imposed narrative.

This objectivist stance elides practice both in the past and in the present. By claiming an objective, universal truth, the modern scholar sets up a series of dichotomies predicated upon a divorce of the present from the past: the unconscious past versus the conscious present, the body of the past versus the mind of the present, the misguided superstitions of tradition versus the Truth of modernity. This reduction of the past elides two levels of marital practice: the practice of the text and the practice of ritual. The modern scholar’s grasp of a universal truth allows an undistorted view not only of historical marriage through the text but also of the meanings of marriage through ritual. But the...


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