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Reviewed by:
  • Zhongguo jiating shi, volume 4: Ming-Qing shiqi
  • Maggie Greene (bio)
Yu Xinzhong 余新忠. Zhongguo jiating shi, volume 4: Ming-Qing shiqi 中国家庭史, 第四巷: 明清时期 (Chinese family history: the Ming-Qing period). Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 2007. 358 pp. Paperback, 298.00 RMB, isbn 978-7-218-05473-5.

As part of a series that seeks to chronicle the family throughout Chinese history (beginning with the Han in volume 1 and ending with the Republican period in volume 5), Yu Xinzhong's wonderfully detailed contribution to the Zhongguo jiating shi series proves to be a useful, if not flawless, reference for anyone interested in issues relating to family or gender in the Ming and Qing dynasties. While Yu's arguments can be disappointingly thin, his synthesis of a variety of primary and secondary sources makes a valuable contribution to existing literature on family and gender in Chinese history.

Yu's book is divided into five chapters, with numerous subheadings. Beginning with a general survey, Yu summarizes various kinds of research and discusses the difficulty in drawing meaningful conclusions. In speaking to the general conclusions regarding family size and makeup, Yu illustrates the difficult nature of pinning down firm numbers, which are heavily dependent on what source bases one is using. However, one wonders whether debating if the average family size was between four and seven members or between four and six members is so important as to need major page space. Still, the foundational chapter illuminates the often nebulous nature of facts when studying family history, which one would do well to remember when examining the sometimes contradictory conclusions of later chapters. Yu himself is not a demographer, and is apparently somewhat constrained by writing to the specifications of the series.

The chapters following the demographic foundations delve into the details of Chinese family life. Chapter 2 looks at marriage and divorce practices, as well as the conditions under which families could be broken up. Chapter 3 concerns socioeconomic elements of family life, both in productive and consumptive modes. The extremely broad "family life" chapter pulls together a hodgepodge of activities, including social relations with nonfamily members, rites, reproduction, education, amusements, and medical treatment. The final chapter looks at the ethical relations between family members, structured in more or less traditional pairs (parents/children, husband/wife, and so on).

The general sweep of Yu's work is fairly standard, and in many cases expected, but the small details often provide interesting addenda to our general understanding. For instance, Yu's discussion of incomes, production, and expenses within the household unit notes that opportunities for handicraft and [End Page 549] light industrial production were expanding, and with these expansions came changing roles for women to take active part in labor and increasing incomes. While none of this information is surprising, Yu's assertion that most families (including those of elites and officials) were living on the verge of poverty is surprising considering the amount of literature that focuses on the extremely comfortable lives of elites. Likewise, much of the information contained in chapter 5 on the ethical relations within a family goes over oft-tread ground when discussing familial relations. Few people will be surprised by the notions that daughters were considered "transitory," that relations between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law could be fraught with tension, and that emotions between husband and wife were to be kept in check in public.

Perhaps the freshest and most useful contribution is chapter 4, which covers an impressive variety of topics. It is also in this chapter that we see Yu explicitly challenging at least one well-known American gender historian (Dorothy Ko). The amount of detail contained within chapter 4, on everything from rites to visiting to gambling, paints a rich picture of how at least some of the population lived. However, bouncing from recreational activities to birth to medicinal practices can be a bit jarring, even though much of the information is useful. It is also in this chapter that Yu takes issue with the overly rosy picture promulgated by Ko (a criticism that could probably be leveled at a number of historians), specifically critiquing her use of a particular source...


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pp. 549-552
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