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Reviews 137 Anders Hansson. Chinese Outcasts: Discrimination and Emancipation in Late Imperial China. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 37. Leiden, New York, and KoIn: E. J. Brill, 1996. ix, 193 pp. Hardcover, isbn 90-04-10596-4. Marginal social groups in China are often described in purely sociological terms as filling certain niches or performing special functions, in a way that suggests that these are stable, almost structural elements within a total system that is itself fixed and persistent over time. Anders Hansson's Chinese Outcasts provides a powerful corrective to this view. Mining a wide range ofsources, from legal compendia to local gazetteers to the bijiwritings ofMing and Qing literati, Hansson develops a detailed portrayal offive sets oflocalized, outcast peoples that presents them in a dynamic historical context, showing how their roles and status evolved over time, and how this process interacted with the political interests of the imperial state at a crucial moment to result in the Emancipation Edicts of the Yongzheng reign (1723-1735)· It is these acts ofimperial legislation that provide the kernel of this book. Beginning just five months after Yongzheng's accession and continuing until 1730, a series ofedicts was issued that gave to people in certain places, and who were recognized as members of certain groups, the right to rehabilitate themselves in society by giving up their demeaning ways oflife and becoming regular, productive members of their communities. The key to understanding this legislation is the concept of "mean" {jian) as a category ofsocial organization. Hansson provides an excellent introductory chapter on inferiority and servility and their association with outcast status in a cross-cultural perspective, then presents a concise and illuminating account ofthe traditional, in this case meaning the later imperial Tang through Qing, social status system. Within this system people could be categorized as "mean" because of several factors. Concerns about ritual pollution and impurity played an important role, and certain tasks, such as performing at funerals, handling dead bodies, or participating in the killing ofanimals, could pollute individuals. Odier impure actions included musical performance or acting, and related to these was prostitution , which often could take the form ofsing-song girls or other combinations of sexual and entertainment roles. Servility, being bound in some way to provide services to others, was also associated with "mean" status, and indeed often the kinds of services required were© 1998 by University themselves ofthe polluting, impure kind. "Mean" people could be required to ofHawai'i Pressprovide funeral services, or to perform singing or dancing at weddings or on other ritual occasions. More straightforward labor services could also be required, 138 China Review International: Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1998 but the special position of die "mean" people made them particularly useful for more problematic tasks. Having established a general overview of outcast status in late imperial China, Hansson then offers case studies of the groups covered by the specific emancipation edicts of the Yongzheng emperor. These five groups were the musicians ' households, especially those in Shanxi province, but including some groups elsewhere in China; the beggars' households ofnorthern Zhejiang, known also as the duomin or "fallen people"; the boat people of the southern coastal provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi; the Fisherfolk of the Five Surnames, from the Qiantang watershed in Zhejiang; and the hereditary servants of southern Anhui. In each case Hansson seeks to reconstruct the origins of each group of people, and to understand how and why they came to be seen as "mean." This is not an easy task, given the widely varying source materials and the lack of consensus among traditional writers on these very questions. What does emerge from this discussion, however, is a clear image of "mean" people, by the early Qing dynasty , as those people having to a large extent come to share certain social roles, particularly those mentioned above associated with ritually impure tasks or with sexual pollution. However they got into their problematic social position, by the beginning of the seventeenth century they were clearly trapped in roles that perpetuated their inferiority. It was a sense of the arbitrary nature oftheir inferior status that seems to have motivated the Yongzheng emperor to act to relieve their legal oppression...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 137-139
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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