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  • Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History
  • Barbara Molony
Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History. Edited by Anne Walthall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 400 pp. $60.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

This volume's fifteen essays treat gender issues in a variety of courts in China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Ottoman Empire, Byzantium, Russia, France, Nigeria, and the Americas (Aztecs and Mayas). It is a long overdue book. Feminist approaches to history in the last forty years have done an excellent job of undermining earlier male-centered paradigms. But most feminist historical scholarship has focused on retrieving women's agency or on women's struggles for empowerment and has thus downplayed women physically located in sites of elite power. This fine anthology is the first multi-country, multi-era collection on women living and working in the palaces of dynastic rulers. The volume's editor, Anne Walthall, did not ask the contributors—who include historians, anthropologists, and area studies specialists—to structure their essays around a set list of historical questions; the wide temporal and spatial span of the essays does not lend itself to such a straitjacket. And yet the chapters, taken together, suggest comparisons of systems of exchange that link commoners and elite men and women through marriage, service, governance, and income-producing labor; of dynastic continuity through the (almost always male) monarch's actual and theatrical performance of sexuality; [End Page 721] of control of sanctified and usually gendered space (harems) in the palace; and of production and regulation of culture and ethnicity. Walthall's excellent introductory essay is a useful comparative history of palace women.

A dynasty by definition requires generational continuity. Except in cases where father-to-son succession was not mandatory, as Barbara Watson Andaya notes in her chapter on Southeast Asia, male rulers needed wives and concubines for reproduction. Although father-to-son succession was not always practiced in Southeast Asia, court rituals, in which women officials played a large role, centered on the king's sexual potency. Power was exemplified through a theatre of rule that linked sex and religion. The ruler's masculine sexuality was played out against a backdrop of female courtiers, servants, and entertainers in other societies as well. Beverly Bossler notes the contradiction of Confucian moralists railing against pleasure-seeking as destructive to the Chinese court's focus on ethical governance while Song dynasty (960–1279) emperors were simultaneously encouraged to practice filial piety—by ensuring imperial succession—through sex with beautiful courtly concubines. At the same time, despite the presence of two to three thousand palace women in the Song court, the emperor had sexual access only to a limited group of them. Entertainers and some other classes of servants were, in theory, off-limits to him. Half a millennium later, Shuo Wang writes, the ethnically Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911), concerned that non-Manchu women might dilute the culture of the court, required that the emperor and his sons marry only daughters of Manchu bannermen—although the fact that non-royal Manchu men often married ethnically Chinese women challenged their daughters' ostensibly Manchu ethnicity.

In most cases in this volume, the ruler's or heir's mother was one of his most important allies. From the mid sixteenth to the mid seventeenth centuries, Leslie P. Peirce notes, Ottoman sultans' mothers, concubines, and sisters exerted so much direct political power that the era was dubbed the "sultanate of women." The queen mother of the Benin royal court in Nigeria was also influential, according to Flora Endouwaye S. Kaplan. The Mughal ruler Akbar the Great left his mother in charge of several provinces and the command of twelve thousand cavalry, one of a number of indications of Mughal women's authority noted by Ruby Lal. In East Asia, Confucian ideology required a son's filial piety toward his mother, although the "mother" who benefited from a son's respect was often the principal wife of his father rather than his birth mother (chapter on Korea by JaHyun Kim Haboush). In [End Page 722] China, a concubine's status might be elevated if her son became heir...


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