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  • Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity: Gender and Social Change in China, 1000–1400 by Beverly Bossler
  • Christian de Pee
Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity: Gender and Social Change in China, 1000–1400 by Beverly Bossler. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013. Pp. xiv + 464. $39.35.

In Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity, Beverly Bossler seeks to identify the place of gender in the great social, economic, political, and ideological transformations of the Song and Yuan dynasties. She argues that between 1000 and 1400 c.e. a growing market in female labor “created new roles for women both in and out of families” and [End Page 108] introduced women into a realm of fluctuating values and fluid status that provided them with an equivalent of “the thrilling and terrifying mobility that Song society offered men” (p. 411). Bossler connects this market in female labor to broader historical trends by showing how imperial governments and elite men tried over time to limit the destabilizing mobility of women. Imperial governments endeavored, unsuccessfully to stem social and economic fluidity by issuing regulations that fixed the status of courtesans and concubines, of base and respectable subjects, and of hereditary professions. Elite men, with greater success, moved courtesan culture from the public realm into their private houses by purchasing or training entertainer-concubines, and in time accorded these concubines a full, enduring place in their families. The cult of female fidelity, “driven by social more than moral or ideological agendas” (p. 416), was similarly designed to remove women from the commodity sphere. It erected legal and moral barriers against the remarriage of widows to ensure that bereaved wives would remain “to manage the finances, educate the children, and supervise the inner quarters” (p. 399)—in other words, to prepare their sons for the fluid, competitive society from which they themselves were excluded.

Bossler lays out her complex narrative of forceful social fluidity and tenuous legal containment in three chronological parts, covering the Northern Song, the Southern Song, and the Yuan dynasties. Each of these parts she has in turn divided into three topical chapters, about courtesans (Chapters 1, 4, 7), concubines (Chapters 2, 5, 8), and faithful wives (Chapters 3, 6, 9). Chapter 1 argues that “courtesan banquets became a central—if not the central—venue for elite male socialization in the Northern Song” (p. 30). The presence of government-courtesans and private courtesans at official banquets, whether in the capital or in the provinces, created a titillating combination of pleasure and danger, as the men in attendance vied to display their literary talent and romantic sensibility without transgressing social propriety or legal regulations. Although Northern Song sources sometimes associate courtesans with official malfeasance or moral failings, especially in the latter decades of the period, “concerns about the vulgarity or corrupting influence of courtesans remained a minor theme in an otherwise largely positive discourse” (p. 40).

In Chapter 2, Bossler shows that entertainer-concubines brought the social fluidity of banquets and brothels into the houses of their [End Page 109] masters. Procured in “a flourishing market of female labor” (p. 73), concubines advanced their master’s reputation by entertaining his guests at private parties, and they competed with his wife and maids for status and recognition. The rigid status distinctions laid down by law and ritual offered no guidance in the tangled domestic relationships created by jealousy and fear. Such fear was intensified by the presence, just outside the gate, of the market in female labor that had brought in the concubines, and that might one day transform a respectable wife or daughter into an indentured maid.

Chapter 3 explains that the “first stirrings” of a “heightened interest in female fidelity” (p. 131) during the Northern Song provided moral guidance not to wives distracted by domestic rivalry but to men entrusted with public office. Sima Guang and Ouyang Xiu upheld the intrepid loyalty of chaste widows to their late husbands as a model for male loyalty to the dynastic house and its inviolable territory.  “Principled women” (jiefu 節婦) ranked also among the exemplars rewarded by the courts of Emperor Shenzong and Emperor Zhezong to provide a...


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