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Reviewed by:
  • Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China by Michelle T. King
  • Angela Ki Che Leung
Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China. By Michelle T. King. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2014. xiii + 250 pp. Cloth $50.

Michelle King’s book is about emerging modern subjectivity in China as reflected in changing attitudes toward and discourse on female infanticide in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

King begins with traditional Chinese textual descriptions of female infanticide and the moral condemnation of the practice. She relies on the writings of Yu Zhi, a middle intellectual and well-known philanthropist of the mid-nineteenth century who drew from Confucian/Daoist/Buddhist ethical resources to explain the dominant moral attitude toward the act in a period of national and cultural crisis. The bulk of this book, however, is based on various types of writings by Western travelers, merchants, diplomats, and missionaries who visited or lived in China in the same period. They “orientalized” the infanticide question, using it to characterize the backwardness and barbarity of the Chinese civilization. King devotes a whole chapter to the ways in which the globally active Oeuvre de la Sainte-Enfance, a Catholic charity focusing on children’s well-being, helped spread the idea of a China that turned a blind eye to blatant, widespread infanticide. The book ends with an explanation of the changing Chinese conception of the infanticide problem. This emerged in the anti-missionary violence of the late nineteenth century as well as in the subsequent discourse that identified China’s national strength with the child’s—particularly the girl’s—well-being and health. Female infanticide thus moved away from a heavily moral or even religious discourse to gain “scientific” relevance in demographic discussions closely linked to the construction of the modern Chinese nation-state. This allows King to connect traditional female infanticide to the abortion of female fetuses as a family strategy to manage the one-child policy of PRC in the 1980s.

King’s clear narrative is effectively illustrated by graphics, including Chinese woodblock prints representing scenes of newborn babies being drowned and supernatural punishment for committing infanticide. More interesting still are missionary drawings of similar events, some of which are obviously copies of Chinese originals, and of the salvation of Chinese baby girls by the priests and nuns.

While the subject of female infanticide in China is an important and sensitive issue with a long history, it is also a difficult one as statistical data are not [End Page 324] available in Chinese sources. The use of nineteenth-century missionary writings on China partly remedies the situation, as Christian missionaries usually collected local information useful for their proselytizing work, as shown in the tables on estimated rates of infanticide provided by Chinese informants in two Fujian counties midcentury and in baptismal lists of dying babies. This book clearly shows that the use of missionary materials and writings by Western visitors as sources is quite indispensable for the study of Chinese society of this period, not only because they provided different points of view on Chinese society, but especially because they often provide concrete, useful information ignored by Chinese writers.

The topic is a difficult one also because of obvious moral issues involved that could not be disentangled easily from specific social and economic situations of the individual and of the Chinese nation at any time. Despite King’s efforts in restoring personal experiences of mothers involved in infanticide or abortion in late imperial and contemporary China, and in deconstructing missionary and demographic discourses on the question in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such moral issues, and their significance in the making of modern Chinese society, remain quite unexplained. Otherwise, Michelle King should be thanked for having written a clear, readable, and useful book.

Angela Ki Che Leung
University of Hong Kong