- Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China by Michelle T. King
In a compelling and elegantly written book, Michelle T. King offers a sensitive exploration of a tense topic. She evokes a silent—voiceless—void and the circles of influence and effect that surround it. At the center: a shrouded moment of murder, a newborn daughter smothered in a bucket. King asks readers to imagine, along with her, the discursive ripples that emanate from this scene. The baby who cannot speak for herself. The mother who is not held responsible and the midwives and mothers-in-law who are. The moralist who preaches retribution for degraded customs. The foreign observers who seek the surety of numbers—to quantify Chinese barbarity. The foreign priest who compiles documents to make a case against infanticide. And the foreign children who buy naming rights and baptism—and thus salvation for a Chinese baby’s immortal soul.
Like the wings of a butterfly, the death of a smothered girl-infant inspires distant and lingering effects. We feel these today in popular assumptions about China and Chinese women—their helplessness and victimization, past and present. King seeks to illuminate the history of these effects by tracing the movement of ideas about infanticide through and beyond nineteenth-century China. She also seeks thereby to recover female agency, even if that is not in the main what her sources present. She finds acts of infanticide elusive and ultimately [End Page 213] unknowable and uncountable, the source archive ultimately tainted with bias. She strives to make comparisons across what most have been inclined to see as incommensurate categories: placing infanticide in China alongside infant abandonment in Europe. She engages in a history of perceptions of infanticide, reading her sources with sensitivity to their genre and function. She explains not how many, how, or why Chinese babies—particularly girl babies—were killed in the nineteenth century, but rather how the image of their murder became part of a constellation of atrocities seen as “typically Chinese” (or “typically feudal”) in the context of Western imperialism and Chinese revolutionary modernization. Finally, she argues that particular nineteenth-century conditions produced the imaginative linkage between China and infanticide. King thus positions her book in relation to recent works by Dorothy Ko; Larissa N. Heinrich; and Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue on Western images of the Chinese body as metaphor for Chinese barbarism and weakness.1
In the end, the book is not about violence against babies (especially girls), even though the author repeatedly assures us of her sympathy for both infanticide’s tiny victims and the mothers who (willingly or unwillingly) were accomplices to their murder. Instead, at its heart, the book is about a particular form of cross-cultural misapprehension rooted in the nineteenth-century encounter between China and Europe. Between Birth and Death addresses the question of how Western missionaries and sinologists collected and circulated knowledge about China, specifically, about Chinese infanticide. It traces the historical factors that conditioned Western assumptions about China and reveals some of the channels through which particular images of China became common knowledge. And in this regard, it tells an absorbing story. Still, the book leaves lingering questions: Is it wrong for historians—and others—to condemn past or distant practices that we find abhorrent—or is this necessarily an act of cultural imperialism? Is there not a connection between the ideas that led to female infanticide in the nineteenth century and China’s current sex ratio imbalance [End Page 214] beyond the fact that outsiders see them as linked? More broadly, how should cultural historians understand the relationship between discourse and practice—particularly when the practice under discussion is morally repugnant?
King presents her material gracefully, organizing her first several chapters in concentric circles extending outward from the implied presence of a murdered infant—from the birthing chamber in the Yangzi Delta region onward to the West by way of an itinerant moralist whose words and pictures were (unbeknownst...