- Concubines in Court: Marriage and Monogamy in Twentieth-Century China by Tran, Lisa
This is the first extensive study of the changing connotations and legal consequences of concubinage from the late Qing period to the early years of Communist rule in China. Tran demonstrates how the state, under different ruling ideologies, redefined individual morality and gender relations by legislating monogamy (一夫一妻制 yifu yiqi zhi). This subject enables Tran to outline China’s legal trajectory throughout the first half of the twentieth century as cumulative and continuous, despite wars and political demarcations. The book is highly recommended for scholars and students of Chinese legal history and those interested in China’s struggle for modernity.
The eight core chapters of the book elaborate how legislators of the early Republican period, the Guomindang (GMD), and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) all upheld monogamy in principle yet approached it in different ways in code and courtroom practice. To demonstrate how legislators regulated concubines’ rights and concubines’ relations to their masters, Tran examines lawsuits stemming from various issues related to concubinage. Such issues included, but were not limited to, the formation and severance of the relationship, financial support, household disharmony, and adultery. The commonalities and variations in these cases buttress Tran’s observations of trends in the dynamics of gender relations, family structure, and law. Over time, the legal construct of concubinage changed from semi-marriage, to adultery, to bigamy, as new values of nuclear families and conjugal fidelity took root in China. In this process, the matter of concubinage, which originally concerned the network and perpetuation of kinship, became a private or household matter in the Republican years and a threat to public morality under the CCP.
Examining laws and lawsuits, Tran demonstrates “the law in action” (17), as the state, jurists, judges, and numerous litigants utilized law for different purposes and negotiated with one another. With this approach, Tran exhibits the multifaceted interactions between institutional changes and individual actions, between codified law and social environment. Tran portrays a better-informed and critical populace, who influenced the lawmaking process and invoked law for personal or group interest. Social activism on women’s rights, for instance, became a force that led to categorization of concubinage as adultery under GMD law, which Tran considers as “law-makers’ concession to public opinion” (40). Concubines, who have been imagined as the passive or consenting victims of an oppressive system, in Tran’s account express agency and capitalize on new laws to seek compensation or to make a fortune. Their utilization of Article 982 of the Revised Criminal Code of 1935 to obtain the financial support entitled to legal wives is a case in point. The reversed power dynamics between concubines and their masters in these cases complicate [End Page 304] our understanding of the implications of concubinage in twentieth-century Chinese society.
Concubines in Court effectively shows the role of law to be historically specific and responsive to a combination of political, social, and human factors. Tran discusses the gendered implications of the GMD laws on concubinage, which punished men who kept concubines for adultery yet sheltered concubines as household members. By the same token, she unveils how GMD and CCP laws extended both a disciplinary arm and a protective arm on matters of marriage and concubinage. Law, in Tran’s analysis, is a space for negotiation and concession rather than a set of terms dictated by the state.
In addition to showing the capacity of law to reflect and bring about social changes, Tran discusses unintended consequences of law. Chapter 7 focuses on what Tran considers a great irony in the GMD’s attempts to curb concubinage, which although fascinating requires better contextualization. While upholding monogamy and denying concubines marital status, GMD laws after 1935 emphasized proper ceremony as the sole proof of a valid marriage, accidently giving certain concubines the status of a legal wife. Tran analyzes the consequences of this law, but not any legal debate or public discussion regarding its unforeseen misuse. Readers may wonder how to evaluate Article 982...