- Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions by Matthew H. Sommer
Despite our best efforts, scholarship on Qing China has been telling a lopsided story. Scholars from every discipline have examined the lives of the rich and the poor, men and women, the rural and the urban, educated and uneducated. Engagement across each of these dichotomies, however, has been defined in terms of a comparison between cultural orthodoxy and deviance. Drawing heavily upon Confucianism and state prescriptions for behavior, many studies highlight when Qing subjects acted in accordance with or opposition to a presumed universal set of Chinese values. In Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions Matthew Sommer shows that to understand the lives and marriages of the poor who comprised the majority of China’s inhabitants we must instead set aside assumptions about normative behavior and turn our attention to what poor couples did to survive. Orthodoxy was a privilege few could afford, and for many households it was not relevant. With this book, Sommer redefines our perspective on gender relations in China and uncovers how sexuality functioned as a resource for the poor.
The book describes a spectrum of arrangements through which access to a woman’s sexual and reproductive labor could be divided among men. Sommer places formal polyandry, in which one woman shared her long-term services as a wife with multiple men, at one end of the spectrum. He situates “retail prostitution” in the middle, followed by conditional wife sale, and finally the outright sale of a wife at the other end. Paradoxically, in instances of polyandry Sommer observes the extremes that a couple might go to in order to preserve their marriage, while in wife-sale he notes that such sales served to protect the woman at the expense of the marriage. Typically, a sale [End Page 501] left the wife better off than the husband who had sold her. She gained a new home and new provider, whereas he joined the growing ranks of unmarried “rootless” men who lacked any social status or security in Chinese society. This new formulation establishes a more humane motivation for practices that, if assessed only through the usual lenses of orthodoxy, deviance, and Chinese women’s low status, appear only to be exploitation.
This magisterial book represents the culmination of two decades of meticulous archival research using thousands of documents from across China and draws together at least two distinct and illuminating historical priorities. In the first two sections of the book, chapters 1–3 on polyandry and chapters 4–8 on wife sales, Sommer reads local and central court cases to uncover and analyze social practices. Reading Qing legal records, he illuminates the breadth of practices that diverged dramatically from traditional ideas of marriage and the diverse range of compromises that men and women made to survive. The sheer volume of material covered in the book is breathtaking, and yet Sommer skillfully captures the human scale of these cases and the crises that precipitated them as well. By presenting a vast array of examples, Sommer silences skeptics who might argue that these practices were exceptional rather than a practical and broadly employed survival strategy.
Although each of Sommer’s examples ended up in the archival record because of a crime, Sommer mines the cases for their social detail in order to reconstruct the relationships of polyandry or the motivations for a wife sale leading up to the moment when for one reason or another things went wrong. His narration of these cases catalogs how communities often condoned unconventional household structures. In this way, Sommer uses the criminal archive to uncover what may have once been functional households. Some polyandrous marriages lasted for many years before encountering hostility and the crime that landed their story in the archive. Sommer compellingly argues that to be successful, any arrangement, from polyandry to wife-sale, required that a woman cooperate. When husbands...