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  • Marriage and the Law in the Age of Khubilai Khan: Cases from the Yuan Dianzhang by Bettine Birge
  • Jinping Wang
Marriage and the Law in the Age of Khubilai Khan: Cases from the Yuan Dianzhang. By Bettine Birge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. vii plus 324 pp. $55.00).

This book by Professor Bertine Birge of the University of Southern California, is a long-awaited comprehensive study on the social and legal history of marriage and family in China under Mongol rule. In her first book, Women, Property, and Confucian Reaction in Sung and Yuan China (960-1368), Birge convincingly showed how the odd congruence of Neo-Confucian patrilineal values and the Mongol laws of levirate marriage weakened women's property rights and promoted widow chastity. Her study demonstrated for the first time the Mongols' remarkable impact on the transformation of gender and marital relations in Chinese history. In her new book, Birge expands the scope of discussion from property rights to all aspects of marriage law and practices in Mongol-Yuan China. She does so by meticulously translating and interpreting all of Chapter 18, titled "Marriage," of the Yuan dianzhang (Statutes and Precedents in the Yuan Dynasty), one of the most important primary documents for understanding legal practices and social life in China under Mongol rule.

Birge's book contains two parts. Part 1 lays out in detail the historical, social, and textual context of the Yuan dianzhang itself. The book's real strength, though, lies in part 2, in which Birge provides thorough and rigorous annotated translations of seventy-five legal cases related to marriage in the Yuan dianzhang. The Yuan dianzhang is notoriously difficult to read for both linguistic and textual reasons. The text, as Birge points out, is a complex mixture of three forms of writings, among which the most distinctive is Sino-Mongolian, "a direct word-for-word translation for Mongolian sentences, replacing the Mongolian words with Chinese characters" (67). This bewildering language poses tremendous challenges for scholars unfamiliar with Mongolian terms, syntax, and word order. Compounding the linguistic complexity, cases in the Yuan dianzhang often quote extensively from other documents, "generally the report or dispatch to which an office is responding" (82), and involve several central and local offices. Yet the succinct bureaucratic style of the text makes it hard to determine the relations among these documents and to identify their senders and receivers. As a result, few historians outside China and Japan have studied the Yuan dianzhang [End Page 1380] deeply. Birge's book is the first attempt to translate an entire chapter into English. I have checked her translation against all original Chinese texts, and I was truly impressed by its accuracy and effectiveness. In only a few instances might I disagree with her translation, such as the Chinese term jiaoxing

which appears repeatedly in case 18.18 and significantly affects the point of the government ruling there (145-49). Whereas Professor Birge translates jiaoxing as "to prosper or to seek prosperity," judging from the contexts, in my opinion, it is more accurately rendered as "to take chances." Such tiny inconsistencies, though, do not in the slightest detract from the impact of this successful translation.

The book illustrates the provocative interplay of gender, ethnicity, and the law in people's daily life in Mongol-Yuan China, a topic this journal's readers will feel quite at home with. The translation of initial plaints and testimonies by ordinary men and women quoted in the cases provides a rare opportunity to hear the authentic voices of many groups underrepresented in Chinese history, such as village women, government-registered matchmakers, and Muslim families. Birge's extensive notes preceding each case illuminate how both male and female plaintiffs skillfully utilized the Mongol regime's marriage laws to promote their personal agendas in the intricate dynamics of family politics, which often revolved around issues of betrothal gifts, duties of uxorilocal sons-in-law, and widows' remarriages. These individual and family efforts were complicated by the changing laws, which, over the course of the dynasty, swayed between tolerating long-standing local or ethnic-group practices and imposing universal laws for all in the vast and...


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