Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial Chinaby Matthew Sommer
Pub. Date: 01/02/2002
Publisher: Stanford University Press
This study of the regulation of sexuality in the Qing dynasty explores the social context for sexual behavior criminalized by the state, arguing that the eighteenth century in China was a time of profound change in sexual matters. During this time, the basic organizing principle for state regulation of sexuality shifted away from status, under which members of
This study of the regulation of sexuality in the Qing dynasty explores the social context for sexual behavior criminalized by the state, arguing that the eighteenth century in China was a time of profound change in sexual matters. During this time, the basic organizing principle for state regulation of sexuality shifted away from status, under which members of different groups had long been held to distinct standards of familial and sexual morality. In its place, a new regime of gender mandated a uniform standard of sexual morality and criminal liability across status boundariesall people were expected to conform to gender roles defined in terms of marriage.
This shift in the regulation of sexuality, manifested in official treatment of charges of adultery, rape, sodomy, widow chastity, and prostitution, represented the imperial state’s efforts to cope with disturbing social and demographic changes. Anachronistic status categories were discarded to accommodate a more fluid social structure, and the state initiated new efforts to enforce rigid gender roles and thus to shore up the peasant family against a swelling underclass of single, rogue males outside the family system. These men were demonized as sexual predators who threatened the chaste wives and daughters (and the young sons) of respectable households, and a flood of new legislation targeted them for suppression.
In addition to presenting official and judicial actions regarding sexuality, the book tells the story of people excluded from accepted patterns of marriage and household who bonded with each other in unorthodox ways (combining sexual union with resource pooling and fictive kinship) to satisfy a range of human needs. This previously invisible dimension of Qing social practice is brought into sharp focus by the testimony, gleaned from local and central court archives, of such marginalized people as peasants, laborers, and beggars.
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This is the most illuminating text I've found on late Imperial Chinese society, and particularly on matters of gender, sexual beahvior and morality, and the growth of state-bureaucratic regulation of 'private' life. Prevalent themes include prostitution (male and female, state-sponsored and state-banned); state and popular attitudes toward men and boys who had sex with other men and boys (this section suggests interesting things about the origins and causes of homophobia in our own culture); the changing legal and moral status of slaves; what Confucianism demanded of women in the family and the bedroom; and how women responded. Sommer paints a comprehensive and vibrant picture of late-imperial Chinese sexual and family life that gives full credit to those who lived it for constantly thinking about their world, debating their beliefs, and negotiating with social and governmental forces in their quest for the good life. Neither bureaucrat nor peasant, man nor woman get the final word here. What farmers believed and did was neither controlled by nor isolated from the philosophical ruminations of jurists in Peking; meanwhile, scholars and emperors concerned themselves to a surprising degree with the behavior and virtues of the poor villagers of the hinterlands. Sommer analyzes each facet of this dynamic. He is similarly nuanced in his treatment of patriarchy. Male jurists made the rules about what women would and must do, and could enforce those rules with self-assured brutality. But even illiterate women could manipulate Confucian philosophy and bureaucracy to their advantage. Sommer discusses many variations on this theme; the most entertaining involve pregnant widows who forced magistrates to dismiss adultery charges against them--by arguing immaculate conception! The magistrates might not have believed the accused's arguments, but Sommer explains why these eminent men lost their battles with illiterate and scandalous peasant women, and backed their audacious stories. Sommer's arguments and observations are based on copious research. That his accounts stick so close to sources endow his book with enormous detail and credibility. You'll never have to wonder where he got a fact or idea, or why he believes it. He's too careful and thoughtful an historian. But there's an additional benefit to this approach. Sommer brings the subjects of his study alive by presenting their stories in their own words--even the words of peasants and women, usually absent from pre-modern histories, but caught here in the transcripts of court testimonies. The extended passages he quotes from these sources are colorful, gritty, and full of the concerns and passions of ordinary imperial Chinese. I found these passages to be among the most enthralling and illuminating in the book. I must say I disagree--heartily--with the reviewer who alleged that Sommer gets overwhelmed by the abundance of facts he has unearthed and fails to unify them conceptually. Sommer has found and articulates a clear social theory in this work. It is an inobvious theory, a deeply insightful one, and one argued very closely from the evidence. The combination of ceaseless attention to evidence and the inobviousness of the theory (especially to one not acquainted with history of gender and related fields--though these are certainly not necessary to enjoy the book) might combine to leave the reviewer, or other readers, with the feeling they've missed the theory for the trees. But if so, then it's the reviewer, and not Professor Sommer, who's gotten overwhelmed by the evidence. Sommer introduces his theory in the Introduction, returns to it explicitly in every chapter, fleshes out the details and evidence throughout the book, and punctuates every detailed analysis with a reminder of the broader patterns. I don't know what else he could have done. This is not the kind of history where the point is the entertaining narrative. This is social history that grapples