Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions

Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions

by Matthew H. Sommer

NOOK Book(eBook)

$49.99 $80.00 Save 38% Current price is $49.99, Original price is $80. You Save 38%.

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520962194
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 499
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Matthew H. Sommer teaches Chinese history at Stanford University. He is the author of Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China.

Read an Excerpt

Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China

Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions

By Matthew H. Sommer


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96219-4


"Getting a Husband to Support a Husband"

A country with a system of one man and many wives has to have a system of one woman and many husbands. Moreover, there have to be a certain number of men who have no wives, and those without wives are sure to be the poor.



In 1743, peasant Wang Yuliang realized that he could no longer feed his family. Therefore, he decided to use his wife to recruit into the family a man who could. Wang (aged 49) lived in Fangshan County, Zhili, about fifty kilometers southwest of Beijing; his household consisted of himself, his wife, Li Shi (41), his widowed mother, Fu Shi (79), two young sons, and a daughter. The six of them shared a one-room house. Wang owned only four ITLμITL (about two-thirds of an acre) of poor-quality land, so much of the family's income depended on what he could earn by hiring out his labor (an example of "semi-proletarianization" typical of the north China plain). To make matters worse, for several years Wang had suffered from a chronic illness that made it difficult to keep down food, and he was bedridden much of the time.

These circumstances prompted Wang to approach Hao Shixin (37), an immigrant from Neiqiu County, Zhili (about 350 kilometers to the southwest), who was working in the village as a casual laborer. Hao Shixin had neither land nor family, but he was strong and healthy. Wang proposed that Hao move in with Wang's family and sleep with Li Shi in exchange for "farming and supporting the family," and Hao readily agreed.

At first, Wang's wife refused to cooperate, but eventually he persuaded her. As Li Shi later testified, he told her "I have this sickness and I can't take care of you anymore, so all we can do is get him to support us and get along as best we can." Li Shi protested that they had only one room and sleeping platform in their house; so Wang explained, "Everyone will sleep together, but you don't need to be ashamed." She finally relented out of resignation and disgust, because if the family were to survive, they would need the help of some other man. Wang's mother was unhappy, too: "[I] saw that my son had brought (zhao) Hao Shixin into our family. My son told me that he was going to let Hao Shixin live with us and sleep on the same kang with my daughter-in-law, so that he would farm our land and support our family. I said, 'We may be poor, but how can we do something like that?'" But she, too, bowed to the inevitable.

So it happened that Hao Shixin moved in with Wang Yuliang's family, shared their sleeping platform, had sexual intercourse with Li Shi, and supported them as best he could by working their land and hiring out his labor. Neighbors later testified that everyone had had a pretty good idea what was going on, but no one interfered — after all, what better solution did they have to the family's problems?

But sometimes Hao could not get work, and the family continued to go short on food, provoking Wang Yuliang to complain and to abuse his wife; moreover, Wang was ill most of the time, and, by throwing up everything he ate, he was seen to be wasting quite a bit of all-too-scarce food. Wang had become a taxing burden to his family, something especially difficult to tolerate when all were going hungry. Finally, in the summer of 1744, Li Shi persuaded Hao Shixin to help kill her husband, so that they could be a couple and have a better life together. After the murder they were quickly found out, prosecuted, and sentenced to death — which is the only reason we know their story.

How Widespread a Practice?

This story illustrates the practice known as "getting a husband to support a husband" (zhao fuyang fu), a form of non-fraternal polyandry that, with some variation, appears to have been remarkably widespread among the poor in China during the Qing dynasty. How widespread? It is impossible to quantify the practice in any exact way, and I would not suggest that most people participated in such relationships. But it certainly was no isolated phenomenon.

The story of Wang Yuliang's family appears in a xingke tiben from the archival category "marriage and sex offenses," where a common scenario is an impoverished couple being supported by one or more outside males in exchange for sexual privileges. From a judicial point of view, such behavior constituted the crime of "abetting or tolerating one's wife or concubine to engage in illicit sexual intercourse with another man" (zongrong qi qie yu ren tong jian — often abbreviated as zong jian), for which the Qing code mandated ninety blows of the heavy bamboo (for the woman and both men) and compulsory divorce. The "marriage and sex offenses" category contains countless memorials related to this crime. It is also well represented in the archives of local courts.

In addition to criminal records, two early twentieth-century surveys of customs document the practice of "getting a husband to support a husband." Investigation of Customs reports this "evil custom" in Fujian, Gansu, Hubei, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Zhejiang, and The Private Law of Taiwan reproduces a contract for one such marriage. Many other sources also mention the practice. Therefore it seems safe to assume that, for every instance of polyandry mentioned in a legal case, there must have been a great many others that left no specific written record. Together, the legal cases and the surveys show that these practices occurred in every province of China Proper.

The Big Picture

Bearing this evidence in mind, let us consider the larger context for the story of Wang Yuliang. One precondition for the arrangement proposed by Wang was his ability to recruit Hao Shixin as a second husband for his wife. Hao was an able-bodied man with no wife or property of his own, who had migrated far from home in search of a livelihood, and Wang had no trouble at all persuading him to accept the proposal. There seems to have been no shortage of men like Hao, the ubiquitous "rootless rascals" or "bare sticks" (guanggun) at the bottom of Qing society. The larger context is the skewed sex ratio and concomitant shortage of wives among the rural poor that were already widespread and troubling phenomena by the mid-eighteenth century. One reason for men to share a wife was that there simply were not enough wives to go around, and, in some rural communities, as many as a fifth of adult males would never marry, even though marriage was universal for women.

A second precondition was a pervasive market for women, specifically their sexual and reproductive labor. It required no wild stretch of the imagination for Wang Yuliang to come up with this solution to his family's problems: when all else failed, his family had one more asset, namely his wife's body. Nor was it really very difficult for other people to understand and accept the arrangement, Li Shi's professions of distaste notwithstanding. This was a society in which it was both possible and easy — one can even say that it made sense — for a man to pimp or sell his wife in order to survive.

A third precondition, of course, was the desperate poverty of Wang Yuliang's family, exacerbated by his peculiar illness. The larger context is that there were many downwardly mobile families, living on farms too small to support themselves, who were turning to a range of desperate strategies in order to survive. In this particular case, we are reminded of Philip Huang's analysis of the involutionary pressure on peasant families to mobilize underutilized labor and engage in sidelines and risky cash cropping in order to survive. Among other things, polyandry represented a familization of sex work.

This context helps us make sense of the myriad legal cases where we find a wife taking one or more patrons who chip in to supplement her family's income, with her husband either openly embracing her initiative or simply pretending not to notice. In these situations, sex work is usually not the only kind of work going on; rather, it is part of a portfolio of strategies that enable a family to get by. In that sense, it is typical of most sex work that goes on in the world, which is part-time, temporary, or seasonal activity designed to supplement other sources of income in order to support families. The women doing this work do not necessarily see themselves as "prostitutes" — that is, they do not necessarily see sex work as the most important or defining aspect of their lives.

These three larger phenomena — the shortage of wives and consequent surplus of single men, the market for women's sexual and reproductive labor, and the problem of widespread downward mobility and involutionary pressure on poor families — were connected, and at their intersection we find people like Wang Yuliang, Li Shi, and Hao Shixin engaged in survival strategies that combined elements of marriage and prostitution in a range of polyandrous forms. Some arrangements were formalized with matchmakers and contracts, or with some type of chosen kinship; others were more casual and depended on verbal agreement or more indirect ways of reaching an understanding (such as the husband turning a blind eye to what he knows his wife is doing). Each case tells a unique story. But among the countless anecdotes, we can discern common patterns and logic that make sense only when considered at the intersection of larger forces.


Qing legal cases reveal a variety of arrangements by which a wife, with her husband's approval, would have sex with one or more other men in order to help support her family. Some scenarios look more like marriage, others more like sex work, and many like something in between.

A number of variables can be used to assess a given scenario. First, how many outside sexual partners did the wife take, and how long did their relationship(s) last? At the marriage end of the spectrum, we find a stable long-term relationship between the wife and one partner in addition to her husband. Many of the relationships recorded in homicide cases ended in trouble within a year or two — but this evidence is misleading, because such sources inevitably exaggerate the incidence of conflict and violence. Despite this bias, I have found forty-five examples of polyandrous relationships that lasted at least four years; eleven of these relationships lasted more than ten years, and three lasted more than twenty years. Such long-term relationships were relatively harmonious (hence their stability), and they came to official attention only indirectly; for this reason, it is safe to assume that long-term relationships are heavily underrepresented in legal cases.

The single longest polyandrous relationship I have found comes from a 1747 case from Jianyang County, Fujian, involving a peasant named Zheng Guoshun who became blind, prompting his wife, Jiang Shi, to negotiate a sexual relationship with a younger man named Jiang Yilang (no relation) who would help work their farm. Eventually, Jiang Yilang moved in with the couple, and over time Jiang Shi bore two daughters of ambiguous paternity. After twenty-eight years, Zheng Guoshun died of natural causes, after which Jiang Shi and Jiang Yilang continued their relationship. They came to official attention only later, when an in-law's interference provoked a violent quarrel; as long as Zheng Guoshun was alive, no one had bothered them.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find multiple partners, each of whose relationship with the wife lasted only the duration of each "trick." This scenario was a form of retail prostitution in which the husband acted as pimp and tout.

Second, to what degree did the couple incorporate an outside male into their family, and how did they represent that relationship to themselves and others? At the marriage end of the spectrum, we find the outside male fully incorporated as a second husband by means of contract, kinship vocabulary, co-residence, resource pooling, the sharing of meals, and sometimes change of surname. For example, in Hubei "the second husband who was brought in" would adopt the first husband's surname to formalize his integration into the family. In legal cases, we also find examples of the couple and their children adopting the outside male's surname. In their dealings with this man, the couple does not maintain boundaries: a phrase that repeatedly appears in testimony is "bu fen nei wai" — literally, "they do not distinguish between inner and outer," a reference to the inner female space of the household from which outside males were normally to be excluded. In other words, they treat him as a member of their family.

At the prostitution end of the spectrum, however, the woman's multiple sexual partners may be completely anonymous strangers. They are simply customers, and the couple is fully self-conscious about being engaged in prostitution.

Third, what sorts of benefits were exchanged between the couple and the outside male(s), and were they exchanged in a "wholesale" or "retail" manner? At the marriage end of the spectrum, we find an ongoing exchange of a variety of different benefits over time; this is a "wholesale" exchange, in that we find no itemized calculation of compensation for each discrete sexual favor, and more is involved than just sex and money. The heart of this quid pro quo may well be an exchange of economic support for sexual relations, but, once incorporated into the family, the outside male will also partake of the entire package of domestic caring work performed by the wife for her family, including food preparation, mending and making clothes, cleaning, care for the sick, and so on. He also gains the less tangible benefits of membership in a family, including both chosen kinship (such as sworn brotherhood, or adopting the couple's children as "gan qin," something like a god-father) and the opportunity to have children of his own with the wife. For their part, the couple gains security through the pooling of labor, income, and whatever other resources the outside male can contribute on an ongoing basis.

The benefits a wife provided her second husband were simply an extension of her ordinary tasks within the family. Paola Tabet's description of the context of sex work in rural Niger applies equally to our Chinese cases of polyandry: "In the villages, giving sexual service is integrated with the other services women give in marriage: domestic labor, reproduction, and all the tasks allotted to women by the sexual division of labor." Sex was just part of the package, and the second husband did not pay "by the trick" any more than did the first. Of course, at the opposite, prostitution end of the spectrum, we find straightforward, "retail" transactions: discrete acts of sex for discrete payments of money, which constitute the family's cash income.

The present chapter and Chapter 2 both focus on those stable, long-term arrangements that most closely resembled marriage: those contracted between a couple and a single outside male who joined their family as, in effect, a second husband who lived with them, pooled resources, shared the wife, and ate from the same hearth. There were two basic frameworks for such relationships. The first involved a formal contract (either written or verbal) for "bringing in" a second "husband"; the case of Wang Yuliang narrated above is an example of such a relationship. The second involved framing the polyandrous relationship in terms of chosen kinship, with sworn brotherhood between the two men being the most common pattern. Chapter 3 explores a broader range of strategies on the polyandrous spectrum, including transactional polyamory, retail prostitution with husband as pimp, contracting a wife to a brothel, and conditional wife sale. The common theme of all these practices is that a wife would sleep with one or more other men, with her husband's permission, in order to help support her family.


The term "getting a husband to support a husband" (zhao fu yang fu) generally referred to a formally contracted relationship. It should be understood as a form of marriage, despite its official illegality and its unacceptability to elite standards; it was certainly understood as such by its participants, and even by the community at large. What stands out is the formality and openness of the arrangements, in conscious imitation of more widely accepted forms of marriage.

Contracts for "Getting a Husband to Support a Husband"

Investigation of Customs notes that polyandry might be formalized through the use of matchmakers and written contracts. In Shaanxi, for example,

The couple will talk it over and agree to ask a matchmaker to bring a second husband into their household to support the first husband (zhao fu ru jia, yi yang qian fu). They will draw up a "bringing in a husband contract" (zhao fu ju zi), which clearly states that "the second husband may not mistreat the first husband."


Excerpted from Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China by Matthew H. Sommer. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Conventions in the Text, xiii,
Map: Provinces of China Proper within the Qing Empire, circa 1800, xiv,
Introduction, 1,
1. "Getting a Husband to Support a Husband", 23,
2. Attitudes of Families, Communities, and Women toward Polyandry, 55,
3. The Intermediate Range of Practice, 86,
4. Anatomy of a Wife Sale, 117,
5. Analysis of Prices in Wife Sales, 149,
6. Negotiations between Men in Wife Sales, 179,
7. Wives, Natal Families, and Children, 211,
8. Four Variations on a Theme, 243,
9. Formal Law and Central Court Interpretation from Ming through High Qing, 277,
10. Absolutism versus Pragmatism in Central Court Treatment of Wife Sales, 308,
11. Flexible Adjudication of Routine Cases in the Local Courts, 341,
Conclusion, 376,
Appendices A-E, 385,
Character List, 395,
Notes, 415,
References, 451,
Index, 469,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews