Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China

Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China

Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China

Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China

Synopsis

Female infanticide is a social practice often closely associated with Chinese culture. Journalists, social scientists, and historians alike emphasize that it is a result of the persistence of son preference, from China's ancient past to its modern present. Yet how is it that the killing of newborn daughters has come to be so intimately associated with Chinese culture?

Between Birth and Death locates a significant historical shift in the representation of female infanticide during the nineteenth century. It was during these years that the practice transformed from a moral and deeply local issue affecting communities into an emblematic cultural marker of a backwards Chinese civilization, requiring the scientific, religious, and political attention of the West. Using a wide array of Chinese, French and English primary sources, the book takes readers on an unusual historical journey, presenting the varied perspectives of those concerned with the fate of an unwanted Chinese daughter: a late imperial Chinese mother in the immediate moments following birth, a male Chinese philanthropist dedicated to rectifying moral behavior in his community, Western Sinological experts preoccupied with determining the comparative prevalence of the practice, Catholic missionaries and schoolchildren intent on saving the souls of heathen Chinese children, and turn-of-the-century reformers grappling with the problem as a challenge for an emerging nation.

Excerpt

In a letter to a friend, the eleventh-century Song dynasty Chinese statesman and poet Su Shi (1037—1101) tells of a story he has heard on the subject of infanticide. Su Shi’s acquaintance has described to him the birth customs in one rural part of what is now Hubei Province: “As a rule, common folk there raise only two sons and one daughter. Anything beyond this, they kill. in particular, they don’t want daughters. Because of this, there are few women and many old men without wives among the people.” Su Shi continues his acquaintance’s description of how infanticide is usually carried out: “The newborn child is drowned in cold water. Its own parents cannot bear it, so they usually close their eyes and turn their faces away. With their hands they press it down into the water bucket. After mewling for a while, it dies.” the physical immediacy of this terse description leaps across the centuries and hits us hard. the water is cold, not merely tepid. Most of us have held or at least seen a newborn—such a tiny, delicate thing— and could never imagine what it would take to drown an infant with our own two hands. the helplessness of the newborn child in Su Shi’s letter is amplified by the tiny, indistinct sounds it makes before dying. the description in Su Shi’s letter—that the parents cannot bear it and must close their . . .

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