Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China

Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China

Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China

Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China

Synopsis

Looking beyond the familiar trappings of the cult of female chastity--such as hagiographies of widows and chastity shrines--in late imperial China, this book explores the cult's political significance and practical ramifications in everyday life during the eighteenth century. In the first full-length study of the subject, Janet Theiss examines a vast number of laws, legal cases, regulations, and policies to illustrate the social and political processes through which female virtue was defined, enforced, and contested. Along the way, she provides rich details of social life and cultural practices among ordinary Chinese people through narratives of criminal cases of sexual assault, harassment, adultery, and domestic violence.

Excerpt

This book engages the most familiar and most thoroughly researched topic within Chinese gender and women’s history: the cult of female chastity in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). The institutionalized veneration of chaste widows and chastity martyrs first came to the attention of historians in the 1930s, who approached it from the perspective of the radical critiques and transformations of the old Confucian family system in their day. These scholars described the late imperial chastity award system as a religious cult, invoking associations with superstitious beliefs, unquestioned ritual prescriptions, and rigid patriarchal hierarchy. In one of the earliest attempts to trace the evolution of the “chastity concept” (zhenjie guan) from antiquity through the twentieth century, Liu Jihua described its intensification in the Song dynasty (960–1279) with the influence of Neo-Confucianism, the steady expansion of the state canonization system from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) onwards, and the culmination of the cult under China’s last dynasty, the Qing. By that point, she asserted, “a chastity concept that had become increasingly rigid, superstitious, and religious became extremely popular throughout society.” For Liu and her generation, the chastity concept was the inevitable product of the patrilineal clan system. As she explained, “Men all see chastity as the essential behavioral expression of the wifely way for women and also as an eternally unchangeable value from the Classics.” She therefore concluded that “the chastity concept, having completely lost any rationality and out of touch with reality, has become a religion for women.”

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