Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview

2
Concubines in Song China*

In a patrilineal and patrilocal Chinese household, women belonged to one of two categories: those born there – daughters – or those brought in from outside – wives, concubines, and maids. This essay concerns the latter category of women, especially concubines, during the Song dynasty (960–1279). The standard Chinese term here translated as concubine was qie, a term used since ancient times. 1 Concubines resembled wives (qi) in that they were recognized sexual partners of a male family member, expected to bear children by him. They resembled maids (bi) in the way they were acquired and the marginality of their kinship status. In traditional China it was illegal and socially disreputable for a man to have more than one wife at a time, but he could have as many concubines as he could afford. 2 In English the term concubine also is used for the secondary consorts of emperors, some of very high rank; in Chinese such consorts seldom were called qie and they did not share the attributes of qie to be discussed in this essay. 3

The aim of this essay is to make one argument: concubines in Song China should not be thought of as wives, even secondary wives. Among the women brought in from outside, concubines fell more to the side of the maids than to that of wives. Observers have overestimated the status of concubines largely because their sons were equal to those of the wife in matters of inheritance. But in China the status of a son did not depend on that of his mother or on the classification of the tie between her and his father.

The view that I am arguing draws on the distinctions made by the anthropologist Jack Goody. In Production and Reproduction Goody distinguishes between co-wives, common in African polygynous societies, and concubines, found in many parts of Asia. These concubines were not wives or married with the same ceremonies as wives. He describes such concubinage as institutionalized polycoity to distinguish it from polygyny. 4 In societies with concubinage, wives were married with dowries but concubines were not. Concubines could even be slaves:

____________________
*
This article was originally published in Journal of Family History 11.1 (1986): 1–24. Copyright ©1986 by JAI Press, Inc. Reproduced by permission of Sage Publications.

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