Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China

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Stanford University Press, 2000 - Social Science - 413 pages
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 boundaries--all 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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Vivien Ng
"Laws that promoted morality were legal innovations intended to effect social change."
pp. 60-61 "The state-sponsored cult of chastity undoubtedly accounted for the Qing insistence that rape victims resist their assailants throughout the entire ordeal, at the risk of their own lives"
pp. 63 Xue Yunsheng "was especially critical of the notion that sexual assault could begin with force and end with mutual consent. He recognized that such a mistaken notion would only force victims of rape to commit suicide in order to prove their chastity." in his commentary on Qing laws, Xue included a lengthy excerpt from another work which in his opinion argued his case very succinctly (1970:1080)
p. 64 "a woman's failure to defend her chastity vigorously was in effect made a punishable offense. This distinction made between
married and unmarried women is also noteworthy. "Qing officials would demand stringent proof of rape--so as to be sure that the woman was not actually a jilted temptress--and would accept the idea that a rape victim would actually enjoy the sexual attack."
p. 66 More significantly, the Qing remained unwilling to absolve women who died after being raped by only one assailant. The attitude remained that a woman who was confronted by only one rapist should be able to defend her chastity successfully, even if it entalied getting herself killed in the process. It is also significant that, for a woman to be honored, she had to be dead. Women who survived their ordeal were utterly disgraced.
The subject of homosexual male rape was officially broached for the first time in 1679. A series of recommendations were subsequently forwarded, and a substatute for male rape was formulated in 1740. This basic law was later amended twice, in 1819 and 1852. (Xue 1970:1082)


A Vision of Sexual Order
Female Chastity
A Basic Legislation Against Sex Offenses
B Qing Sodomy Legislation
E Dynasties and Reign Periods

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About the author (2000)

Matthew H. Sommer is Associate Professor of History at Stanford University.

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