UCSC seminar–part 7

The seventh set of readings include parts 2 and 3 of Matthew Sommer's Polyandry and Wife-selling in Qing Dynasty China and a collection of judicial records called True Crimes in Eighteenth-century China, translated and edited by Robert Hegel.

Sommer speaks broadly to two bodies of literature. The first (social and economic history) searches for the roots of social crisis and revolution in China. The second (social anthropology) analyzes the disjunction between a variety of non-normative marriages and some practices were stigmatized but solved problems and met needs that normative noes could not. His case studies on wife sale is our focus. By meticulously tabulating and classifying his cases from court central archive to various local archives, Sommer analytically divides his cases into "anatomy of a wife sale," "prices in wife sales," "negotiation between men in wife sales," and "wives, natal families and children." Then he brought them together into a powerful and unified theme.

Sommer argues that both polyandry and wife sale were not flukes but widespread practices in peasant society. Majority of farmers were barely making it (subsistence farming) and any sequence of unfortunate events would knock them out of a delicate balance that kept their head above water. The extreme poverty was the main reason many peasants prepared an illegal contract to sell his wife. These sellers would subsequently sink to the bottom of peasant society without any access to land or sex.

The survival strategy in subsistence farming peasant society was precisely the roots of social crisis in China up until 1940. Chinese revolution structurally altered the peasant livelihood and set the path of state-driven primitive accumulation of capital in PRC.

Sommer's book is written in a clear and elegant prose without any jargons. His approach, however, differs from divergence model and measures proposed by several writers we read, including R. Bin Wong's revision of divergence model as well as Richard von Glahn's survey of disputes between involution and divergence models. The intellectual and cultural practices, described by Alexander Woodside, Benjamin Elman and Andrea Goldman, seem to be an entirely different China from Sommer's. How do these different approaches square off and how do you make sense of China as a whole? Perhaps there were two, three of even more layers of Chinese reality in parallel?


  1. I like the question of "how do we make sense of China as a whole." At the same time, I am often confounded by it. It seems that we are constantly addressing China in terms of its diversity, unsettling the concept of "one China," but also always bringing it all back to what is China. I wonder what it means to truly speak for all of China, of that is at all possible.

    With regard to peasant society in Qing China, we discussed how the intense poverty of the Chinese countryside as a definitive factor in the rise of revolution in the 20th century. I also see that intense poverty or roots of revolution don't have to be tied to specific economic models or divergent practices, they occur in all types of contexts and under many different kinds of regimes.

    Under the involution model, there was something very specific happening in the Chinese countryside, which had to do with labor intensive agriculture and diminished return on surplus labor input. This model, which observes small peasant households in terms of a small enterprise, makes sense to me, and I'm sure it was true of many Chinese peasant households. We compared this phenomenon to the wealth in Jiangnan during the Tang-song transition, using Van Glahn's study to understand that the prosperity of the urban centers may have trickled down to the rural areas nearby. I guess I would be interested to know if prices for grain went up during this time, giving peasants more consumption power, and if consumption habits (not just sugar) changed noticeably for peasants in the Jiangnan area.

    1. I think your question is important, Sarah. It is striking that both Sommer and Goldman present such radically different pictures of China. I would suppose that we have to account for geographic and class differences to help us understand these differences, though I still find it hard to reconcile the sheer financial hardship that Sommer presents to us as the basis for wife sales with the opera scene presented by Goldman.

      Though we haven't read Pomeranz "The Great Divergence" in class, I would be interested in a couple of questions regarding the involution vs divergence debate.

      First, I wonder what is exactly at stake in the debate itself and why we need to settle on using a single model. Because we have seen radically different Chinas through our studied texts, is it not possible that that different parts of China were operating under different models simultaneously? With such a huge area do we have to settle on a single model?

      My second question is regarding the consumption habits of the elite, especially in their consumption of sugar and tobacco -- two commodities that Pomeranz uses to refute involution. I would like to see a cultural history depicting how these items are used by the elite beyond personal consumption (ritual, etc.) Greater consumption of these luxury goods might not have entailed an increase in the quality of life for many (if not most) Chinese peasants.

  2. Sommer’s work stimulates a lot of different ideas for me, but I’m thinking in particular of your question about intellectual and cultural life in Goldman, Woodside, and others’ work and the disconnect it shows between elite, mostly coastal China and the rural areas Sommer writes about. In his book, it is a little bit unclear to me whether it is really geography or class, or both, that alienates his subjects. If it is both, then is there also elite culture in the regions he talks about? How do they relate (or not) to the poor around them? I really like that Sommer centers the poor in his book and finds agency in methods of survival that usually do not make it into the historical record. However, it is difficult for me to extrapolate his argument toward the “whole of China” without a sense of the scales of poverty and how different classes might have interacted. If these survival mechanisms mostly pertain to poor regions with little or no elite supervision, it seems like a less useful intervention. I am thinking as well about Goldman’s work and these melodramatic theatrics whose storylines do not seem far off, or are even more tame, than some of the crimes in both Sommer’s and Hegel’s works. Though Goldman did include multiple possible readings of various plays and challenged the view of theater as only for elites, I wonder how much we can think of cultural scripts (of the spurned murderous lover, etc) as actually being generated well outside of an elite artistic world. It’s important to me that social historians do not treat the poor as hopeless or lacking intrigue, drama, and pleasure in their lives. Though I think Sommer’s work does an admirable job of challenging stereotypes of the miserable poor, it would be interesting to think further about these crimes, court cases, and even gossip from a folkloric, cultural production perspective and see how they might actually be informing artists in other areas and socio-economic classes within China.

  3. In Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China, Matthew Sommer utilizes local and central judicial texts from the High Qing period to navigate non-normative marriage practices throughout rural communities in the China Proper. While Polyandry and Wife-Selling focuses on discourse related to gender and sexuality, it is a social and legal history that addresses the grander societal implications of these unorthodox practices. Ultimately, these practices were indicative of severe issues embedded in the Qing state such as widespread poverty, the pervasiveness of unhealthy patriarchal marriages, uneven sex ratios, and inability of the state to enforce its ideals.

    Polyandry and Wife-Selling relies on court cases, their evidence, and relevant testimonies. Though Sommer is diligent in addressing the shortcomings of his sources, he nonetheless makes a strong argument for their significance: they are recordings of the personal accounts of poor, rural commoners, an often-voiceless group in the historical record. The sheer number and diversity of these cases reflects how common non-normative practices actually were. Sommer allows the stories to speak for him, as they prove his points that different practices were all in response to the same hardships, were often tolerated among rural communities, and required women’s cooperation at minimum. Polyandry and Wife-Selling contends that the commonness of such practices were indicative of deeper social problems. What the Qing elite saw as depraved was actually prevalent and tolerated in society at large, indicating a weakness of the state.

    Overall, Sommer makes a strong argument, is direct in addressing the potential flaws of his sources, uses concise terminology, and discusses the challenges in using personal stories to conceptualize general trends. However, there are other shortcomings to legal cases worth noting. How honest would those on trial be during their testimonies? How precise and accurate were scribes in their recordings? Given the length, size and population of Qing China, are 1,200 legal cases that do not represent the typical enough to extract generalizations? Polyandry and Wife-Selling raises additional questions worth exploring in future scholarship. Why were rural Chinese populations willing to forgo one Confucian ideal but not others? If the Qing courts had such extensive documentation of non-normative relationships prior to the severe hardships of the nineteenth century, why did the Qing government appear to do less to police them, allowing exceptions on the basis of pragmatism? Nevertheless, Sommer’s work is a notable addition to discourse on gender in China.

  4. Answering Lauren's last question, perhaps it was the lack of state's reach in the rural society that prevented implementation of strict Confucian moral in rural and poor society. In Sommer's work, he did mention that the Qing had a vested interest and strategy to uphold Confucian values, albeit with weaker enforcement when compared to the urban centers. One will have to keep in the mind the enforceability of the state's power, where if the Qing state was already having trouble enforcing proper content and setting for Opera in Beijing as Goldman suggested, we can only imagine what mechanism did the Qing state have in its disposal to correct and instruct the populace, especially when they were only related to the state by laws and taxes.

    One point from Sommer's work that stands out to me is the existence and reliance of alternative social hierarchy that is semi-dependent from the state. The act of drafting a document for an illegal purpose for the sake of enforcement by non-state authority shows the lack of the reach of the state in poor, rural society, and also how the peasants of Qing China created and reacted to different forms of authority in their lives, outside of the state's authority as exemplified by the Mandarin in the yamen. It would be interesting to read documents (if any) on informal dispute adjudication, as that would be more reliable than the transcribed court testimony used in Sommer's book.

  5. Matthew Sommer’s Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China turns to the marginalized women who were left out of Mann’s discussion. By examining polyandry and wife-selling of poor rural family as a way of survival strategy (one by expanding the family and the other by breaking down the family), Sommer complicates the preconception of Qing China’s unitary family structure and rediscovers female agency through illicit marriages. He also blurs the seemingly rigid distinction between marriage and trafficking along with marriage and sex work.

    Sommer’s argument on the multifaceted nature of Qing marriage structure and female agency is groundbreaking. However, Sommer carefully navigates female agency issues and does not exaggerate it. And it seems that in a lot of times the line between agency and (I am very reluctant to use this May-Fourth driven term) victimization is blurred as well.

    As he stated in his conclusion, polyandry and wife-selling were mirrors of elite class's polygamy and dowry. However, peasant women, unlike male literati, did not entirely benefitted from (or savor) this relationship. For instance, having multiple husband led to more household works. More importantly, it is imperative to understand that in a lot of these documents, women still appeared as victims. Such cases reminded me of Frank Dikotter's claim that we need to be careful terming desperate survival strategy as revolt or agency. It raises important questions for us: what are proper ways to investigate agency in desperate decisions to survive, especially when they had been very little option for these marginalized groups of people?


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