cover of book

Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China
by Matthew Sommer
Stanford University Press, 2000
Cloth: 978-0-8047-3695-4 | Paper: 978-0-8047-4559-8 | eISBN: 978-0-8047-6433-9
Library of Congress Classification KNQ4200.S65 2000
Dewey Decimal Classification 306.7/0951

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.

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

“This book will be indispensible reading for China scholars studying late imperial law, traditional gender norms, the social life of the non-elite, and the history of the reach of the state. It is simultaneously a primer on traditional Chiense law and a study of law as 18th-century social engineering.”—Journal of Asian Studies

“This is a valuable book which places the study of sexuality in late imperial China on a much firmer footing than heretofore.”—Eighteenth-Century Studies

“The book is meticulously referential and bibliographic, a foundation and primer for further studies in related areas of law and society.”–Journal of Asian History

    1. Introduction
    2. A vision of sexual order
    3. The evolution of rape law: female chastity and the threat of the outside male
    4. The problem of the penetrated male: Qing sodomy legislation and the fixing of male gender
    5. Widows in the Qing chastity cult
    the nexus of sex and property in law and in women's lives
    6. Sexual behavior as status performance: the regulation of prostitution before 1723
    7. The extension of commoner standards: Yongzheng reforms and the criminalization of prostitution
    8. Conclusion

See other books on: Sex | Sex and law | Sex crimes | Sex customs | Society
See other titles from Stanford University Press