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Law and the cult of chastity

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#1 Mynheer Peeperkorn

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Posted 01 June 2008 - 05:46 AM

I posted this on another forum, but I thought some people here might also find it interesting. Hope you will enjoy it.

I probably should first start out by explaining what exactly is the Cult of Chastity. The cult of chastity started long before the Qing dynasty, but it was during this period that it fully developed. The cult of chastity was a way for the Qing government to honor and recognize Chaste widows and martyrs. To become a member of this special group of people a widow could never remarry or have illicit relations and a martyr must die protecting her chastity against the threat of rape. If the rapist succeeds in penetrating her then she would no longer be considered chaste and no longer be eligable to become a chaste martyr. Those 'fortunate' enough to qualify had memorial arches erected in their honor.

You may be asking yourself now, why the heck would the Qing government promote something like this and why did the people go along with it? Well, it basically comes down to Neo-Confucianism, the brand of Confucianism that was being promoted during the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Emperors were Manchus, and many Chinese literati blamed the Wang Yangming school of Confucianism for the downfall of the Ming. Therefore, it was very smart for the Qing to portray themselves as the restorers of Song Neo-Confucianism as a legitimizing factor.

Moreover, one of the new, main elements of Neo-Confucianism was its attitude towards women and chastity. There is a famous Neo-Confucian saying that states that it is a small matter to starve to death, but a serious matter to lose one’s virtue.. Therefore, the Qing dynasty had quite the incentive for continuing the promotion of the cult of chastity and later on, expanding it even further. In the Yongzheng era they expanded it even further by including commoners and peasants, not just the elites, as people eligable for such honors. It was also this period that saw the huge proliferation of memorial arches to chaste widows and martyrs.

You might be saying to yourself, well that explains why the Qing didn't and somewhat why the people accepted it, but not really. Well, the Qing dynasty did something very smart; they used the law as a tool for social engineering, to force people to accept the ideas of the cult of chastity, or at least use the language and ideas of chastity to their own benefit while in court.

For example, the Qing 1646 legal code made it really hard for women to prove that they were raped. They either needed witnesses to the crime or severe physical injury, the most convincing injury being her death. Moreover, if they struggled at first, but then later gave up to the futility of it, then that would not be considered rape, since the Qing thought that the woman then tacitly approved of it. As you can see, the burden was entirely on the woman to prove that she was raped. Why would the Qing do this? Well, to promote the values of chastity. This sort of law pretty much forces a woman to violently resist rape, which could result in her death, or commit suicide so that she does not bring shame on herself or her family.

Moreover, if a woman had illicit sex before the rape, then that rape would no longer be considered rape, it would be considered illicit sex outside marriage, which was also a crime, since the woman already lost her chastity. Therefore, these trials became a place where the woman's chastity was judged since the accused rapist would obviously try to convince the judge that the woman was unchaste. So basically, her chastity and how chaste her reaction was towards the rape determined the rapists penalty.

Besides the law screwing women, it also gave special rights to women who displayed chaste behavior. For example, widows who did not remarry had the right to retain and control her late husbands property and her own dowry. No other woman had this right, but this right was again based on whether she was chaste or not. If she remarried or had illicit sex then she would lose her rights to the property, her dowry and her children, which would then revert back to her in-laws (The children belonged to the male-line so that his line would continue, Confucian belief). Not surprisingly, many in-laws tried to take away the widow's property by calling her unchaste and accusing her of having illicit, sexual relations, most commonly with the farm hands she had to hirer to work her land. As you can see, chastity defined her legal status.

That chastity and legal status relationship also protected her from such actions as wife-selling, forcing her into prostitution, forcing her to remarry, etc, since those actions taken by her husband or in-laws violates her chastity, and the offenders would receive a severe punishment, but again the woman's chastity and how chaste her reaction was determined the offenders punishment, the most severe being death.

You still might be asking yourself, why would the people accept this? If so, you have to understand that the only way to become an elite or literati in the Chinese Imperial system was to pass the rigorous civil-service examinations, and what did the civil-service examinations test you on? Yes, Neo-Confucianism, and in order to pass the examination you pretty much needed to study your entire life since you were a small boy. Therefore, these were the values that this society accepted and recognized. Moreover, having a chaste widow or martyr in a literati family was a huge source of social capital and prestige since they could then claim that their family perfectly lives up to society's ideal views and norms. So, besides societal pressure, there was, i would imagine, a ton of pressure from your family to be chaste as well.

Obviously, not everyone lived up to these ideals, and quite literally, many people could simply not afford to do so. It was against the law for a woman to remarry during her husbands mourning period, which was three years, but how could a poor peasant woman survive that long without her husband? She couldn't, and luckily many judges accepted this reality because they did not punish poor women who remarried right away out of necessity. It is interesting to not though that the women who did remarry always said in their marriage contracts that they did not want to remarry, but had no choice due to poverty and did not want children to starve. Moreover, they pledge that their children would keep their father's last name to continue his line. As you can see, even as they are violating the law and the ideals of the cult of chastity, they are trying their best to conform to those ideals as well.

Well, i think it is getting rather long, perhaps too long, so i think i will stop here. If you are interested, and want me to continue, I will though.

#2 kaiselin


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Posted 01 June 2008 - 08:34 AM

Please continue.

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#3 Mynheer Peeperkorn

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Posted 01 June 2008 - 11:52 AM

This part will be a bit more disjointed than the last one. Well, continuing from where I left off, besides remarriage, acts such as wife selling, child bride, etc. were also tolerated if the reason was that the people where just too poor. Interestingly, I wrote up a post on polyandry during the Qing (you can read it here, http://www.chinahist...p;hl=polyandry) and while i mentioned that the practice was accepted locally, it was definitely not the case when the practice was brought to the attention of the government officials. I guess that survival strategy strayed too far from the accepted ideology.

Like I said previously, it seems that while the commoners might not have completely internalized the ideals of the cult of chastity, they did try to invoke official standards for their own purposes while in trial. The result, it seems, was a process of mutual reinforcement since not only the law was trying to uphold the values of the chastity cult, but the people, and most importantly the poor, were also legitimizing by trying to use it for their own purposes. This essentially meant that legitimate gender and sexual relations where regulated on the most intimate level, and the authority of fathers, husbands, and chaste widows began to by concretely linked with state legitimacy, authority, and power.

People involved the authorities and invoked official standards for their own purposes. Result was a process of mutual reinforcement. Legitimate gender and sexual relations were regulated on the most intimate level. Poor invoked official discourse. Authority of fathers, husbands, and chaste widows made a concrete linkage with state legitimacy, authority, and power. As I said, people invoked official standards for their own purposes, so this also means that women had agency, albeit on very limited terms, the terms that the law provided.

Somewhat related to the topic of wife selling and forcing women into prostitution is divorce. Divorce was not a viable option for many abused wives. She could only legally divorce her husband if he deserted her for 3 years, forced her into adultery, sold her, or severely beat her. There was another problem though, women could not legally file for a divorce on their own, or file a legal suit in general so they had to get a male to do it for them. Also, the fact that many of these practices were tolerated if the husband sold his wife out of poverty. The woman's best option was to run away to her natal family, since the man had no legal recourse to get her back. Although husbands did file false charges saying that she was captured in order to get their wife back. This option obviously required the support of the wife's parents. Another option was to simply run away, but this was illegal, and the woman would receive a punishment if she got caught. The husband also had the right to sell his runaway wife if he desired.

Ill say a bit more on women's chastity in this section. The chastity of a wife was more important in the eyes of the law than an unmarried woman's chastity. The reason for that being is that not only did the wife commit an unchaste act, she was also disloyal to her husband. As a result her penalty was increased one degree. Lewd remarks and filthy abuse by men towards women could also lead to severe punishment because if the woman committed suicide because of it then the man would receive the death penalty.

It is also interesting to note that the very time when the Qing government began to rigorously promote the values of the cult of chastity was when China started to become socially unstable (after 1800). During this time, many men did not have the option of marriage. For one, there were more men than women, and the fact that literati and rich merchants took on numerous concubines. This left many poor men with no women to marry. Moreover, it was also during this time that china was feeling an agricultural land crunch where there was simply not enough land for everyone to work and survive. Not surprisingly, the one's who didn't end up getting land were the poor men who had no marriage prospects.

It was this group of people, derogatorly called 'bare-sticks' that were believed to cause numerous social problems, such as theft, rape, and rebellion. And based on the rape cases, it seems that the people's perception was perhaps true. Therefore, the Qing governments very vehemence of female chastity reflects an alarm in the breakdown of morals responding to new social realities. I guess then the Qing could have either been trying to change society's values through the greater promotion of chaste values or merely trying to show the elites that they still supported those values, and so you should still support us, basically a legitimizing tactic. It is interestingly that this time also saw numerous judges willing to accept unchaste behavior by the poor if the reason for doing so was poverty. this seems to indicate that these judges realized the Qing's government limitations concerning its capability, power and influence when it came to promoting ideas and values, i.e. chastity.

I don't know what else to add to that, but if anyone has any questions i will try to answer them.

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