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Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society$

Rubie Watson and Patricia Buckley Ebrey

Print publication date: 1991

Print ISBN-13: 9780520069305

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520069305.001.0001

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Afterword: Marriage and Gender Inequality

Afterword: Marriage and Gender Inequality

Chapter:
(p.347) Afterword: Marriage and Gender Inequality
Source:
Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society
Author(s):

Rubie S. Watson

Publisher:
University of California Press
DOI:10.1525/california/9780520069305.003.0012

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter is concerned specifically with the relation between marriage and gender inequality. While most of the contributors to this book have either touched on, or directly considered, this theme, it attempts to integrate these contributions with earlier work and, in the process, suggest questions for the further study of gender and marriage in Chinese society.

Keywords:   marriage, gender inequality, Chinese society

“Marriage,” Abner Cohen has written, “is everywhere intimately interconnected with social hierarchy” (1974:72). Anthropologists, historians, and sociologists have provided us with studies detailing the role that marriage plays in celebrating, maintaining, and changing caste hierarchies in South Asia (see, e.g., Tambiah 1973; Parry 1979), class structures in Europe (see, e.g., Bourdieu 1972; Duby 1978; Goody 1973, 1976, 1983; Hughes 1978; Chojnacki 1975), and gender inequality in Melanesia (see, e.g., Strathern 1972). Marriage may be an occasion for marking an already existing status hierarchy or confirming a group's elevation within that hierarchy. Marriage is nearly always concerned with the transfer of resources and so is closely bound up with the world of property relations and economic inequalities.

In this Afterword I am concerned specifically with the relation between marriage and gender inequality. Most of the contributors to this volume have either touched on, or directly considered, this theme. Here I attempt to integrate these contributions with earlier work and, in the process, suggest questions for the further study of gender and marriage in Chinese society.

As a number of chapters in this volume show, studies of gender subordination ultimately involve discussions of other forms of inequality. Sherry Ortner has argued elsewhere that in hierarchical societies “certain nongender-based principles of social organization take precedence over gender”; “the logic of hierarchical systems,” she continues, “inherently tends towards (even if it never reaches) gender equality” (1981:396–97). In such societies, men and women of the same status, rank, or class, Ortner argues, are “more similar” to one another than to individuals of their own sex but of different backgrounds. Although Ortner is certainly correct in arguing that women in status-conscious societies like China are never “just women,”1 at (p.348) this point I remain skeptical of any view that deemphasizes the importance of gender in Chinese society. The extent to which gender affects the lives of Chinese women, including their membership in classes and status groups, is far from a settled issue.

At one level the chapters in this volume can be read as commentaries on the complex relation between gender and other forms of inequality. This relationship is particularly well illustrated by the many ironies of the female predicament in China: women may be property holders but have few or no legal rights to property, they may be decision makers without the authority to make decisions, they may have physical mobility but are socially and economically constrained, they may exercise the power of an emperor but have no right to the imperial title.

The chapters on imperial marriage in this volume provide especially dramatic examples of the relationship between rank and status on the one hand and gender on the other. As Holmgren shows, each of China's imperial dynasties was faced with the same dilemma: how could the influence of the emperor's kin be minimized? Agnates could be exiled to the periphery, but the situation with affines and matrilateral kin was often more complicated. A Ming solution involved the strategic use of misalliance. Ming rulers, according to Soullière, “consciously and consistently [selected] marriage partners … from families of no social consequence” thus effectively limiting the influence of consorts and imperial affines (1988:1). Other ruling lines managed things differently. The T'o-pa Wei, like the Ming, opted for consorts of no social importance. But, as Holmgren points out in her chapter, they went further than the Ming when they sought “to separate the wife's biological function of producing an heir from her political role.” Although the T'o-pa, a non-Han dynasty, accepted primogeniture, they rejected the principle of succession by the empress's son. In this way they sought to curtail the power of the emperor's wifely and maternal kin.

The Manchu provide yet another solution. As Rawski shows in this volume, Ch'ing emperors eschewed marital alliances with the Han elite, preferring instead to marry within a restricted circle of non-Han banner forces. Rejecting eldest-son succession, the Ch'ing delayed designation of the heir-apparent until the death of the emperor. Under this arrangement, any of the emperor's consorts, even palace maids, could produce the heir to the throne. “This policy” Rawski writes, “stimulated competition among the emperor's sons, weakened the position of the empress, … and minimized status differences between the wife (empress) and concubines.” It also checked the power of the emperor's matrilateral-affinal kin.

Each of these solutions involved not only a radical reordering of the usual alignment between emperor and consort kin but also a significant change in the relationship between the ruler and the women of his harem.2 The Ch'ing were perhaps the most extreme in this regard. In an important sense Ch'ing (p.349) strategy involved denying, or at least underplaying, a consort's ability to claim rank and status in her own right. The cavalier promotion and demotion of Ch'ing imperial women suggests that they did not carry status in the same sense as men did. The power of Ch'ing consorts and their families was greatly decreased by treating the emperors' sexual partners primarily as women and only secondarily as members of classes, ranked hierarchies, and families.3 They were, in a sense, interchangeable; a palace maid of slave background could produce an heir and might be promoted to empress or empress dowager as easily as could the refined daughter of a high-ranking banner official. The Ch'ing harem was socially fluid; in this world, Rawski writes, “daughters of noble households mingled and competed for the emperor's favor with maids from bondservant families.”

Holmgren's discussion of marriage patterns in Han and non-Han ruling houses, Chaffee's chapter on the Sung imperial clan, and Rawski's on the Ch'ing imperial family reveal the oppositions that exist between a system of royal privilege and a relation of pronounced gender inequality. When an individual is both royal and female, does rank or gender take precedence? As Chaffee remarks in chapter 4: “The tension between gender subordination and political hierarchy was hardly unique to imperial clanswomen, but it was acute for them and thus central to our understanding of their marriage relationships.” Imperial women were, of course, a highly atypical group. But when we turn to the more prosaic terrain of Chinese commoners, a similar pattern of conflicting yet interrelated hierarchies emerges.

In a recent article, Hill Gates argues that late imperial China was constructed around the illusion that “women were more like things than people” (1989:799). “By the economic manipulation of women's work, marriages, and persons,” Gates writes, “women could be made to yield resources convertible into property belonging to men.” Daughters and wives, she contends, were a kind of ballast, albeit a profitable one, that could be jettisoned when the survival of the patricorporation demanded (ibid., 814). As both Gates and Hershatter in this volume argue, Chinese women were indeed polyvalent—being both human and woman, kinfolk and stranger, person and commodity. In the following discussion, some of the forces that contributed to that polyvalence are examined.

Marriage, Gender Inequality, and Patrilocal Residence

Patriliny, patriarchy, and patrilocal residence have both structured and been structured by gender and class in Chinese society. Here I deal specifically with the relation between China's preferred form of postmarital residence and gender; questions of patriliny and patriarchy are discussed in a latter section. In China, most unions have involved the transfer of the bride to her husband's household, which, at least initially, has often been headed by her (p.350) husband's father or a senior agnate. Although not all newly married couples have lived patrilocally, residence with the husband's family has remained both numerically and symbolically significant. This has been especially the case in rural areas where more than 80 percent of the population live and where village exogamy has remained the usual practice.4 Among this population, parents must depend for support on their sons, not their daughters. The children that women raise, the fields they tend, and the elderly they support belong, not to their natal families, but to the families they join as brides. The preference for sons is expressed in many ways. In the past, boys were better educated than girls, and even today rural girls are less likely to receive as much schooling as boys. Sons often were given better food, clothing, and health care. The continuing practice of female infanticide and the markets in women that Hershatter describes for Republican China (see chapter 8) testify to the expendability of daughters.

The majority of Chinese brides enter their husbands' families and communities as strangers. At marriage a young woman must establish her credentials in circumstances that may be far from welcoming. In contrast, most grooms continue to live and work in the environment they have always known. Writing of the plight of the rural daughter-in-law, Judith Stacey succinctly summarizes the conventional wisdom on this point. Patrilocal residence and patrilineal inheritance, she argues, create an environment in which there is a “significant advantage for sons over daughters” (1983:219). Villagers recognize, Stacey continues, that “the skills of local daughters will be lost to [her natal] community when the daughters marry” (ibid., 220). The peasant view of daughters as “excess baggage” has lost, it would appear, little of its relevance in contemporary China.

One of the areas in which the clash between inequalities of gender and rank is particularly pronounced is the postmarital residence of imperial princesses. In chapter 4 Chaffee notes that, unlike the usual commoner practice, early Sung princesses lived, not with their husbands' families, but in the mansions provided for them by virtue of their connection to the emperor. In her original conference paper, Rawski notes that although Ch'ing princesses lived neolocally, the marriage rites themselves were conducted as if residence were patrilocal. That is, on the wedding day the bride was ushered into the groom's house, even though she would not live there and even if her family had provided the couple's actual residence. In the Ch'ing case it would appear that this conflict between rank and gender—between the status of princess and of wife—was symbolically overcome, even if only for the duration of the marriage rites themselves, by placing the imperial bride in her proper role as daughter-in-law within her husband's family.

My own observations of a very different population (Cantonese villagers in rural Hong Kong) suggest that here, too, propriety demands that the bride be established within the husband's household, no matter where the couple (p.351) actually intend to live. In all the marriages I witnessed during fieldwork in 1969–70 and again in 1977–78, the bride ceremoniously entered her father-in-law's house and the “new room” (hsin-fang), which had been ritually treated to ensure the fertility of the new couple. This ritualization of patrilocality, I suggest, sends the message that women belong within the family—first their father's and then their father-in-law's; women, according to this reasoning, must be daughters-in-law before they can be wives. It is also tempting to conclude that underlying such ritualization is the belief that marital fertility can be endowed only within the properly constituted world of family, gender hierarchy, and control by elders.

In recent years patrilocal residence has been singled out as one of the major reasons for women's continuing oppression in postrevolution China (on this point see K. Johnson 1983:111–12, 128; Croll 1984:52–53; Stacey 1983:190, 218–19). In chapter 9 Lavely argues that collectivization, in fact, may have strengthened patrilocality. It had the effect, he writes, of closing communities to incoming males because the addition of an outside male amounted to a gift in perpetuity of a share in the collective property. Such thinking, of course, assumes that men, not women, have shareholding rights in collective property and therefore that incoming women are less threatening than incoming men. In this regard, the collective bears a striking resemblance to agnatic corporations of the pre-1949 period. Under these circumstances, Lavely concludes, it is hardly surprising that government efforts to promote a modern version of uxorilocal marriage have met with failure.

It is also clear that antagonism toward changes in women's property rights in post-1949 China, as outlined by Jonathan K. Ocko in chapter 10, are related in part to the continuing practice of patrilocal residence. In the People's Republic, Ocko argues, marriage continues to invite the disinheritance of women. Families have often been loath to endow a daughter or daughter-in-law with property or skills because of the possibility, near certainty in the case of a daughter, that these resources will be alienated from the family itself.

In China patrilocal residence means that women do not experience the residential, emotional, or economic continuity enjoyed by their brothers and husbands. For women, marriage nearly always implies a change of residence, but what is less well understood is the social mobility that this change may entail. At marriage a young woman may not only move from one family and community to another, she may also raise or lower her living standard. Lavely shows that during much of the postrevolution period women accounted for the bulk of rural population movements. In an effort to control migration and urban growth, the authorities who came to power in 1949 decided to restrict geographical mobility. This policy, in combination with a decline in intravillage inequality resulting from collectivization, led to an increasing convergence of geographic and economic hierarchies. Spatial inequality, Lavely (p.352) writes, was not created by the revolution, but it was made more pronounced by the economic leveling of the post-1949 period. As variations between villages began to overshadow differences within a single community, Lavely notes that the economic lot of families increasingly came to be defined by their location in the spatial hierarchy. Upon marriage women could, however, leave their community of birth, and some (the better-educated, especially) did manage to move up the spatial hierarchy to areas better endowed than their own. Lavely is not specifically concerned with the extent to which women, as a group or as individuals, benefited from their ability to change residence. One suspects that although some women improved their lot by making a good marriage in a prosperous community, the disadvantages of patrilocality (outlined above) continued to affect most rural women. At this point it is too early to tell whether the economic reforms of the 1980s (and the consequent increase in male migration levels) make the relation between social and spatial hierarchies less salient. The extent to which the new economic reforms have provided women, as well as men, with opportunities for migration and economic advancement is an obvious topic for further study. Research into the effects of the reforms should also consider whether the rise in rural to urban migration has affected postmarital residence: are male and female migrants residing neolocally, or do wives tend to remain in rural villages under the watchful eyes of their affines?

Women and Property / Women as Property

Marriage in Chinese society is about the movement of things as well as persons. Betrothal gifts, dowry, and prestations made by wife-givers or wife-takers are all part of the complex calculus of family life in Chinese society. As the essays in this volume show, betrothal gifts and dowry have been basic features of Chinese marriage for many centuries. Women are not, however, coparceners in family or lineage property. How then do we understand China's version of the dowry complex? In Europe, where dowry has been particularly well studied, it has often been seen as a form of premortem inheritance. Jack Goody argues that dowry is associated with systems of “diverging devolution” in which both sons and daughters receive portions of the parental estate (1973, 1976, 1983). For some scholars, dowry is also linked to the strength of the conjugal unit and the status of women.

Although the view that dowry is a form of diverging devolution has been widely accepted, a number of scholars dispute the more specific claim that dowry is essentially a form of inheritance (for a general discussion of this point see, e.g., Harrell and Dickey 1985; Ortner 1981:398; Tambiah 1989). For them, dowry is primarily a defense mechanism that keeps daughters (p.353) from making claims equal to those of their brothers. Stanley Chojnacki, writing about medieval Italy, argues that girls were excluded from a share in the fraterna (or enduring joint inheritance) and were therefore precluded from playing any role in the “paternal family's economic life” (1975:575). Diane Hughes points out that in the medieval Mediterranean world, dowry came to be seen as “a daughter's final claim on the estate” (1978:279) and “rose to prominence as a form of disinheritance within a social group whose organization had become significantly less bilateral” (ibid., 290). For Hughes, the increasing importance of dowry was associated with a strengthened patrilineal principle and a crisis in status created by demographic growth, land shortage, and commercialization (ibid., 287–88).

Many scholars have been concerned not only with questions of dowry and inheritance but also with the extent to which brides control their dowries. Using material from northwestern India, Ursula Sharma (1980) asks if it is the bride, her husband, the husband's family, or the new conjugal unit (the bride and groom together) who receives/controls the dowry. Substantial portions of the dowry, she argues, are given, not to the bride, but to the groom and his family. Sharma contends that the amount (small compared to a brother's inheritance portion), kind (movable as opposed to immovable property), and control an Indian woman exercises over her dowry suggest that premortem inheritance is not the most appropriate label for these “bridal gifts” (on this point see also Madan 1975:237; Parry 1979:239; Vatuk 1975).5 There is justification for arguing that in India some forms of “dowry” would be described more appropriately as “groomprice” (see Caplan 1984). In such cases the cash given to the bridegroom is often the largest expenditure of the entire wedding (see, e.g., Rao 1970:136).

Earlier work on Chinese dowry, together with discussions in this volume, makes it possible to clarify a number of important issues. In chapters 1 and 3 Thatcher and Ebrey show that from early times Chinese brides have received at least some goods at the time of their marriage. My discussion in chapter 7 supports this finding and emphasizes the role that property plays in defining wifely status itself. Can Chinese dowry be considered a form of diverging devolution or premortem inheritance? Following the lead of our South Asianist colleagues, we must also ask whether women could, on their own account, control and manage their dowries.

Well into the twentieth century inheritance in Chinese society involved the equal division of the family estate among brothers. Household division might occur at the death of the household head or at a time agreed upon by the coparceners. A daughter, under limited circumstances, might be used to channel the property of her heirless father to his grandsons (her offspring) through the mechanism of uxorilocal marriage (see Wolf and Huang 1980:61, 98–99, 106; Pasternak 1983; cf. Tambiah 1973:77–85). But, as (p.354) Ocko points out in chapter 10, daughters had no legal right to receive an inheritance that equaled or even resembled their brothers' and, as already noted above, were not recognized shareholders in family property.

Nonetheless, Chinese brides did not begin their married life empty-handed. They may have brought only a few clothes, bedding, and a piece or two of jewelry, but the possession of these goods (whether funded by the groom's parents or the bride's) was, as Ebrey points out in chapter 3, a fundamental part of Chinese marriage exchange. In the visual arts and in oral folklore, marriage was as likely to be represented by the dowry procession as by the sedan chair that bore the bride to her new home.

In chapter 3 Ebrey shows that lavish betrothal gifts supplied by the groom's family were the hallmark of marriage exchanges among the T'ang elite. During Sung times, however, this pattern changed whereby daughters of the elite received substantial dowries from their natal families. The phenomenon of dowry was not new to the Sung, but the amount and source of these transfers constituted a decided departure from earlier practice. According to Ebrey, the Sung pattern signals a change from a system wherein families and patrilines endowed wife-givers with betrothal gifts that were returned as dowry (and so eventually were reabsorbed by the groom's family) to a system of diverging devolution in which members of the elite “began regularly transmitting a portion of their wealth outside the boundaries of their patrilineal descendants.” Large dowries continued to be a part of elite marriage exchange throughout the late imperial period (see, for example, Mann's reference to dowry among the Ch'ing elite, chapter 6).

Discussions in this volume show that although dowry was a characteristic feature of Chinese marriage,6 it never received the formal stamp of approval accorded betrothal gifts. In chapter 1, Thatcher provides a summary of the rites to be performed at betrothal and marriage in the Spring and Autumn period. Significantly, there is no mention of dowry, although Thatcher notes that betrothal gifts “had important symbolic functions.” According to Ebrey, “one was not married ritually without some token transfer of objects from the groom's family to the bride's.” Dowries, whether from the groom's family or the bride's, whether extravagant or paltry, were largely ignored by the state and, if considered at all, were derided in the moral teachings of the Confucian literati as mercenary social climbing (see Ebrey's chapter). “To accord a daughter some measure of dowry upon her marriage,” Ocko writes in chapter 10, “was customary, and failure to do so might cause a family to lose face, but the award remained discretionary rather than mandatory” (see also Freedman 1966:55; McCreery 1976). In Ch'ing law, Ocko writes, “betrothal presents were an integral, appropriate part of marriage”; dowry was accorded no such recognition. This is indeed an interesting problem, and is one to which I shall return in a latter section of this essay.

(p.355) If we accept that daughters had no clearly mandated right to property, that the goods they did receive were mediated through marriage, and further that dowry enjoyed little or no official recognition, it would appear that the relation between Chinese women and dowry differed markedly from that described for Europe. That is, throughout most of Chinese history women received dowry but in effect had no rights of inheritance (cf. Rheubottom 1980). China's particular mix of betrothal gifts and dowry also highlights the differences between European and Chinese patterns.

There is at present little detailed information on marriage exchange among ordinary Chinese prior to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What evidence we do have for this later period suggests, however, that most peasants used betrothal gifts to create dowry and that wife-giving families sometimes kept sizable portions of these gifts for themselves (for a review of this literature see Parish and Whyte 1978:182; K. Johnson 1983:11; Watson 1981, 1984). Class, status, and perhaps region were all factors in determining the amount each side contributed. The possibility, therefore, that many, perhaps most, ordinary Chinese women were endowed by their husbands' families with greater amounts of property than they received from their own natal families supports the view that dowry, at least as it concerns women's property rights and kinship affiliations, was constituted differently in China and in Europe.

Comparisons to India are also instructive. Patriliny, patrilocal residence, and male bias in property transmission are also present in India, but, unlike China, female property rights in Indian society appear to be better developed not only in customary law and practice but also at the ideological level. China has dowry, but it does not exhibit the cultural valuation of dowry so powerfully expressed in Indian society (see for discussion Tambiah 1973: 59–100; 1989).

Although marriage rites in China give no clue as to the source of the dowry, knowing exactly who provided which elements is important for understanding how women relate not only to property but also to their natal families and those of their husbands. Whether the bride's or groom's family contributed the bulk of the dowry also has implications for affinity. As Lavely suggests in this volume, large betrothal gifts and even larger dowries are likely, according to his Szechwan data, to involve “real affinal relations” and marriages in which the bride and groom reside in nearby communities. Ebrey argues forcefully that part of the appeal of dowry among the Sung elite related to its use in attracting the “best sort” of affines (see chapter 3). In the Chinese context a woman who entered her husband's family with goods provided nearly exclusively from the groom's betrothal gifts may have experienced, at least initially, a different relationship to and standing in her husband's family than those who received lavish gifts from their parents. (p.356) One also suspects that in such circumstances a woman's father, for example, might find himself in a less-than-secure position from which to make claims on his son-in-law and future descendants.

Compared with the situation Sharma describes for northwestern India, Chinese women seem to have had appreciably more influence over the goods they received at marriage. This control was never complete, however, and from Ming times at least, appears to have varied over the course of a woman's life. Writing about the Sung period, Ebrey argues that women had an important role in managing the land, which often formed a portion of the dowries of the elite (1981). Sung women, it should be noted, could take their dowries with them when a marriage ended (see chapter 3). In Ming and Ch'ing times, however, a widow who remarried or a divorced woman lost both her dowry and her children to her husband's family (see chapters 3 and 10; see also Holmgren 1985; Mann 1987). One wonders whether the idea of dowry was itself undergoing change during this period. Was dowry becoming a transfer of wealth from the wife-givers and wife-takers to the next generation of grandchildren rather than a direct endowment of the bride herself, as it presumably had been in the Sung? Considerable evidence suggests that during the late imperial period the daughters of the elite might more appropriately be considered the trustees rather than the masters of their dowries.

As we move from a focus on the elite to a discussion of ordinary, rural women in the twentieth century, we find both differences and continuities. One major difference was the makeup of the dowry itself; village women rarely received land as part of their endowment (for discussion of this point see Watson 1984). In chapter 10 Ocko refers to a category of women's property, which he translates as “separate property” (ssu-fang ch'ien, literally “private room money” or “private fund”). Ssu-fang ch'ien is married women's property and, according to Ocko, includes the trousseau (or jewelry and household goods brought by the bride at the time of the marriage), gifts she received before marriage (presumably from relatives and friends, not members of the immediate family), and income earned from her own labor. “‘Separate property’” he states, “does not appear to have included land.” Myron Cohen argues that the possession of ssu-fang ch'ien “differentiate[s] [the bride] as an independent property-holder with her own rights of disposal,” which are not fully shared with her husband (1976:178; see also Gallin and Gallin 1982; R. Gallin 1984; Stockard 1989:21; Watson 1984; M. Wolf 1975:135). The size of this fund is a closely guarded secret, and even a father-in-law must pay interest if he is forced to borrow from his daughter-in-law.

But women do not remain in permanent control of their private fund, according to Cohen (cf. Tambiah 1989). Like the wives of the literati, their hold over dowry is tenuous. Cohen argues that ssu-fang ch'ien is really fang (branch) property in temporary disguise, by which he means that wives are the only members of joint families who can hold individual property. They (p.357) retain this “private fund” until the joint family divides, at which time the private fund is merged with the new household's general fund. Margery Wolf has taken issue with this last point, arguing that a woman's private fund is not fang property at all, but the property of the uterine family (that is, a woman and her children, especially her sons) (1975:135). Wolf's argument suggests that ssu-fang ch'ien is not tied to the joint family or to a stage in a woman's life course or a family's domestic cycle but is, in fact, a form of women's property that wives reserve for their own use and that of their children. According to Ocko, the 1930 Civil Code, which in limited respects improved women's inheritance rights, stipulated that a woman could own property but that the right to manage these resources belonged to the husband alone. Ssu-fang ch'ien, it should be noted, was excepted from the husband's management (see chapter 10).

At this point a number of questions remain unanswered. Does a woman maintain her private fund only as long as she and her husband are part of the joint family? At the time of household division does she retain a portion of the fund for her own use, does she build a new fund, or does she forfeit her right to maintain private property? There is no doubt that the greater availability of wage labor for women and the increasingly commercialized environment of the late imperial period had an effect on ssu-fang ch'ien, but at this point we do not know if private funds are a recent innovation or have long historical roots. Ebrey refers to a category of property in Sung times called “wife's assets” (ch'i ts'ai; presumably these assets originated as dowry) that was not merged with the common household fund but was often managed by husbands (1984:117). The essence of ssu-fang ch'ien was that it not only belonged to women but was also managed by them. Whether the “private funds” of nineteenth- and twentieth-century village women were an outgrowth of “wife's assets” is at this point unclear. Did the form and/or source of a woman's property determine the control she exercised over it? Further investigations of this question need to be made. Should dowry and ssu-fang ch'ien be considered distinct categories of women's property? Should we distinguish the jewelry, clothes, and furniture (i.e., personal effects or trousseau) given to a woman from the land, shops, and businesses she receives, and should all of this in turn be separated from the cash the bride acquires from marriage gifts and her own personal earnings? It is also worth considering whether goods originating from the bride's family were treated differently from contributions made by the groom's family or by friends and more distant kin.

Since the marriage law of 1950 there have been significant legal changes in women's property rights. Legally and increasingly in reality, Ocko writes, “Chinese women need no longer relate to property through marriage.” In practice, however, Ocko's discussion shows that there has been less than full compliance with either the spirit or letter of these laws. In chapter 10 he details the changing context of marriage from Ch'ing times to the reforms of (p.358) the 1980s, arguing that marriage in China was primarily a form of family property well into the twentieth century. That is, marriage was a relation between families and was established for purposes of continuing the family line both as a biological and a socioeconomic entity. In such a system, Ocko argues, there is an important sense in which the “marriage, and the bride, ‘belonged to’ the groom's family.” The concept of marriage as personal property first appeared in Chinese law when a 1907 revision of the Ch'ing code took away the right of the husband's family to control the daughter-in-law. The 1930 code enlarged the idea of marriage as personal property by stipulating freedom of marriage and facilitating divorce, although, as Ocko contends in chapter 10, “the husband retained a greater property right in [the marriage] than the wife.”

In the Communist base areas of the 1930s and 1940s marriage was treated as personal property both in the sense that it belonged to the husband and wife and in the sense of entitlement. In order to gain recruits to their cause, the Communist guerrillas promised their male followers wives. This pledge of entitlement, Ocko argues, clashed with their promises to empower women. He documents the shift toward a new form of marriage as social property during the post-1949 era in which the state claimed a significant stake in marital unions.7 This analysis is particularly useful because it exposes an important mechanism of gender subordination in the Maoist period. When issues of production, Socialist morality, government policies, or family concerns conflicted with women's rights, it was nearly always women who lost out. The tensions between marriage as social property and marriage as personal property and the clash between men's entitlement and women's empowerment are central to any analysis of gender inequality in the post-1949 period. These opposing principles are at the core of what Judith Stacey (1983) refers to as the substitution of one form of patriarchy for another during the Republican-Socialist transition of the mid-twentieth century.

The concept of marriage as a kind of property that belongs to families is also useful for understanding the process that turns women into something that husbands and households possess. Hershatter's chapter on Shanghai prostitutes forces us to recognize that in China women could be objects as well as subjects. Marriage, she points out, was not the only destiny for a Chinese woman. In early twentieth-century Shanghai, prostitutes outnumbered the largest category of female factory workers (i.e., cotton spinners); and in the late 1940s Hershatter estimates that one out of every forty-two Shanghai residents was directly involved in prostitution. Girls and women were sold into prostitution, concubinage, and slavery; they were pawned and indentured by their parents and sometimes even by their husbands (see for discussion chapters 7, 8, and 10). For some, servile status was not a permanent condition; as Hershatter notes there is evidence that Shanghai prostitutes occasionally married. It is also clear, however, that many women, once (p.359) they were forced out of the family and into the marketplace, never regained the status of family member (on this point see also chapter 7).

China's market in girls and women must be seen in the context of a society that continued to treat women as less than the social equals of men. As Ebrey notes in her introduction to this volume, “throughout [Chinese] society, from the imperial court to the peasant household, men outranked women.” If all women did indeed fall below the standards set by men and if men could be fathers as well as officials, literati, landlords, woodcarvers, and so forth, were women in some sense “just women”? Is it possible to distinguish wives from the concubines and maids with whom they shared their households and sometimes their husbands, or should wives be seen as part of the Chinese market in people? Did marriage stand at one end of a continuum that included indenture, pawning, and slavery?

Discussions in this volume make it clear that the Chinese themselves attached great importance to separating marriage from commercial transactions. The condemnation of any kind of marriage exchange that smacked of trafficking in women was a recurring theme. Ebrey quotes a Confucian scholar who, in the seventh century, wrote: “Discussing wealth in arranging a marriage is the way of the barbarians,” and in Sung times, too, there were those who railed against the evils of mercenary marriages. The Ch'ing code, Ocko points out, paid considerable attention to distinguishing betrothal gifts from the rental, pawning, or sale of women. According to Ocko, the “test of the legitimacy of an exchange was motive: family formation passed it; profit making did not.”

Although it is tempting to argue that this was predominately a literati issue, ethnographic evidence suggests otherwise. As I note in chapter 7, the Cantonese village women I interviewed were always careful to stress that they had come to their husbands with property, no matter how insignificant. The pride they took in their small dowries and in the red sedan chairs that transported them as brides to their husbands' households can be read, I suggest, as an attempt to distinguish themselves and their marriages from the transactions that made women into concubines and prostitutes. Village women may not have expressed themselves in the language of the elite, but their message was clear: Wives are married, not bought.

If, as the discussions in this volume suggest, property was central to the status of wife, the importance that women attached to their dowries is hardly surprising. The size of the dowry not only enhanced or diminished familial status but also in an important sense defined the woman as commodity or wife. As Mann points out in chapter 6, dowry “meant that the bride was not being sold.”

In her chapter, Mann provides insights into the elite's preoccupation with separating marriage from commerce, in addition to exploring the whole issue of feminine honor in the androcentric world of Ch'ing China. The use of (p.360) women to represent cultural values and tensions is a common phenomenon in many societies (see, e.g., Bloch 1982; Campbell 1964; Gold 1985; Papanek 1979; Peristiany 1966). Until recently, however, little attention has been paid to this aspect of gender inequality in Chinese society. In Ch'ing China and earlier, women's deportment and the marital union itself offered a language and set of symbols for talking about proper social relations. As Mann points out, according to the tenets of the Han Learning movement, the husband-wife relationship is at the core of all social relations in that it represents the very essence of hierarchical complementarity. Mann's chapter suggests to me that wifely deference and submission served as a model of what might be labeled “properly constituted inequality” in Chinese society. Mann has provided us with an intriguing analysis of the ways in which women, their bodies and behavior, became a metaphor, perhaps in the Chinese case a surrogate, for control over the social order itself. In this analysis one is reminded of Verena Stolcke's statement that “the subordination of women is one of the prerequisites for the maintenance of social relations of domination” (1981:34).

Mann's analysis links ideology to political economy by placing literati discourse in the context of an increasing level of commercialization and the emergence of a nouveaux riches who were challenging the economic and moral superiority of the traditional elite. “In fixing the place of wives in the domestic sphere,” she writes, “[the literati] sought to fix the fluidity of social change that threatened to erode the boundaries defining their own respectability.” It is indeed interesting to compare Mann's discussion of literati glorifications of refined femininity to Jaschok's descriptions of the households of Hong Kong's commercial elite where concubines, unencumbered by such refinements, could usurp the rightful role of wife and daughter-in-law. Here in this intensely commercialized and competitive environment, the literati nightmare of a “world turned upside down” seemed a reality. Colonial Hong Kong, Jaschok points out, did not provide the kind of moral community within which tradition-bound sanctioning agents could be effective (1988: 62). It was not only Hong Kong's nouveaux riches, we should note, who posed a threat to “properly constituted inequality”; the Manchu court itself provided the unsettling spectacle of bondservants who could become empresses and highborn ladies who could be brushed aside and ignored. The increasing vulnerability of the cherished hierarchies of the past no doubt was a major factor in converting many literati men into avid champions of a highly restrictive code of women's honor.

Changing Relations: Patriliny, Marriage, and Gender

This volume and an earlier work on Chinese agnatic groups (Ebrey and Watson 1986) offer complementary discussions of how the post-T'ang movement away from an inherited system of status to a more open society affected (p.361) kinship, family, and gender. The available evidence suggests that Chinese lineage building was in part a response to the less certain environment of the late imperial era (see, e.g., Twitchett 1959; Beattie 1979; Ebrey and Watson 1986). Lineages with their corporate property and written genealogies were, according to Twitchett, “to a very great extent the product of Sung times” (1959:97–98; see also Ebrey 1986b; D. Johnson 1983). Patrilineal descent groups were useful, Twitchett maintains, in building secure local institutions and served to consolidate the position of the literati elite who no longer could rely on hereditary privileges. In her introduction to this volume, Ebrey argues that lineage development was not the only response to China's changing political economy. The elaborate dowries of the Sung and post-Sung period can also be linked to the requirements of this new era. According to Ebrey, commercialization and the emergence of an elite that depended on wealth rather than inherited status were key factors in the development of the Chinese dowry complex.

Dowries were adopted by the elite, Ebrey argues, because they “made better bait than betrothal gifts.” According to this reasoning, dowry, which consisted of property transferred outside the patriline, strengthened affinal ties and created the potential for more flexible family strategies. In the highly structured world of patrilineal descent and partible inheritance among brothers, a lavishly endowed bride might elevate one brother over another. In fact, it may be precisely this potential for fraternal inequality that accounts for the distaste that many neo-Confucian thinkers expressed for large dowries and ties through women.

At first glance lineages and dowry appear to have little to do with each other. But Ebrey shows in chapter 3 that these seemingly unrelated elements are in fact directly linked. As noted above, both lineage and dowry complexes were responses, albeit initially independent ones, to the same set of economic and political circumstances. They were also connected in another, perhaps more fundamental, sense. According to Ebrey, the strengthening of patrilineal principles had the effect of arresting the shift toward diverging devolution. The neo-Confucians' “call for a ‘revival of the descent line system’ (tsung),” she writes, “was motivated in part by their objection to the strength of affinal relations and their fears concerning the breakup of patrimonies.” Tension between the need to build lineages and so strengthen local agnatic ties on the one hand and the need to provide dowries and so expand networks and claim status on the other characterized the post-T'ang period.8 These tensions had obvious implications for the subordination of women. As Gates argues, the increasing commoditization of land, labor, and capital during the Sung “threatened the bureaucratizing state [and] the wealth-based ruling class that still depended heavily on unfree labor and household patriarchs” (1989:824).

There is increasing evidence that a number of factors, including the particular constellation of late imperial China's patrilineal/patriarchal regime, (p.362) constituted an effective challenge not only to women's property claims but also to the expansion of women's rights in general. During this period lineage rules requiring the adoption of male heirs rather than succession by daughters and regulations reinforcing the negative image of uxorilocal marriage were common (see, e.g., Liu 1959:72–77). Legal restrictions on the property rights of widows (see chapters by Ebrey and Ocko) and Ch'ing statutes that made it difficult for women to prove rape (Ng 1987) testify to a hardening of attitudes. Hershatter's discussion of expanding markets in women during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Ming-Ch'ing discourse on women's honor, and an increasing preoccupation with widow chastity coupled with outbreaks of widow suicide (see Mann's chapter; Elvin 1984; Holmgren 1985; Mann 1987; T'ien 1988) support the view that in many respects women as women did not fare well in late imperial China.9

Although there were certainly improvements in women's economic opportunities and in their legal rights during the twentieth century, members of agnatic groups, buttressed by a patrilineal dogma, continued to act against any principle that would grant real property rights to daughters. Even after forty years of collectivization and economic reform, such interests remain strong (see, e.g., Honig and Hershatter 1988; K. Johnson 1983; Parish and Whyte 1978:195–96; Stacey 1983). In chapter 10, Ocko describes a case from the 1970s in which an agnatic group fought (including the use of violence) against the rights of a uxorilocally married daughter who claimed her father's property after his death. There was still, it should be noted, no recognition of women's inheritance rights among Hong Kong villagers during the 1970s.

Agnation, affinity, lineage building, and lavish dowries may all have played a role in safeguarding the position of the elite and in providing avenues of mobility for those who wished to improve their lot. But, as Ebrey points out in the Introduction, the state apparatus and the official ideology of neo-Confucianism reserved its greatest support for only one of these principles: Patrilineal descent was promoted to the near exclusion of other ties, and this of course had a profound consequence not only on women's property rights but also on their ability to perform as the social equals of their brothers and husbands.

Why, given China's pronounced gender inequality, was property in the form of dowry transferred to women at all? Ortner argues that dowry as a form of property transfer tends to be found in those hierarchical societies where there is a recognition of women's membership in class and status groups but where internally stratified kin groups are patrilineal and exogamous (1981:396–98). She points to China and India as examples of such societies.10 Ortner emphasizes the link between different women's property regimes and kinship forms; in this volume the approach has been less structural and more historical (see particularly Ebrey's chapter). In the case (p.363) of China there is, I argue, a tension between the various positions that women hold as representatives of a subordinated gender and as members of class and status groups. This tension appears to have become particularly prominent in the post-T'ang era and has persisted into the twentieth century. The dowry complex that Ebrey describes in this volume developed in the context of a society where women were both bearers and markers of status; in other words, Chinese women were both persons and signs. In China the forces of patriarchy/patriliny, of commercialization, of state power, and of bureaucratization created a system within which gender subordination neither overcame nor was overcome by class or rank. Chinese women were, to be sure, united with men into important common interest groups, but they were also women, and their lives were powerfully affected by that fact.

Although China's economy and polity have undergone enormous changes, gender subordination continues to condition to a significant degree people's experience and life opportunities. This should not lead us, however, to the view that gender inequality is a sui generis structure or that women's subordination is derived from an unchanging kinship order, as some scholars have suggested (see, e.g., K. Johnson 1983:25). Gender subordination in China is fundamentally a historical problem. Throughout this volume the stress has fallen, not on the independence of gender subordination, but on the way that subordination interacts with other forms of inequality.

In a recent review article, Sacks argues for a construction of class that is both “gendered” and attentive to racial/ethnic diversity (1989). She calls for an analytical framework that would “comprehend class, race, and gender oppression as parts of a unitary system” (ibid., 545). Sacks's discussion focuses on American society, but many of the questions she poses are applicable to China, especially to the China of the late imperial period. We have yet to achieve an analytical approach that “genders” inequality in Chinese society. What is clear at this point is that our analyses of domination and stratification must take gender more into account and, further, that these discussions must be informed by historical analysis.

A great deal of research remains to be done on changing patterns of gender inequality in China. We have yet to fully understand how commercialization and the status insecurities of the late imperial period affected attitudes toward women. To what extent and in what sense did Ming-Ch'ing society become less accommodating to women? Just as the T'ang-Sung transition involved changes in gender and kin relations, so too did the Republican-Socialist transition of the twentieth century produce more than a repackaging of preexisiting arrangements. The radical agenda of the Maoists undoubtedly had a profound effect on family and gender relations. To argue that China's social engineers have fallen short of the stated goals of gender equality is not to suggest that no changes have occurred. Recent developments (p.364) in the wake of economic reforms point toward further changes, but their significance remains unclear. The next generation of anthropologists and historians must confront these questions. For the present we can only speculate that China is yet again entering a period of transition in the domain of kinship, family organization, and women's roles in society.

Notes

(1.) In her discussion, Ortner argues that in hierarchical societies (she is concerned specifically with Polynesia) women are never defined primarily by gender and age. Although she is essentially concerned with the shared interests that units like caste and ranked lineages create and the entitlements that membership in these groups make possible for women, Ortner by no means denies the presence of male bias in the societies she analyzes (1981:396–97).

(2.) See the chapters in this volume by Holmgren, Rawski, and Thatcher for discussions of the significance of the rule of succession in consort selection, in the role of consort kin, and in the influence of consorts themselves.

(3.) There was indeed a hierarchy among Ch'ing consorts, but Rawski argues that it was not rigid: “The ritual acknowledgment of the empress as the head of the harem preserved the illusion of order in a situation that was in reality extremely fluid and dependent on the whims of the ruler.”

(4.) There are exceptions, however, to this pattern (see, e.g., Chan, Madsen, and Unger 1984:189–91). It also seems likely that the single-child family policy will eventually lead to a decrease in the rate of patrilocal residence among newly married couples.

(5.) In a recent restatement of his views on women and dowry in northern India, Tambiah writes: “I have indicated the need to revise Goody's and my inaccurate formulation in Bridewealth and Dowry of dowry as a woman's premortem inheritance which upon her marriage joins her husband's assets to form a conjugal fund” (1989:425). He goes on to argue that the goods that accompany the bride can be divided into three parts: “one part … that the bride may keep as her personal property, the second part, the most substantial, being controlled by the groom's joint family … and susceptible to use as ‘circulating goods’ in the marriage of its daughters, and the third part meant as gifts to the women of the groom's joint family and his married sisters and father's sisters” (1989:425–26). Tambiah concludes that the essential theses of Bridewealth and Dowry (i.e., “that in propertied India there is usually a diverging devolution or double transmission of property to and through both males and females and that this transmission emphasizes vertical bonds between parents and children at the cost of lateral lineage bonds”) are sustained.

(6.) Here I refer to dowry in its broadest sense, including goods given to the bride but purchased or supplied out of the groom's betrothal gifts.

(7.) The family, of course, retained a substantial interest in marriage of the young in the post-1949 era; for discussion of this see, e.g., Croll 1981:142–43, 151–52.

(8.) See for discussion Hartwell 1982 and Hymes 1986.

(9.) Ebrey suggests that, legally, the status of concubines may have improved during the Ch'ing dynasty. By or during the Ch'ing, Ebrey notes, a concubine acquired (p.365) the right to become a wife under certain circumstances, the prohibition against forcing widows to remarry was extended to concubines, and their names could now be listed on ancestral tablets. According to Ebrey, changes in attitudes toward social ranking and in servitude arrangements, along with new employment opportunities for women, may have contributed to a rise in the status of concubines. Ebrey also makes the interesting and ironic point that as the relative status of concubines improved, the status of wives may well have declined (1986a: 19–20). It is important to remember that Ebrey refers only to the formal (legal) status of concubines.

(10.) In contrast, Ortner associates women's inheritance rights with cognatic kinship systems (1981:398).

Glossary

  • ch'i ts'ai

  • hsin-fang

  • ssu-fang ch'ien

  • tsung

References

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Notes:

(1.) In her discussion, Ortner argues that in hierarchical societies (she is concerned specifically with Polynesia) women are never defined primarily by gender and age. Although she is essentially concerned with the shared interests that units like caste and ranked lineages create and the entitlements that membership in these groups make possible for women, Ortner by no means denies the presence of male bias in the societies she analyzes (1981:396–97).

(2.) See the chapters in this volume by Holmgren, Rawski, and Thatcher for discussions of the significance of the rule of succession in consort selection, in the role of consort kin, and in the influence of consorts themselves.

(3.) There was indeed a hierarchy among Ch'ing consorts, but Rawski argues that it was not rigid: “The ritual acknowledgment of the empress as the head of the harem preserved the illusion of order in a situation that was in reality extremely fluid and dependent on the whims of the ruler.”

(4.) There are exceptions, however, to this pattern (see, e.g., Chan, Madsen, and Unger 1984:189–91). It also seems likely that the single-child family policy will eventually lead to a decrease in the rate of patrilocal residence among newly married couples.

(5.) In a recent restatement of his views on women and dowry in northern India, Tambiah writes: “I have indicated the need to revise Goody's and my inaccurate formulation in Bridewealth and Dowry of dowry as a woman's premortem inheritance which upon her marriage joins her husband's assets to form a conjugal fund” (1989:425). He goes on to argue that the goods that accompany the bride can be divided into three parts: “one part … that the bride may keep as her personal property, the second part, the most substantial, being controlled by the groom's joint family … and susceptible to use as ‘circulating goods’ in the marriage of its daughters, and the third part meant as gifts to the women of the groom's joint family and his married sisters and father's sisters” (1989:425–26). Tambiah concludes that the essential theses of Bridewealth and Dowry (i.e., “that in propertied India there is usually a diverging devolution or double transmission of property to and through both males and females and that this transmission emphasizes vertical bonds between parents and children at the cost of lateral lineage bonds”) are sustained.

(6.) Here I refer to dowry in its broadest sense, including goods given to the bride but purchased or supplied out of the groom's betrothal gifts.

(7.) The family, of course, retained a substantial interest in marriage of the young in the post-1949 era; for discussion of this see, e.g., Croll 1981:142–43, 151–52.

(8.) See for discussion Hartwell 1982 and Hymes 1986.

(9.) Ebrey suggests that, legally, the status of concubines may have improved during the Ch'ing dynasty. By or during the Ch'ing, Ebrey notes, a concubine acquired (p.365) the right to become a wife under certain circumstances, the prohibition against forcing widows to remarry was extended to concubines, and their names could now be listed on ancestral tablets. According to Ebrey, changes in attitudes toward social ranking and in servitude arrangements, along with new employment opportunities for women, may have contributed to a rise in the status of concubines. Ebrey also makes the interesting and ironic point that as the relative status of concubines improved, the status of wives may well have declined (1986a: 19–20). It is important to remember that Ebrey refers only to the formal (legal) status of concubines.

(10.) In contrast, Ortner associates women's inheritance rights with cognatic kinship systems (1981:398).