From the perspective of survival strategies among the rural poor, the normative distinctions between marriage and the traffic in women—and between marriage and sex work—cannot be sustained. Trafficking played a fundamental role in the marriage system, of which the practices documented here were an integral part. These practices depended on women’s cooperation; nevertheless, many women were victimized. Masculinity was a zero-sum game in which husbands who shared or sold wives were losers. A broad and growing field of prohibited practices helped cope with problems for which approved practices offered no solution. Flexible, ad-hoc adjudication in local courts reveals the increasingly dysfunctional nature of the Qing state and its inability to solve fundamental social, economic, and demographic problems. The absolutist approach to female chastity and its policy expressions—including scapegoating of “bare sticks,” and the criminalization of prostitution and wife sale—exacerbated the problems they were intended to address.
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