Fidelity and Sacrifice: The Gender Discourse of Traders in Pre- and Post-Opium War Canton

In: Frontiers of History in China
John D. Wong Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences; The School of Modern Languages of Cultures, The University of Hong Kong,, China

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This article examines the discourse of two American couples in the China trade regarding fidelity and sacrifice during the period in which the spatial confines of the Canton system gave way to the intensified interactions of the Treaty Port era. Before the Opium War, when the Qing court had mandated that Western husbands conducting business in Canton live apart from their wives, marital tension was accentuated by the separation from absentee husbands. In the subsequent Treaty Port era, enhanced spatial mobility of the couples did not assuage their concerns. Instead, intensified cross-cultural encounters allowed them to project their feelings and expectations on the “foreign other” as racial categories developed and their imperial proclivities began to escalate. Bringing the Western women in contact with elite Chinese and other Western women only aggravated their agitation as they faced their Chinese counterparts, whom they readily construed as competitors. The socio-political and spatial reconfigurations provided new dimensions to the discourse of fidelity and sacrifice. The voices of the American couples recorded here are those of individuals, but the underlying anxiety they articulated represented the growing pains of more intimate Sino-Western encounters.

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