Engendering the Mercantile Lineage: The Rise of the Female Chastity Cult in Late Ming Huizhou

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This article argues that one important underlying factor in the formation of the female chastity cult in sixteenth-century Huizhou was its small-family/large-lineage structure, which was brought about by rapid commercialization.  As the majority of Huizhou young men left home for business, often immediately after marriage, the age at which couples had their first child was relatively high.  This demographic trend combined with the moderate average life span made the small nuclear family the norm, even as the natural increase in population augmented the size of the kinship settlement.  Situated in single-couple nuclear households, wives of sojourning men tended to be relatively free from parental in-law monitoring of their sexuality. An effective way to assure the fidelity of these abandoned women was to appeal to the larger lineage.  Sojourning merchants eagerly worked with home elders to enhance mercantile lineage culture, including control over women’s sexuality.


Men, Women and Gender in China




Siyen Fei, “Writing for Justice: An Activist Beginning of the Cult of Female Chastity in Late Imperial China,” Journal of Asian Studies 71.4 (2012): 991–1012.


Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).


Guo Qitao, “Genealogical Pedigree versus Godly Power: Cheng Minzheng and Lineage Politics in Mid-Ming Huizhou,” Late Imperial China 31.1 (2010): 28–61.


T’ien Ju-k’ang, Male Anxiety and Female Chastity, 46, 51–52. Both Huizhou and Fujian were highly commercialized and successful in producing exam candidates in late imperial times. For a comparison of the two regions in late imperial times, see Harriet Zurndorfer, “Learning, Lineage, and Locality in Late Imperial China: A Comparative Study of Education in Huichow (Anhwei) and Foochow (Fukien) 1600–1800,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 35.2 (1992): 109–44; 35.3 (1992): 209–38. See also Zurndorfer, “Review of T’ien Ju-k’ang, Male Anxiety and Female Chastity,” Ming Studies 30 (1990): 63–69. For Fujian’s commercial history, see also Billy So, Prosperity, Region, and Institutions in Maritime China: The South Fukien Pattern, 946–1368 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Angela Schottenhammer, “TheEast Asian Maritime World, 1400–1800: Its Fabrics of Power and Dynamics of Exchanges – China and her Neighbors,” in Angela Schottenhammer, ed., The East Asian Maritime World, 1400–1800: Its Fabrics of Power and Dynamics of Exchanges (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2007), 1–86. I am indebted to Harriet Zurndorfer for the information about Fujian commercial history.


Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Brook, notably, draws for this seasonal metaphor on the historical view of Zhang Tao 張濤, the late Ming magistrate of Shexian.


Wang Daokun, Taihan ji, 349.


See Janet Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politcs of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).


See, for instance, Wang Daokun, Taihan ji, 633, 691, 820, 1065, 1126, 1154. The intermarriage pattern of local elite lineages appears to be part of the localist trend that began in Song times. See Robert Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Robert Hymes, “Marriage, Descent Groups, and the Localist Strategy in Sung and Yuan Fu-chou,” in Patricia Ebrey and James Watson, eds., Kinship Organization in Late Imperial China, 1000–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 95–136. A recent study on Mingzhou 明州, Zhejiang, presents a new interpretation of state-society relations during the twelfth through fourteenth centuries; it argues against a “zero-sum” competition between the state and local elites, suggesting that “the presence of the state, rather than its absence, was essential to the rise of a flourishing local society.” See Sukhee Lee, Negotiated Power: The State, Elites, and Local Governance in Twelfth- to Fourteenth-Century China (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014) 4; I have touched upon a similar issue in Guo Qitao, “Genealogical Pedigree versus Godly Power,” showing how Cheng Minzheng, a high-ranking official of the late fifteenth century widely connected with both officials at the capital Beijing and in his home region, contributed to the rise of regional consciousness in mid-Ming Huizhou.


Chang Jianhua, Mingdai zongzu yanjiu, 313–19.


Wang Daokun, “Panshi zongci beiji,” Taihan ji, 1435. The term chushi, meaning “untitled scholar” (one who failed to earn an exam degree), was often used in the titles of numerous biographies of Huizhou merchants written by Wang Daokun and his contemporaries, who, while trying to raise the status of merchants, still hesitated in using “merchant” as a designation in the titles of the biographies they wrote. Pan Kui demonstrates what I have called “Huishang social strategy” by preparing his sons for different career options, alternating between scholar-official and merchant, a strategy made popular by Wang Daokun in his numerous writings about Huizhou merchants. See Guo, Ritual Opera and Mercantile Lineage, Chapter 2.


See Guo, Ritual Opera and Mercantile Lineage, pp. 162–64.


Xu Chengyao, Sheshi xiantan, 504.


See Richard von Glahn, The Sinister Way: The Divine and the Demonic in Chinese Religious Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).


Bernard Bailyn, “The Challenge of Modern Historiography,” The American Historical Review, 87.1 (1982):1–24, and see pages 9–10.


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