Monday, 24 January 2011

To what extent can it be claimed that the governmental and intellectual elite of the Qing dictated the parameters of ‘popular culture’? : Chapter Tw


II: The relationship between State and mechanisms of popular culture

The Qing made a direct attempt to dictate popular values, beliefs and social interaction through establishing on a local level a sense of what was ‘correct’, defining the behaviour that was in ones best interest and, as such, would be recognised by the state and society at large. The methods employed highlight the state’s conscious attempt to influence the day to day actions of the commoner, defining popular action in acceptable terms and, therefore, demonstrating the extent to which officialdom permeated society. To focus on a specific example, from which success can be measured, the relationship between the state the ideal of widow fidelity, a concept that “was nearly two millennia old and [was] understood to be part of the “Confucian” (ru) teaching,[1]” will be explored. Through tracing relevant historiography and utilizing the readings of primary source materials such as county gazetteers, biographies and judicial proceedings, one can ascertain the extent to which official convention constructed “real” society: the prevailing attitudes and actions regarding chastity and fidelity.

In considering the chastity virtue and widow fidelity two standpoints will be explored. Firstly, that the Qing successfully established a standard for popular conduct and values. In his study on the relationship between female virtue and the state in China, Mark Elvin suggests that in thoroughly institutionalizing apposite conduct the state was able to “popularise” virtuous behaviour, thereby implying the high degree of control the state had over society at large. Secondly, and more successfully argued, the relationship expressed between the state and cultural concepts such as chastity and fidelity acts more as an example of state desire to efficiently control the lower orders. The work of Janet Theiss, Susan Mann and Katherine Carlitz, amongst others, highlight the manner in which the state propagated orthodoxy was explicitly to achieve some end, and therefore not an accurate representation of the actual effect upon actual society.

Firstly, Elvin claims that the Qing were successful in their extensive campaign to “popularise” virtue, proselytizing for and rewarding good Confucian conduct in society which, in turn, actively directed belief, behaviour and interaction. To claim the Qing successfully “popularized” virtue is to claim that the state came to define the cultural mechanisms, systems of belief and interaction, of general society: establishing a system of uniformity that dictated clearly the relationship between state and the principles governing behaviour. Elvin’s claim, therefore, insinuates that orthodox conceptions were popular practice during the Qing, and as thus can use these sources as an accurate representation of popular culture.

Elvin demonstrates that efforts to promote virtues such as filial piety, harmonious cohabitation of many generations within a kin group without division of property and fidelity of widows, virtues that “stabilized a society that was ordered according to a hierarchy of age, and divided into kin-groups based on male dominance and male descent-lines,” was not simply a Qing concept. Promoting orthodox behaviour, through a state endorsed “awards for virtues” system, existed throughout Chinese history as an integral part of Chinese statecraft, becoming “a hallmark of the moral educational programs sponsored by the throne,[2]and a means of interaction between state and people. For example, The Rituals of Zhou (second half of the first millennium B.C.E) included a programme for “inculcating virtue in the common people[3]” and specified exempting “the worthy and the capable” from labour service[4]. However, it was during the Ming-Qing, he argues, that the “political authorities found it necessary to formulate more precise definitions of virtue,[5]” and one can clearly see the strong correlation between state want and popular reality through managing to effectively standardize virtue through means of institutionalization: procedures for submitting information to the throne and ensuring its verity.

The state had always played an active role in the regulation of systems of beliefs and behavioural norms, yet not exclusively as a means to a specific end, but rather because of values and modes of interaction firmly rooted in Chinese society. Morality played an integral role in the “internal economy of emotions[6]” governing Chinese family lives and which, over time, would have established a strong relationship between orthodox and popular practice and, in particular, a relationship built on tradition not intent, the system existing not exclusively as a means to influence society. For example, in 1368 eligibility was restricted to “the wives and daughters of registered commoners, clothed in hemp and living in the byways,” but looking at the listings of virtuous women in the local gazetteers, a form of award under the control of local authorities and the gentry, rules were “flouted…regarding status,[7]” suggesting that the state was rewarding systems of belief that transcended class, which could not be avoided, and existed as cornerstones of Chinese cultural identity. To take but one example, the Jiaxing prefectural gazetteers lists 277 faith widows during the Ming and of these 27 came from official families and 65 from degree holder families[8].

Alternatively, one could claim that state efforts to dictate and standardize cultural mechanism, such as concepts of virtue, were not a reflection of popular practice but more simply a reflection of intent: ideals underlying policy making and the interaction between state and general society. In fact, tracing widow chastity uncovers more about the reasoning behind the policies and practices of Manchu leaders and Han Chinese governing elites than the general population and, as thus, accentuates the dichotomy between two distinct cultural bodies. The Qing sought to perfect state control, consolidate its power and ensure prestige, with sources pertaining to the chastity virtue reflecting the states desire to see normative behaviour be the product of state orthodoxy.

The promotion of acceptable behaviour was a “mechanism for state legitimation, propaganda and social reform.[9]” The opening of the Qing dynasty was marked by social instability and normative uncertainty, experiencing the rise of a rouge male population, the increasing fragility of elite and commoner male status and the stresses of geographical and social mobility on family hierarchy. In addition the commercialization that began in the late Ming (1368-1644) “continued to be a source of social problems and unease in the mid-Qing.[10]” As a solution the state promoted orthodox ideals, such as those relating to chastity, and through which an equilibrium could be established: “part of larger state and literati project to reinvigorate Neo-Confucian family values and shore up a patriarchical order[11]” while simultaneously becoming an area of focus for both the “morally conservative Manchu rulers” and the “Han Chinese governing elite who promoted ritual revival in wake of the Manchu conquest.[12]” By the early eighteenth century Manchu rulers had pacified opposition and returned China to a path of “prosperous economic development[13]” through what scholars such as Frederic Wakeman Jr[14] dub a flexible cultural strategy: preserving a distinct Manchu ethnic identity and culture whilst simultaneously being “borrowers and adapters of Chinese tradition.[15]” As thus, focus was placed on perfecting state control over resources, personnel and society at large, and it was under the shadow of such cultural and moral impulses that the Qing constructed their policies towards chastity, with the Yongzheng (1723-36) and Qianlong Emperors (1736-96) becoming, for the first time, the “chief patron of the cult of chastity, avidly promoting female virtue through a diverse set of policy initiatives beyond the granting of chastity awards[16]” thereby insinuating that such policies had a specific agenda, an end to the benefit of the state, opposed to being intrinsically linked to pertinent and relevant systems of belief present amongst the masses. Although this agenda in turn meant that the dynasty developed an array of “institutional mechanisms for state engagement with local society,” the aim was to make the cult of chastity a “bureaucratized tool of moral reform[17]” through touching key areas of statecraft concern: “law, regulation of marriage and state honours, reform of local customs, suppression of heterodox religious sects, education, acculturation of non-Han peoples, economic development and even management of the penal system.[18]” Subjects regularly experienced the state’s civilizing presence and state-sanctioned values, such as chastity, through the shrines, temples and schools run by local magistrates as well as through the dramatic increase of chase women biographies printed in local histories[19], judicial proceedings and public honouring of the virtuous and public readings/performances of the Kangxi Emperor’s Sacred Edict[20]

Qing activist and interventionist methods, as demonstrated in the active interaction between state and society and also the willingness to oppose or undermine customs they found objectionable or politically problematic, were too imbued with the intent to expand state regulation of society, opposed to being a true representation of complex cultural mechanisms. Mann argues that the manner in which the chastity virtue was regulated and institutionalized represents more than just an “elite discourse on female chastity” but represent “one facet of what we might call a class struggle on the part of lower gentry and commoner families.[21]” For example, eligibility for honours became determined by class, making the system a reflection of state ideals, such as those relating to hierarchy, opposed to existing as a uniform system that simply offered reward for respectable and orthodox behaviour. Qing statutes required that a temple honouring chaste and filial (jiexiao ci) “be constructed at the capital and every administrative seat, including military garrisons (wei),” and that outside these temples would be constructed arches which would be inscribed with women of merit[22]. However, members of the Manchu imperial family and women in the Manchu banners “received state subsidiaries for the construction of arches and for instillation in a temple, in addition to gifts of silver and silk,” while families of women in the province “might receive” from officials a gift of silver (30 taels) but were expected to meet all other costs, i.e. construction of the arch, installation in the temple and provisions for sacrifices[23].

To further exemplify, acting as agents of the state through which endorsed governmental models could be propagated amongst the general population, scholars were charged to document exemplary, and therefore specific, incidences of behaviour, such as orthodox expressions of female chastity. When scholars were hired to collect information for a county gazetteer, which made clear in the accounts of “local customs” (fengsu) that “female chastity was a metaphor for community honour” and that “female chastity was an integral part of the complex of values representing local moral standards to the outside world,[24]” they suffered no illusion as to the “reality” they were supposed to represent. As with all male-centered family systems Chinese women posed a danger to the long-term stability of the family structure because they were constantly violating family boundaries: entering and exiting as brides, they produced the sons of future generations, “the bonds of conjugal solidarity that threatened to tear brothers apart[25]” and ultimately brought conflict with married women within the extended family through sisters-in-law vying for claims on the patriarchical estate[26]. Therefore, in constructing local histories scholars remade women “in the images of loyalty, fidelity, and absolute commitment on which the hierarchy of local order rested… they attributed to these women a consciousness, an intentionality, that expressed their own values.[27]” Local gazetteers sought to lessen the “implicit danger[28]” women posed by bring to the fore examples of behaviour deemed acceptable and that others should follow, and in doing so would received appropriate reward. Furthermore, Theiss demonstrates that because of the nature of the effort to standardize and regulate gender norms, documents produced, for example routine memorials (xingke tiben) that documented serious criminal cases, had to “reflect the document transmission process and bureaucratic procedure that produced them,” and, as thus, were guided by detailed and specific regulations for structure, composition and wording, as well as incorporating reports from judicial officials, county magistrates, judicial commissioners and board officials. Opposed to having the impression of being able to ““hear the voices” of the common people participating in the case,” the resulting document was heavily edited and simply reflected how the “meaning of [gender] norms shifted and varied in the midst of policy making and implementation, adjudication, social conflict, and the ordinary encounters of everyday life.[29]” For example, in noting the testimonies of the people, local dialects or minority languages were put into a written form of vernacular speech that was standardized; the northern dialect today recognised as Mandarin, and also it was dictated that testimonies must “avoid wordiness, vulgar language and localisms.[30]” Such regulations in recording information, therefore, sometimes affected the “very “facts” of the case when divergent versions of events…were moulded into one consistent story that fit under the rubric of one statute or substitute.[31]” Although such documents do provide some degree of information from which the historian can understand the individual views of case participants, such as useful information about household structure and the day-to-day leisure and work patterns of both men and women, they strongly “reveal discrepancies between popular and state views and values” and “compel us to question the fictions that historians take for orthodoxy.[32]

A further consideration is the extent to which consciously influencing popular values and behaviour denotes a political tool utilized throughout Chinese political history but to varying degrees. Carlitz draws attention to the fact that despite the ideal of widow-fidelity being “nearly two millennia old and… understood to be part of “Confucian” (ru) teaching,” in sincerity it had “always been expressed more as precept than as practice.[33]” The importance placed on fidelity as expressed in the Qing was not embedded in traditional practice, acting as a core tenet of the popular menalit√©, but became more significant through the official attention it received. Patricia Ebrey, for example, demonstrates that fidelity was not socially important well into the Southern Song, as there are examples of prominent widows marrying without apology and very few extant Song and Yuan gazetteers list faithful widows at all[34]. Richard L. Davis too denotes that during the eleventh century, despite the “highly precocious character of eleventh century historical writing in China,” all reason seemed to be suspended when “depicting so-called “Notable Women” (lienu) in the New History of the Tang (Xin Tang shu)[35]”. For example, in regaling the story of a “Notable Woman” of the literati class, Woman Lu, the historian Ouyang Xiu shows how rather than take another husband in incidence of her husband’s death, she mutilates herself to prove her loyalty to him: “The Woman Lu, weeping, then went to her room where she gouged out an eye, proving…there would surely be no second man.[36]” The histories, as thus, are reduced to simply being the “conscious contribution of revisionist historians of a century later… reflections of the way men of the Song wanted to perceived certain women of the Tang – or at least, how they wanted their own women to perceive certain kinds of Tang women[37]” The effect, ultimately, was a sharp dichotomy between representation and reality.

Regardless, however, of the states extensive efforts to control popular systems of behaviour and belief of general society, moulding them into something ultimately beneficial, scholars have noted a discrepancy between state orthodoxy and popular “reality”, stating that the state’s attempts to gain control by means of establishing an orthodoxy were ultimately undermined by the “copious evidence of the limits of its [the state] authority at the local level[38]”. Matthew Sommer, for example, claims that despite the state’s efforts to protect what was felt to be the foundation of social order, the “settled peasant family,[39]” disjuncture between state orthodoxy and poor peasant reality meant that the state’s ability to transform the values of its subject was limited. Local communities were structured by more than state defined orthodoxy, even if every level of society was aware of what constituted this orthodoxy. The state was but “one of many sources of normative authority at the local level,” and it is through the judicial system that negotiation could exist between not only the state and local elites but also the state and common people[40]. As thus, in considering the states laws and policies to impose a uniform vision of gender order, one must discern between an ideal and theoretical model and what could be achieved in reality. On the one hand, one can discern how a standardized gender order would, in theory, be executed and administered, traceable through the language deployed in official documentation, such as commissioned works and as exemplified in the “extreme acts of moral probity[41]” (jiduan daode xingwei) as depicted in scholar biographies of “Notable Women.” Alternatively, however, in reality laws and policies relating to establishing orthodox practice were weakened by contradictions and ultimately compromised with popular mores, “most critically with women’s own views of virtue.[42]” In reality, the practice of widow fidelity was enacted because of embedded social importance, not state enforcement. Due to the strictly patriarchical structure of the Chinese family, adhering to the principles of fidelity and chastity safeguarded ones welfare in unfortunate circumstances. A weak ritual connection to the natal family brought about by the exogamous nature of family politics ensured that a young bride was isolated, unable to return to her natal family and subject to exploitation by more senior female family members, meaning a “near-complete dependency on her husband’s family.[43]” Therefore, observing the virtue of chastity and widow fidelity protected against vulnerability, for as Arthur Smith comments Chinese society makes no provisions of support for the widow: “No lot or portion [of land] falls to any sister. It is this that makes it imperative that every woman should be married, that she should have some visible means of support.[44] Locked within the “fold of patrilineage,[45]” it was in the best, personal interests of the woman to observe certain practices, for the sake of her own livelihood, opposed to maintaining values simply because they were state mandated.

Overall county gazetteers, biographies, local histories and judicial documents pertaining to widow chastity do not give a “real” image of Qing dynasty values and beliefs. Rather, as Mann posits, the discourse on widow chastity may be viewed “as an expression of the political and economic interests of two groups: the large and regionally differentiated group called the “local gentry” and the Manchu court.[46]” Being outsiders the Manchus sought “to codify and enforce norms in traditional Chinese culture[47],” so as to achieve more power and prestige. However, the “classical ideal of the sages[48]” officials were trying to induce was in itself a state construct, an orthodox view of perfect popular conduct and moral standards and not, therefore, based on actual popular practices. Being aimed specifically at the commoner classes, and also marked by sophisticated means of institutionalization, early Qing rulers’ campaigns suggest less that the government was able to implant its moral code in the popular psyche and more that it was due to some specific, and significant, end, thereby requiring a relative degree of effort, that widow chastity became so “popularised”. It is equally justifiable to claim that the apparent zeal with which local magistrates identified chaste widows was the product of the turning cogs of orthodoxy as it is to claim that it represented the influence the state held in dictating popular consciousness[49]. One need note, however, that in consciously constructing the boundaries within which appropriate behaviour falls, the Qing government did establish forms of “negotiation between state and society,[50]” however attenuated said “negotiations” may have been, and consequently leave “less room for variation and exception [of marital roles] than before.[51]” The standardization of the chastity virtue brought the official and ordinary subject, Theiss remarks, in contact either directly, in the courtroom, or indirectly, through the “allocation of ritual honours and the implementation of education and economic programmes at the local level.[52]” Yet the extensively means through which the government attempted to control the values upon which general society rested makes it ever the more pertinent to determine how popular, or ‘peasant’, culture is to be comprehended.



[1] Katherine Carlitz, ‘Shrines, Governing-Class Identity, and the Cult of Widow Fidelity in Mid-Ming Jiangnan’, p. 612

[2] Susan Mann, ‘Widows in the Kinship, Class, and Community Structures of Qing Dynasty China’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1, 1987, p. 37

[3] Mark Elvin, ‘Female Virtue and the State in China’, Past and Present, No. 104, 1984, p. 115

[4] Zhouli jinzhu jinyi [The Rituals of Zhou with Modern Notes and Translation], ed. and trans. Lin Yin (Taibei, 1972), pp. 97-118

[5] Elvin, ‘Female Virtue and the State in China’, p. 123

[6] ibid., p. 122

[7] ibid., p. 124

[8] Jiaxing fuzhi, juan 67, pp. 2033-6, juan 70, pp. 2109-10, juan 72, pp. 2179-83, juan 73, pp. 2212-15, juan 75, pp. 2275-8, juan 77, pp. 2322-34, juan 78, pp. 2367-8.

[9] Janet M. Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, p. 2

[10] ibid., p. 2

[11] ibid., p. 2

[12] ibid., p. 2

[13] ibid., p. 6

[14] Frederic Wakeman Jr, The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth Century China, 2 vols., Berkeley University of California Press, 1985

[15] Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, p. 6

[16] ibid., p. 7

[17] ibid., p. 7

[18] ibid., p. 7

[19] Mann, ‘Widows in the Kinship, Class, and Community Structures of Qing Dynasty China’, p. 40

[20] a) Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, p. 7

b) Magistrates sponsored public readings and performances, used by advocates of moral transformation (jiaohua) because of its esteem for filial piety and promotion of propriety and obedience to superiors. Victor H. Mair, “Language and Ideology in Written Popularizations of the Sacred Edict,” in Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, ed. David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn S. Rawski, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, pp. 325-59

[21] Mann, ‘Widows in the Kinship, Class, and Community Structures of Qing Dynasty China’, p.42

[22] ibid., p. 42

[23] ibid., p. 42

[24] a) ibid., p. 43

b) For example, in the editorial principles listed in the preface to an earlier gazetteer for She county, the following comment appears: “The relationship between men and women is in the great cornerstone of all human relationships. If women behave correctly within the home, and men behave correctly outside the home, moral standards will be pure. In She county, the women’s quarters are commonly said to be “governed by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius.” Therefore when we record biographies, we include the lives of “exemplary women”. (She xian [Anbui] zhi 1690, fan li, 1b-2a)

[25] Emily M. Ahern, “The Power and Pollution of Chinese Women.” In Women in Chinese Society, eds. Margery Wolf and Roxanne Witke, Stanford University Press, 1975, 212

[26] Freedman, 1976, pp. 236-7

[27] Mann, ‘Widows in the Kinship, Class, and Community Structures of Qing Dynasty China’, p. 44

[28] ibid., p. 44

[29] Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, p. 4

[30] ibid., p. 5

[31] ibid., p. 5

[32] ibid., p. 6

[33] Katherine Carlitz, ‘Shrines, Governing-Class Identity, and the Cult of Widow Fidelity in Mid-Ming Jiangnan’, p. 612

[34] Patricia Ebrey, The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 204-5

[35] Richard L. Davis, ‘Chaste and Filial Women in Chinese Historical Writings of the Eleventh Century’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 121, No. 2, 2001, p. 204

[36] Xin Tang Shu, 205.5817; Chiu, “Changing Virtues?” 40, 48-9, 51

[37] Richard L. Davis, ‘Chaste and Filial Women in Chinese Historical Writings of the Eleventh Century’, p. 205

[38] Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, p. 8

[39] Matthew H. Sommer, Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China, Stanford University Press, 200

[40] Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, p. 9

[41] Richard L. Davis, ‘Chaste and Filial Women in Chinese Historical Writings of the Eleventh Century’, p. 205

[42] Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, p. 9

[43] Mann, ‘Widows in the Kinship, Class, and Community Structures of Qing Dynasty China’, p. 44

[44] Arthur Smith, Village Life in China, 1970, Reedition of original edition of 1899, with a new intro. By Myron Cohen, Boston: Little Brown, p. 220

[45] Mann, ‘Widows in the Kinship, Class, and Community Structures of Qing Dynasty China’, p. 44

[46] ibid., p. 49

[47] ibid., p. 49

[48] ibid., p. 49

[49] ibid., p. 50

[50] Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, p. 9

[51] Sommer, Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China, p. 10

[52] Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth Century China, p. 9