Sin­gle and Scary

Sedi­tion, sex­u­al­ity, sorcery, and se­duc­tion were among many anx­i­eties that the Qing as­so­ci­ated with un­mar­ried men

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story - - JEREMIAH JENNE

It was high sum­mer in An­hui prov­ince, when Wang Yuzhi found him­self both alone and drunk. By his own con­fes­sion, Wang had lusted af­ter the 18-year-old wife of his neigh­bor, Li Guo­han, for months. That night, em­bold­ened by al­co­hol, he de­cided to take ac­tion.

Creep­ing up to the cou­ple's hut, Wang used his knife to dig through the earthen wall, slith­ered in, and at­tacked Li's wife as she slept naked. Re­al­iz­ing the in­ter­loper was a stranger, she fought back, manag­ing to bite off part of Wang's tongue. When the cou­ple re­ported the at­tack to the lo­cal mag­is­trate, they pre­sented the gory tip as ev­i­dence. For the crime of forcible rape, Wang was ex­e­cuted by stran­gu­la­tion in 1762. Wang Yuzhi was a光棍儿( gu`ngg&nr), or “bare branch,” a term for a man with­out a spouse or prospects, nor hope of find­ing ei­ther. Chi­nese so­ci­ety is rooted in fam­ily, but as many as one in four men in 18th-cen­tury China were un­mar­ried, a num­ber that in­creased dra­mat­i­cally the lower one looked on the so­cio-eco­nomic lad­der, or the fur­ther away from a city or town. Wang's case, de­scribed by Matthew Som­mer in Sex,law, and so­ci­ety in late im­pe­rial china (2000), was typ­i­cal of what Som­mer, and his­to­ri­ans in­clud­ing Thomas Buoye and Vivien Ng, de­scribe as the anx­i­eties that life­long bach­e­lor­hood pro­voked in Chi­nese so­ci­ety.

Con­cerns about guang­gunr would prove a fun­da­men­tal part of the le­gal and pop­u­lar dis­course on gen­der in the Qing dy­nasty (1616 – 1911). The 18th cen­tury was a time of great pros­per­ity for the Manchu em­pire, a sta­bil­ity that brought pop­u­la­tion growth. As the pop­u­la­tion dou­bled to al­most 300 mil­lion, de­mo­graphic chal­lenges en­sued. A so­ci­etal pref­er­ence for boys en­sured a sur­plus of mar­riage­able men. Polygamy among the elite and a tra­di­tion of women “mar­ry­ing up” (but rarely down) meant fewer po­ten­tial brides for men at the bot­tom rungs of so­ci­ety. This grow­ing un­der­class be­came a con­stant source of con­cern.

Frus­trated guang­gunr were viewed as po­ten­tial preda­tors, ca­pa­ble of pol­lut­ing both men and women. Of­fi­cials were wary that men with noth­ing to lose might con­sti­tute a crim­i­nal class. Guang­gunr made up the bulk of ar­rests for rapes, mur­ders, and kid­nap­pings. Dur­ing the “sor­cery scare” of 1768— in­volv­ing al­le­ga­tions that ma­sons were har­vest­ing men's pony­tails for su­per­nat­u­ral pur­poses, as de­tailed in Philip Kuhn's Soul­steal­ers— the main sus­pects were iden­ti­fied as guang­gunr. The Qing court eyed rov­ing bands of root­less young men as po­ten­tial fod­der for re­bel­lious move­ments.

As is too of­ten the case, women suf­fered for the anx­i­eties of their hus­bands, brothers, and fa­thers. Fe­male pu­rity be­came syn­ony­mous with so­cial or­der; to de­fend one was to up­hold the other. A se­ries of Qing laws nar­rowed the def­i­ni­tion of le­git­i­mate sex­ual con­tact to solely the pen­e­tra­tion of a wife by her hus­band; an­other se­ries of edicts stiff­ened penal­ties for rape and il­licit sex—which could in­clude al­most any phys­i­cal con­tact out­side of mar­riage. But prov­ing rape re­lied heav­ily on the sta­tus of a woman's fi­delity, with her virtue usu­ally demon­strated by how force­fully she re­sisted her at­tacker.

As his­to­rian Vivien Ng notes, “The price of chastity was very high in­deed. It was worth at least one life—that of the rapist. Some­times it ex­acted two lives—that of the vic­tim as well.” It was as­sumed that a woman should pre­vent an


at­tacker from pen­e­trat­ing her—or, at the very least, die try­ing. (In fact, the death or sig­nif­i­cant dis­mem­ber­ment of the vic­tim was of­ten re­quired to get a con­vic­tion for rape; or, as in Wang Yuzhi's case, the maim­ing of the at­tacker). Any­one with an “il­licit” sex­ual past could dis­qual­ify them­selves as a vic­tim (male pros­ti­tutes could also for­get about get­ting a fair hear­ing). More­over, con­sent, once given, could not be re­scinded and there was no con­cept of “mar­i­tal rape.”

Women “stood on the front­lines to de­fend the nor­ma­tive fam­ily or­der, and the stan­dards of chastity would de­ter­mine its fate,” ar­gues Som­mers. Con­versely, “through promis­cu­ity and sloth, they might de­stroy it.” Far from re­press­ing women, though, Som­mers ar­gues that Qing law ac­tu­ally strength­ened their po­si­tion, pro­tect­ing the fam­ily from down­ward mo­bil­ity of the guang­gunr un­der­class.

But the law's strict em­pha­sis on defin­ing “co­er­cion” clearly re­flected a male anx­i­ety: the fear of nympho­ma­nia, the con­cern that a woman might be com­plicit in de­viant sex­ual be­hav­ior. Those who en­joyed le­gal ac­cess to a woman's sex­ual fa­vors wel­comed in­creas­ingly stricter penal­ties to pro­tect against their dis­place­ment.

The idea of un­mar­ried vagabonds as be­ing a threat to the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal or­der is not limited to his­tory. Con­tem­po­rary China faces its own gen­der im­bal­ance. Cen­sus data sug­gests that there may be as many as 34 mil­lion sur­plus males—al­most the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Cal­i­for­nia, or Poland—doomed to per­pet­ual sin­gle­dom.

As in the Qing era, these gen­der ra­tios skew ever more heav­ily male the fur­ther one de­scends on the so­cio-eco­nomic lad­der or trav­els out into the coun­try­side. In­vol­un­tar­ily celi­bate in a so­ci­ety which prizes the fam­ily unit, China's left­over men are once again a cause for of­fi­cial con­cern and pop­u­lar anx­i­ety; a 2012 re­port from the In­sti­tute for Pop­u­la­tion and De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies warned that ru­ral guang­gunr were more prone to rape, incest, wife shar­ing, un­safe sex, hu­man traf­fick­ing, and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Au­thor­i­ties fret about crim­i­nal­ity while in­ter­na­tional ob­servers grow un­easy about the pos­si­bil­ity that frus­trated young men could fuel an in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive and ag­grieved na­tion­al­ism.

Whether real or imag­ined, the fear of the guang­gunr is a grim re­minder that pros­per­ity comes with its own costs. For the Qing, de­mo­graphic pres­sures and stress on avail­able re­sources be­gan to over­whelm the state's abil­ity to main­tain so­cial or­der in the 19th cen­tury. Nearly a cen­tury af­ter that hot and ter­ri­ble night in An­hui, young men like Wang Yuzhi would be tin­der for the spark of re­bel­lion dur­ing the Taip­ing War and Nian Re­bel­lion. De­mo­graph­ics may not be des­tiny, but the specter of the guang­gunr over 18th cen­tury China proved one of many ill omens for the cen­tury which lay ahead.

A “bare branch” was both a so­cial pariah and a so­ci­etal threat

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