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date: 17 November 2019

Gender and Social Life in Imperial China

Summary and Keywords

Social life in imperial China was structured on the Confucian gender principles of the separation of male and female and the division of “inner and outer” spheres. Homosociality prevailed while heterosociality was limited. Homosociality dominated the forms and manners of social interaction. Men moved around freely and faced little constraint in forging relationships and networks, while women were largely homebound and secluded. In general, women enjoyed more physical freedom in earlier imperial times than in late imperial China, when seclusion of women intensified thanks to the rise of the female chastity cult and the spread of the practice of foot-binding. But even in the late imperial period, women were able to form networks and communities, in person or by means of writing. Local traditions and stages in the life cycle influenced women’s lived experiences of socialization, and class also played an important part in social life for both men and women. For example, education and a government career provided main venues for elite male socialization but for the men in lower social classes, their networks were built around localized institutions such as temple associations, sworn brotherhood, secret societies, and native place association.

Keywords: gender, “inner and outer,”, social life, social networks, homosociality, heterosociality, women’s community, local organization, “three aunties and six grannies”

Historical understanding of social life in imperial China has been transformed thanks to new scholarship produced since the 1970s. Previous work on the subject paid attention nearly exclusively to men. A focus on women and gender relations spurred major efforts to locate new sources, which resulted in the discovery of a wealth of women’s writings from the late imperial period. Equipped with fresh analytical frameworks, historians have been able to ask fresh questions and open additional territories of inquiry. The fruitful scholarship that has emerged since sheds new light on how Confucian ideology structured social life, how other historical and cultural forces molded social behaviors of men and women, and where the disjunctions and ruptures of the normative structure occurred.

Social life in imperial China was predominantly homosocial. Confucian gender norms placed women and men in different spheres, leaving only limited spaces for heterosocial interactions. But even as the core Confucian gender principles remained steady through two millennia of imperial history, social life was far more complex than what the orthodox discourses suggest. Orthodox values were mediated by class, local traditions, and individual conditions such as age and profession. Moreover, in the immense sweep of China’s imperial history, social and economic forces, cultural trends, and reorientations in Confucian thought also produced constant changes, reinforcing or challenging gender boundaries and shaping social behaviors and relationships in various ways. For a long time, for example, the Song period (960–1279) was viewed as the “turning point in women’s lives” for the worse, for it was during this time that the practice of foot-binding began and moral discourse on female chastity intensified.1 New studies, however, have revealed various spaces for interaction, homosocial and heterosocial, in late imperial China when urban development and commercialization accelerated and talented women culture injected new energy into social life.

Separation of Male and Female

In imperial China, few adages concerning gender relations were more widely known as “nan nϋ‎ you bie,” or “[there is] difference/separation between men and women.” The phrase originated in antiquity, but it came to embody a timeless wisdom. The character bie could mean “difference,” “distinction,” or “separation.” As a guiding principle for action in daily life, though, separation seemed to be at its core. A set of ritual directives about male–female interaction from the Book of Rites, one of the five Confucian classics compiled in the 2nd century bce, shows what is meant by “separation between men and women”:

At age seven, boys and girls do not sit on the same mat or eat together. . . . At age ten, (boys) go out to study with a teacher, and live and sleep outside. They learn literacy and calculation. . . . Girls do not go out, and they follow docilely instructions from their governesses.

Men do not speak of inside matters, and women do not speak of outside matters. Except in performing sacrifice and mourning rituals, men and women do not pass vessels to one another. When he passes a vessel, she should receive it in a basket. If no basket is available, they should both sit and place the vessel on the floor, and then she takes it. Outside [i.e., men] and inside [i.e., women] do not share the same well, nor the same bathing room, nor the same sleeping mat. They do not borrow or lend to one another, and do not share same upper or under garments. Words spoken inside do not get out, and words spoken outside do not get in.2

In the ideal world envisioned by Confucian thinkers, “separation of male and female” should be all encompassing in daily life. “Inner” (nei) and “outer” (wai), the designated spaces for female and male, securely prevented any improper contact between them from taking place. The extent of separation was such that even indirect touching, such as through objects like clothes, needed to be prohibited.

The notions of separation of male and female and the inner-outer division of spheres stemmed from what the thinkers saw as the natural order of things based on the cosmic principles of yin and yang. Men (yang) and women (yin) complemented one another but performed different roles and assumed separate responsibilities. Men took charge of outside affairs and women performed inside functions. Any disturbance to this natural order would lead to disaster, but sexual transgression posed the biggest threat and therefore needed to be strictly controlled. The “do not share” and “do not touch” rules were aimed squarely at rooting out potential sexual transgression.3

Confucian ritual stipulated that women must safeguard their sexual purity. Unmarried women should be shielded from the male gaze. “When a young lady is promised in marriage, she wears the strings (hanging down from her neck); and, unless there be some great occasion, no (male) enters the door of her apartment.”4 Marriage was a process involving parents and matchmakers only. The couple themselves played no part in it. For married women, chastity was demonstrated not only in fidelity when the husband was alive, but also in faithful widowhood. A worthy woman “married only one man” during her lifetime.

Social elite, the state, and local government made these principles and rules central to their endeavor of ordering the family and society, but these ideas were upheld more strictly in the late imperial period. Didactic literature constituted a major channel for disseminating orthodox values. Advising women to be “pure and chaste,” the Analects for Women (Nű Lunyu) from the Tang period (618–906) spelled out the bad behavior that women must avoid: turning their heads when walking, laughing aloud when happy, peeking out from behind the outer wall, and stepping into the outer courtyard.5 In the letter sent to his son before his execution, Yang Jisheng (1516–1555), a Ming official, stressed that “boundaries between inner and outer must be kept with strictness and vigilance,” repeating the ritual prescription that girls must not pass beyond the central door and boys not enter it.6 Taking the time-honored jiaohua (transform social behaviors through education) approach, the state designed policies such as the court testimonial (jingbiao) to reinforce morality. In the late imperial period (roughly 13th–19th centuries) when the female chastity cult swept the empire, chaste women became the face of the state morality campaign as thousands of women who died resisting sexual assault or who followed husbands or fiancés in death were honored with public memorial arches and shrines. Men who dared to flirt with women ran the risk of receiving capital punishment if their actions caused women to kill themselves out of shame. Such incidents also illustrate the social atmosphere in which young women and men grew up and the extent to which women internalized the value of chastity.7

The gender system built on these ideas gave rise to the basic structures of social life and the distinctively gendered forms and manners of socialization in imperial China. It created the homosocial landscape in which interaction between men and women was limited and controlled. Social life was much more mobile for men than for women; women were largely homebound, while men enjoyed a wider range of venues and a much larger space for bonding and friendship. However, limited heterosocial spaces and the controlled social environment did not necessarily mean diminished richness, but rather distinctive patterns and mechanisms of social life. At the same time, it is important to stress that the rigid codes of conduct specified in the Book of Rites are merely principles and ideals. In fact, their impracticality rendered many of them irrelevant for the general population. The boundary separating “inner and outer” was neither clearly defined nor static. It shifted with contexts and perspectives.8 The lived experience of individual men and women varied and was affected by such variables as social class, occupation, local tradition, and position in the life course.

Gui: The Inner Quarters

In historical writings, the term widely used to convey the concept of inner—the designated female sphere—was gui, translated in English as “inner quarters” or “inner chambers.” Originally meaning “the small gate of the inner courtyard, place, or city,” gui was later broadened to refer to the boudoir, or women, depending on the context or the combination with other characters.9 For example, gui commonly appeared in titles of didactic texts for women.10 For women of poor families, the physical space of the gui simply didn’t exist in their homes, and yet they too were expected to behave according to gender norms. Realistically, women were expected be stay inside the house (jia), behind the gate that connected the “inner and outer” spaces.11

Ample evidence suggests that by the end of the imperial period, orthodox values had penetrated the lower social strata. An account by Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai, a working woman born in the 1860s in the coastal city of Penglai, Shandong, illustrates this: “When a family wanted to know more about a girl who had been suggested for a daughter-in-law and asked what kind of a girl she was, the neighbor would answer, ‘We do not know. We have never seen her.’ That was praise.”12 While ordinary women’s sense of honor and disgrace was influenced by orthodox gender values, the degree to which the norms of gender separation were followed varied greatly, often conditioned by economic reality. Another of Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai’s accounts revealed the sense of shame when poverty and other life challenges prevented young women from remaining behind doors. Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai, whose father forbade her and her sister from playing in the streets when they reached age thirteen (eleven or twelve in Western age), married an opium addict and was forced to become a beggar to support herself and her children, much to her distress.

Family structure played a significant part in determining the social environment in which women grew up. The upper class and the wealthy upheld the extended family model, that is, multiple generations living under the same roof. This meant that the inner quarters of those households were occupied by a larger number of female kin—mother, grandmother, grandfather and father’s concubines, aunts, uncles’ wives, as well as sisters and female cousins—than those of commoners’ households. Girls from well-off families would be kept deep inside the “gate” and be surrounded by these relatives as they began receiving literacy and moral instructions from parents or other family members, whereas their counterparts from lesser families were likely to have playmates in the neighborhood and would learn doing household chores instead of studying.

Whatever their social background, girls were trained to do needlework and spinning and weaving under the guidance of senior women. Age fifteen marked the coming of age for girls, when families began actively preparing for their marriages. Most women left home to join their husbands upon marriage, although uxorilocal marriage, in which the groom joined the bride’s family, was not rare. Wedding could be emotionally traumatic. Misery over thinking of their loved ones and close friends was a prevalent sentiment for young brides, but marriage also opened new possibilities. Family-based social ties were further extended, and young brides often nurtured lifelong close relationships with her husbands’ sisters and cousins.13

For the poor and the wealthy alike, social interactions among relatives, lineage members, and neighbors kept women busy year-round. Preserving good relations with them were primarily women’s responsibilities. Biographies of women often highlighted the generosity and care they displayed in maintaining these ties. Given the importance placed on family relationships and friendships, it comes as no surprise that women regularly made arrangements for visits on important holidays and social and family events and entertainment. Charitable acts helping the needy members in local communities were also routinely praised in these records, suggesting women’s impact on social life in local communities.14

Historically speaking, women’s physical movements and social roles were less restricted for the early and middle imperial periods than the late imperial period. Han Dynasty women, for example, freely moved around the markets, engaging in commercial and religious activities; they appeared at other major public venues as well, such as local offices (ting 亭‎)and passes (guan 关‎) on travel routes.15 During the Southern and Northern dynasties, women in North China, where Confucian norms were less stringent because of nomadic cultural influences, “could freely interact with men, receive guests, visit friends, conduct business in government offices, initiate legal proceedings and handle their own affairs.”16 The impact of nomadic culture continued in Tang times when women could engage in “athletic pastimes such as ball games, horseback riding, archery, and hunting.”17 These types of physical activities were reduced beginning in the Song when the practice of foot-binding began, but Song women managed to be involved in local public projects such as “building weirs, irrigation, farms, constructing roads, repairing bridges, establishing public schools, and so forth.”18 However, even in the late imperial period, roles and activities outside home were never eliminated for women. Travel is a good example. Women were on the road accompanying their husbands on government appointments, visiting relatives, making pilgrimages, or for medical reasons. So long as it served a legitimate purpose, “travelling was not perceived as a violation of the domestic women’s propriety.”19 For women of lower classes, economic necessities and household responsibilities rendered it impossible to avoid labor outside home, even for those with bound feet. They worked in the fields, ran shops, or performed services (e.g., as healers and midwives) outside the home. In tea-producing regions, women were a major economic force. Picking tea together in South China hills proved to be a cherished opportunity for village women to bond.20

Inner quarters were where women belonged, but men were never cut off from them. In fact, they played an important role in women’s social life. The ritual prohibition separating young girls and boys was practiced only to some extent even among the upper class. Until she reached her teenage years, a girl’s circle of interactions included her brothers and male cousins. A memoir written by Hong Liangji (1746–1809), titled Waijia ji wen (A record of things heard at the home of my maternal grandparents), for example, described an exhilarating environment of play and study with his many cousins, male and female, when his father’s untimely passing forced his mother to rely on her natal home for support for several years.21 The friendships built in childhood lasted for a lifetime. The fact that cousins of the opposite sex were among the few with whom they could come in contact gave rise to the interesting phenomenon where, “cousin” was used as a euphemism for a lover in romantic fiction and plays.

But it was in another sense that male kin—father, brother, husband, uncle, and cousin—became indispensable in the expansion of women’s social orbits. When men befriended one another, their wives and daughters may become acquainted or friends. Extrafamilial connections thus were formed through broad networks of male kin. In the late Ming and Qing times, when “talented women” were much praised (although not without controversy), educated men had a penchant for speaking of the literary and artistic talents of the women in their family and showing off their works. The action often initiated a process of bringing women of similar intellectual passion into contact through their writing or in person.

Women’s Communities and Socialization

In contrast to earlier periods of Chinese history, in which only a few women were known for their poetic and scholarly achievements, the Ming and the Qing dynasties witnessed the spread of women’s education among the upper-class families. Some achieved names for themselves as poets, compilers, artists, and scholars in the male-dominated literati world, and their common intellectual interests played an essential role in establishing extrafamilial ties and enlarging their social orbits. The 17th-century Jiangnan region captured the first major wave of the fledgling culture of “talented women.” Composition of poetry stimulated the formation of women’s communities in the backdrop of a thriving printing culture. The poetry club (shishe, yinshe), previously a male social site, became a popular venue for the gathering of educated women.22 Historian Dorothy Ko divides women’s poetry-centered communities into three types: the domestic, the social and public, and the transitory. They consisted of relatives only, relatives and visiting friends, and the traveling wives of elite men and courtesans, respectively.23 Writing poems in a member’s garden was just one undertaking at the gatherings. A flurry of other activities made these moments exciting and enjoyable as well: boating on the lake, visiting family libraries, drinking wine, viewing flower blossoms, picking fruit, making rubbings of stone stelae, and going to local festivals.24

This vibrant culture of talented women continued to spread and evolve in the following centuries. Some poetry clubs became more geographically and ethnically interconnected. For example, the “Chanting the Autumn Poetry Club” (Qiuhong yinshe), located in Beijing, joined local talents with wives of officials from South China and included members from both Han and Manchu ethnic backgrounds. Writing pushed the boundary separating the “inner and outer.” In the famous “Clear Brook Poetry Club” (Qingxi yinshe), a male poet (a member’s husband) was a central figure in organizing the group and critiquing their work.25 As signs of their increased assertiveness, women reached out to male writers who were not kinsmen to write prefaces and inscriptions and openly sought mentoring from famous male poets. Male teachers such as Yuan Mei (1716–1798) and Chen Wenshu (1771–1843) served as linchpins for aspiring women. Yuan’s disciples would go so far to enjoy themselves and advertise their distinction as to hold gatherings, sometimes in public. Not all literati approved of this sort of behavior, and some condemned it as scandalous and an outright violation of moral propriety.26

Social networks were built among educated women. As compilers, critics, as well as writers, they wrote to one another, gathered, visited, exchanged their works, and collaborated to produce works of art (e.g., producing an album of painting and poems collectively). The compilation of the Correct Beginning: Women’s Poetry of Our August Dynasty, by Yun Zhu in the early 19th century captured this spirit. Over her lifetime, Yun Zhu was able to gather a huge number of female-authored poems across the empire, which formed the basis of the poetry anthology.27

In comparison with that of upper-class women, social networks of lower-class women were more locally oriented. With men working outside or sojourning, mutual assistance from neighbors and friends became more vital for sustaining or growing the family. Performing household chores and taking care of the old and young seldom took place in isolation. In rural Taiwan, “women carry on as many of their activities as possible outside the house. They wash clothes on the riverbank, clean and pare vegetables at a communal pump, mend under a tree that is known as the meeting place, and stop to rest on a bench or group of stones with other women.”28 This observation made in the 1960s may not speak accurately of women’s social life decades before under imperial rule, but the fact that no radical social revolution rattled village life in Taiwan makes it likely that this could well have been the way of life for the women in this village for a long time.

Age also affected the ways in which women associated. In the 19th-century Canton Delta, for example, adolescent girls spent the night in “girl’s houses” “chatting, doing a little sewing or embroidery, and playing games like dominoes,” exchanging stories and ballads, and learning feminine manners.29 This area boasted of a particularly strong women’s culture surrounding unmarried girls. “Girls’ houses” aside, unmarried girls worshipped the Seven Sisters, a local spin-off of the Double Seven festival. The Seven Sisters associations collected monthly contributions to go toward elaborate preparations for the celebration, which began months in advance. Activities included making miniature finely embroidered shoes and small-scale furniture decorated with sesame seeds, and purchasing of many kinds of fruits, sweets, and delicacies that would be displayed at the festival. At the festival, the associations hired musicians and actors to perform on stage and cooks to make food to sell. All plans were made and executed by girls themselves.30

These cultural practices in the Canton Delta offer fascinating examples of how local traditions shaped women’s social life. Such elaborate and well-organized celebrations may be absent from other regions, but unmarried girls across the empire observed the Double Seven as their holiday in varying ways. The Double Seven festival was originated in a folktale about a couple, Weaving Maid and Cowherd, who were allowed to reunite in the middle of the Milky Way once a year at the night of the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. In Ningbo, Zhejiang, girls set out melon and fruit seeds as offerings and begged the Weaving Maid for skill. Under moonlight, they “threaded fine needles,” and succeeding in doing it meant that they acquired the skill (de qiao). The cultural obsession with the festival was not limited to young girls, as Double Seven also celebrated marital love.31 What is noteworthy, perhaps, is that no other comparable festivities for boys existed in imperial China, and the unique yearly event brought girls from the local community together for fun and enjoyment.

Young Men’s Schooling and Socializing in the Outer Realm

From a young age, men embarked on different paths of social life from women, and the paths depended on their social background. While homosociality was the norm across social classes, formation of friendship and social networks differed markedly for the elite and for those of the lower social strata. One starting point was education. Boys from poor families may have access to lineage community to get basic literacy, but the educational opportunities stopped there. Elite families placed great significance on classical learning because such an education was a marker of cultural sophistication and refinement. The significance of education reached another level when, starting in the 10th century, the civil examination became the main route toward office-holding, the ultimate gauge of success. The system opened the door of government offices to the majority of men, elites and commoners alike, yet only families that had means were able to support advanced education, which put their sons on a solid footing for upward social mobility and ensured the perpetuation of the family status.

Boys born into educated families could start tutoring for basic literacy and some classical education from their parents as early as a few years old. They then studied with tutors at home and enrolled in family and lineage schools where a curriculum centered on Confucian classics and writing practice marked the beginning of the long quest for high status. For the bright and the promising, the next opportunity for advanced study included academies, county schools, and the national university in the capital, where they would be simultaneously taking the civil examinations for years. Failure meant retaking them repeatedly until passing (or giving up). The system grew to be infamously competitive, and in late imperial times, only one in 10,000 who took part in the examinations became a jinshi, the highest of the three degrees.32 Family pressure, personal drive, and the hyper-competitiveness of the examinations channeled these educated young men into a similar pattern of life in which study took precedence over anything else.

School constituted a major venue for social interaction and friendship development. One of the five cardinal human relationships, friendship was fundamental to an orderly society in Confucian teaching, although in political discourses, it was sometimes deemed as a threat to the state for its association with factional politics. Unlike the other four relationships—those between ruler–subject, father–son, husband–wife, and older brother and younger brother—relationships between friends were guided by honor-bond duty (yi), a glorified cultural ideal in popular literature, and theoretically egalitarian. Friendship had a strong masculine implication, and “to have many male friends was often considered as an important badge of masculinity,” for it demonstrated the male ability to travel and socialize widely.33 The gendered perception of friendship as well as its social and emotional values motivated individuals, commoners and elites alike, to seek friendship in all kinds of ways.

For the aspiring youth, the grueling routine of study made social activities, such as parties and sightseeing trips with fellow students, special moments of relaxation, rejuvenation, and bonding. The joy and excitement they felt can be seen in poems and journals (ji, or a record of an event) composed in their wake. Lacking economic independence at this stage of life, they often had to rely on the support of their understanding wives who pawned their dowry items to finance these activities. Wives at times joined in the planning and the gatherings. Shen Fu, the 18th-century literatus from the wealth city of Suzhou, tells of how his wife came up with a clever idea for his flower appreciation party that allowed them to drink warm wine in the middle of the flower fields. “By the end of the afternoon cups and plates were scattered around and all of us were very jolly, some sitting and some lying down, some singing and some whistling.”34

Gatherings were not just for fun, however. Shen Fu described another type called an “examination party.” The participants, in a group of eight, each brought a small amount of cash and drew lots to select an examination master and an official recorder. The former announced two lines of poetry for the rest (the “examination candidates”) to write couplets that rhyme with them within the time it took a stick of incense to burn. Afterward, the recorder copied everyone’s couplets (to conceal handwriting to prevent favoritism) for ranking. Winners were chosen, and the winner and the runner-up would be the examination master and recorder for the next party. Those who failed to win were fined, and the cash that resulted was usually “enough for plenty of wine.”35 This type of event gave young talents opportunities to rise above their peers to establish a literary reputation in their locality. The personal bonding and networks that emerged through these activities became lifetime resources. For example, Shen Fu, who never had a career of any sort take off, would come to depend on a friend from childhood, who rose to be a high-ranking official, for employment as a staff member in the latter’s offices.

Frequently, ambition led educated young men to leave home for the capital where kinship and local networks introduced them to broader webs of connection at the political center. While continuing their study for the examinations and, in Qing times, working as tutors to children of officials, they sought patronage from court officials by impressing them with their literary work. The passing of the metropolitan examination and earning of the jinshi degree, granted by the emperor, ultimately marked the transformation of their status into that of the national elite.

Class and Male Networks

One enduring social consequence of the examinations was the production of the so-called tongnian as well as zuozhu and mensheng connections that put the degree holders in an exclusive community. Tongnian literally means “the same year,” and it refers to the men who passed the provincial or the metropolitan examinations in the same year; zuozhu and mensheng refer to the chief examiner and the examinees who passed the examination under him. The former was a horizontal relationship and the latter, vertical. They crossed and weaved into sprawling networks, creating bonds, patronage, and obligations in the bureaucracy on the values of reciprocity and loyalty. First appearing in the Tang, these personal networks were political in nature, and they became deeply embedded in the bureaucratic system that contributed to the factional infighting from which dynastic politics was seldom able to escape.

Excluded from the tongnian and zuozhu and mensheng networks, educated men who failed in the examinations nevertheless could seek patronage and work as staff members (muyou) in local government offices. Thanks to the small size of the bureaucracy, local officials at all levels, including magistrates, prefects, governors, and governors-generals, typically relied on staff members they personally recruited to assist in carrying out managerial work. In the 18th and 19th centuries, influential local government officials who took a personal interest in scholarship became the most prominent patrons of these struggling yet talented scholars. Governors-generals Bi Yuan (1730–1797) and Ruan Yuan (1764–1849) and also imperial education commissioner Zhu Yun (1729–1781), for example, attracted some of the best scholars into their circles to work on projects of book compilation and publication, driving the evidential intellectual movement. The muyou positions not only offered financial security, but also springboards for career advancement, since some would eventually gain the top examination degree and join the top echelon of the elite.36

Whether having a successful government career or not, educated men bonded over their shared cultural identity which was asserted through participating in a distinctive literati lifestyle. That lifestyle was formed on passion for scholarship and writing and was expressed in social gatherings such as the “literary gathering” (wen hui) in which the participants engaged in discussion and exchange of scholarly and literary ideas over wine, delicacies, and, at times, the service of female entertainers.37 To claim membership among the cultured, writing poetry was a must-have skill. Composing poems at social gatherings was a common practice and, over time, the timeless allure of poetry gave birth to a popular and long-lasting form for literati socialization, the poetry club. First emerging in the Song, when its number was believed to be close to one hundred, poetry clubs continued to flourish throughout the rest of the imperial history (and in Qing times this form of socialization gained traction among women poets).38 Whereas poetry clubs and literary gatherings fashioned a lifestyle of refinement, creativity, and leisure for the literati at large, academic professionalization led to the development of revolutionary “evidential scholarship” in the 18th century. In the Lower Yangzi region, the bustling activities of collecting and publishing books, visiting libraries, sharing materials, and reading and critiquing works of colleagues enriched social lives in a fashion not seen in any other time in imperial history.39

“[B]onds among men were key to success and survival for rich and poor, elite and commoner, in Chinese history.”40 What separated the commoners from the educated class were the objectives in, as well as the means of, forging relationships. For the overwhelming majority of men who had limited opportunities for upward mobility, maximizing chances of success was achieved through means other than the examinations, and sustaining family and weathering hardships were their ultimate life goals. Lineage, the patrilineal kinship organization which became prevalent from the Song time on, offered a system of local support for those who belonged in one. Aside from financial assistance and schooling opportunities for children, the ritual function the lineage performed enabled members to forge a shared identity and stay connected. Other local organizations, such as temple organizations and local defense clubs, also gave villagers a sense of belonging and a means of making connections that cut across status divisions.41 Deep-rooted cultural practices such as “godfather” and “godson” and sworn brotherhood were widely available for ordinary people to establish social connections in the local community, sometimes utilized as a bridge connecting to the elite. Shen Fu’s father, for example, had twenty-six godsons.42

Support and connections were crucial for the poor who were forced to leave home to search for employment in towns and cities or to settle in peripheral regions. Migration and sojourning were regular aspects of life for men in late imperial times, but these trends grew more intense in the late 18th and 19th centuries when population increase and competition for resources worsened economic hardships and the government was losing the ability to cope with the emerging crisis. Among migrants and sojourners were the “bare sticks,” which referred to the able-bodied men who could not afford a wife and a home. Rootless and drifting, they were perceived as threats to society and were vulnerable to attacks from the government and the public alike. Seeking assistance, belonging, and security drew them to fraternal organizations that were sometimes subversive in nature, such as secret societies and bandit groups, and where loyalty and mutual obligation created emotional and material support that helped to relieve hardship.43 In the cities, guilds and native place associations represented a different type of social structure formed on professional and geographic affiliation.44 Native place associations (huiguan), in particular, created a community and a sense of identity for poor sojourners and enabled them to build patron-client ties with the sojourning elite as well as benefit from the many functions of the associations, including emotional comfort and assistance, accommodation for practical needs, such as burial grounds and coffin repositories, and a place to worship. Major associations also played an important role in advancing the business and trade interests of their native places.45

The merchant occupied a paradoxical position in imperial Chinese society. Confucian ideology placed merchants at the bottom of the social hierarchy, yet their wealth gave them considerable economic power. This uneasy position informed the manner with which merchants conducted their lives, namely, imitating the cultural tastes of the social elite and associating themselves with the literati. But the relationship between the educated elite and merchants was not one dimensional, but dynamic. In the Qianlong reign of the Qing (1736–1795), for example, the Huizhou salt merchants took advantage of the imperial court’s favor and used material objects to connect with the top elites of the empire, who in turn fulfilled their obligation by writing lavish praise for the merchants’ moral deeds.46 Both parties actively engaged in forging mutually beneficial relationships, blurring the social boundary between them.

Crossing Boundaries: Heterosociality and the Threat to Inner Quarters

Under the gender system organized on the Confucian tenets of the separation of male and female and segregation of women, legitimate venues for male–female interactions outside the family were few. Nonetheless, heterosociality was integral to social life and had a somewhat lubricating effect on the rigid gender system. Sometimes rules were bent or ignored outright as they were mediated by various conditions such as class, locality, and economic conditions, allowing varying degrees of mingling of men and women. Other times, heterosociality was woven into cultural and local traditions over which the state had limited power to regulate.

From as early as the middle imperial period, entertainment of the upper-class male created a distinctive site for heterosocial interaction. Men of status and wealth regularly purchased the services of a particular group of women—female entertainers, or the courtesans. Deemed socially “polluted,” courtesans lived outside the family structure and were not subject to the control of the normative gender system. Young, attractive, and perfected in the arts of music, dance, poetry, and so forth, they became the ideal companions of the educated, and until the Qing, when companionship in marriage thrived among the literati, they unfailingly captured the men’s imagination. The personal records of the literati as well as novels and plays were replete with fantasies, desires, and pleasure on the part of their male patrons.

The association of the elite and courtesans took shape amidst the fledging civil examination culture in the Tang period. Examination candidates who gathered in the capital Chang’an to study and participate in the examinations fashioned a way of life with female entertainers. The prevalent influence of the courtesan culture was shown in the fact that even the state owned its own “government courtesans,” who provided entertainment to middle- and high-ranking officials. This trend continued to develop in the Song, propelled by commercialization and urban growth. Courtesans became central to the social life of the elite and a marker of their status and privilege.47 The 17th century marked the high point of the courtesan culture. Splendid pleasure quarters mushroomed across urban centers, particularly in the Lower Yangzi region. The romantic association of famous literati and brilliant courtesans shined in contemporary records as well as in the imagination of later generations. Against a backdrop of political turmoil and dynastic fall along with cultural nostalgia, courtesans were ensured to become “the symbol of refinement, high culture, freedom, and the possibility of action.”48

Such a form of entertainment and pleasure was the monopoly of the elite male, but different types of social venues offered men and women of all classes some heterosocial chances to have a good time. The Chinese lunar calendar was filled with secular and religious festivals, so much so that one historian believes “nowhere in the world has been such a passionate delight in festivals as in China.”49 Women participating in the celebrations along with men was a long-established tradition in Chinese history. A spring festival in the fields was recorded in Eastern Zhou (770–256 bce) times “at which there was a custom of general courtship and mating.”50 Festivities of a social or religious nature were year-round in the Han and drew men and women to outings and drinking.51 It remained customary practices in later periods for women to join the crowds and celebrate festivals of all kinds. On the day of the Qingming festival (Qingming jie) in the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, for instance, the entire population exited from the city to visit and place offerings at graves, picnic, or watch dragon boat races on the lake. They didn’t return to the city until evening when the upper-class men came back on horses, ladies in sedan chairs, and the commoners on foot.52 Other popular festivals included the lantern festival (Yuanxiao jie) and the Zhongyuan jie (also called Yulanpen jie or the ghost festival). They made for great local spectacles from towns to countrysides. A Ming writer described the lantern festival in his hometown in Jiangxi province, a relatively obscure place, when “men and women filled (streets)” and the winding lanterns looked like a miles-long rainbow. In some places, women rented houses to view the spectacle.53 Pilgrimages to temples and shrines on deities’ birthdays, such as the birthday of the budhisattva Guanyin, were taken by pious devotees on multiple day trips to “pay respects to the mountain and present incense” (chao shan jin xiang).54

At the peak of the pilgrimage seasons, crowds filled the roads of towns and cities, causing traffic headaches for travelers.55 Pilgrimages provided precious communal experiences for women where they helped and cared for one another, and where young girls formed sisterhoods.56 Although women traveled with their own groups, the crowded and chaotic settings made it impossible for them to stay separated from the men. During pilgrimages and other festival events, observers described scandalous scenes in which young rascals followed women around flirting and touching; some wrongly took women “turning their head back smiling” as having feelings for them. A moralist writer decried another chaotic scene where “women watched opera in front of the stage; their sedan chairs mingled with the male crowd. What a hideous custom! The entertainers would say anything [to amuse their audience]. Is it appropriate for unmarried girls to hear and to see this?”57 This writer seemed to imply that exposure to such “hideous” scenes and words was grossly inappropriate for unmarried girls, but was tolerable for married women, which suggests that perhaps the events were so commonplace that they lowered the bar for acceptance.

Not surprisingly, such customary practices allowing women to be in public and in gender-mixed settings were of grave concern to late imperial local officials who were responsible for maintaining social order in their jurisdiction. One local official in the 18th century, for example, blasted women who stepped outside their homes and were “accustomed to wandering about.” Women on pilgrimage, in particular, were seen as “one the most of the troubling signs of disorder and declining moral standards.” Local officials characterized them as at once “promiscuous and in need of control and vulnerable and in need of protection.” They accused evil monks of seducing naïve women and wayward wives of engaging in illicit sex with the monks and called for a ban of women visiting temples.58

Keeping women in their proper place, however, did not necessarily shield them from potential harm. Local officials and family heads in the Qing also believed that women who resided in the inner quarters could encounter bad elements and be led astray, and this was because of the active presence of an infamous group of elder women called “three aunties and six grannies” in neighborhoods. They included Buddhist and Daoist nuns, female fortune tellers, brokers (involved in selling women and children), matchmakers, shamanesses, procuresses, female healers, and midwives. As religious or spiritual experts and semi-professionals, they performed necessary or even indispensable roles, but they were at the same time viewed as dubious or dangerous, people who would do unethical things for financial gain. The distrust derived not only from the fact that they took on extrafamilial roles that were not in agreement with gender roles, but, more importantly, from their freedom to walk around and access the inner quarters where they could wield influence over young women. In popular literature, they were portrayed as cunning yet resourceful; they were great talkers and intrusive; they spread gossip and schemed to seduce innocent women to engaged in licentious acts.59


The intensely negative representation of and the heightened concern over the “three aunties and six grannies” illustrate the centrality of gender in the understanding of social life in imperial China. Confucian orthodoxy and the imperial states upheld the separation of the sexes and the concealment of women from the public as a cornerstone of an orderly and harmonious society. Chinese society life thrived on homosociality. From teenage years, men and women largely socialized and formed networks and communities along gender lines. But while Confucian gender norms dominated and were internalized, they were subject to negotiation by a range of other forces and conditions. In general, the late imperial period witnessed stricter enforcement of gender norms than earlier times; the upper class adhered to them more closely than the lower classes; older women had more leverage to bend the rules of concealment than the younger. Local customs and long-standing traditions also influenced the shapes and forms of social life, and so did changing cultural trends, as demonstrated in the late imperial rise of the talented women who, while enjoying unprecedented intellectually fulfilling networks, were also judiciously challenging the boundary of gender separation. To sum up, taking gender seriously has shed fresh light on social life and has produced a richer, more complicated, and nuanced understanding of the workings of the gender system as well as lived experiences of men and women during China’s long imperial history.

Discussion of the Literature

As a subject of historical inquiry, social life in imperial China was intrinsically connected to gender and women’s history, which became a main academic discipline only a few decades ago, in the 1990s. Scholarship on women’s culture, work, and intellectual and religious life, family and marital practices, sexuality, masculinity and femininity, the life course, and material culture, among other areas, has to varying degrees shed light on various constructs of social life and the lived social experiences of women and men. However, the subject of gender and social life remains understudied. Existing scholarship is fragmentary in the sense that few works have taken it as a sole focus. In addition, more research has been performed on the late imperial period and on the elite than on earlier periods and on the lower classes, due in part to the constraint of sources. New studies, however, are being produced to expand the scope of research. One ongoing project, for example, is seeking to illustrate how women’s literary activities were embedded in the expansive and enduring transregional networks that were actively being constructed by Huizhou merchant families.60

Primary Sources

A wide range of primary sources are available for research on gender and social life in China’s imperial period. For orthodox ideas on gender and male–female interactions, Confucian classics, especially the ritual classics and their commentaries and treaties, make up the core sources; didactic texts (family and lineage instructions and instructions for women), originated in the Eastern Zhou period and proliferated in late imperial times, are most useful for understanding how orthodox values were translated into common directives and were disseminated in society;61 gazetteers typically included descriptions of social customs and localized festivities, and biji (miscellaneous notes) often contained anecdotal accounts and stories pertaining to the subject. Legal cases, which usually involved lower-class people, can be informative about social relationship and interactions in local society, as are literary texts, especially plays and fictions. For social interactions of the educated, their own records, including biographies, letters, and poems, are replete with personal accounts. These materials are readily available in “collected works” published in major collections such as Wenyuange siku quanshu and Xuxiu siku quanshu. Women’s writings (primarily in the genre of poetry) represent the most significant discovery of historical sources in recent decades, and many volumes have been published conventionally or as online electronic sources.62

Further Reading

AHR Forum. “Gender and Manhood in Chinese History.” American Historical Review 105, no. 5 (December 2000).Find this resource:

Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Cass, Victoria. Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.Find this resource:

Ebrey, Patricia. The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Hinsch, Bret. Women in Imperial China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.Find this resource:

Huang, Martin. “Male Friendship in Ming China.” Nan Nu: Men, Women and Gender in China 9, no. 1 (2006).Find this resource:

Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Man, Xu, Crossing the Gate: Everyday Lives of Women in Song Fujian (960–1279). Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Mann, Susan. Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Mann, Susan. The Talented Women of the Zhang Family. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Mann, Susan. Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Pruitt, Ida. A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1945.Find this resource:

Shen Fu. Six Records of a Life Adrift. Translated by Graham Sanders. New York: Hackett, 2011.Find this resource:

Stockard, Janice E. Daughters of the Canton Delta: Marriage Patterns and Economic Strategies in South China, 1860–1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:


(2.) Zhu Bin, Liji Sun zhuan (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1996), 440, 419.

(3.) For discussions of these concepts in the Song context, see Ebrey, The Inner Quarters, 21–29;

(4.) Robin R. Wang, ed., Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period through the Song Dynasty (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003), 49–50.

(5.) Zhang Fu Qing, comp., Nϋ‎ Jie: Funuϋ‎ de Guifan (Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue chubanshe, 1996), 15.

(6.) Beverly Bossler, “Final Instructions by Yang Jisheng,” in Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History, ed. Susan Mann and Yu-ying Cheng (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 127.

(7.) On the cult of female chastity in late imperial China, see Janet Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China (Berkeley: University of California, 2005); and Weijing Lu, True to Her Word: The Faithful Maiden Cult in Late Imperial China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

(9.) Xiaorong Li, Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 5.

(10.) For example, “Gui Fan,” “Gui Jie,” and “Xing Gui bian.” Zhang Fu Qing, Nű Jie.

(13.) For discussion on women’s (and men’s) life courses, see Susan Mann, Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), chap. 3. One example of a bride bonded with her husband’s family is Bao Mengyi, whose story is narrated in Susan Mann, The Talented Women of the Zhang Family (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007).

(14.) See, for example, Mann and Cheng, Under Confucian Eyes, 108, 224.

(15.) Lihua Gu, Handai funu sheng huo qingtai (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2012),134–138.

(17.) Hinsch, Women in Imperial China, 87.

(18.) Man Xu, Crossing the Gate, 114–115.

(19.) Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, 219.

(20.) Weijing Lu, “Beyond the Paradigm: Tea-picking Women in Imperial China,” Journal of Women’s History 15, no. 4 (Winter 2004).

(21.) Hong Liangji, Waijia ji wen. Shou jing tang edition. Guangxu 3 [1877].

(22.) Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, 234.

(23.) Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, chap. 3.

(24.) Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, 230–231.

(25.) Dorothy Ko, “Lady-Scholars at the Door: The Practice of Gender Relations in Eighteenth-Century Suzhou,” in Boundaries in China, ed. John Hay (London: Reaktion Books, 1994), 198–216.

(26.) Susan Mann, “Classical Revival and the Woman Question: China's First Querelle des Femmes,” in Family Process and Political Process in Modern Chinese History, vol. 1 (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1992), 377–411.

(27.) Li, Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China, 54.

(28.) Margery Wolf, Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972), 38.

(30.) Stockard, Daughters of the Canton Delta, 43–44.

(31.) Mann, Precious Records, 170–171.

(32.) Benjamin A. Elman, Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

(33.) Martin W, Huang, “Male Friendship in Ming China: An Introduction,” in Nan Nu: Men, Women and Gender in China 9, no. 1 (2007): 5–6.

(34.) Shen Fu, Six Records of a Floating Life, trans. Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-Hui (London: Penguin Books, 1983), 67.

(35.) Shen, Six Records, 65.

(36.) Guy, R. Kent, The Emperor’s Four Treasuries: Scholars and the State in the Late Chien-lung Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1987), 49–56.

(37.) The tradition of wen hui (literary gathering) can be traced back to the 5th century, the latest, when the term was mentioned in the Literary Mind and the Carving of the Dragons (Wen xin diao long) by Liu Xie.

(38.) Zhou Yangbo, Songdai shishen jieshe yanjiu, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2008.

(39.) Benjamin A. Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).

(42.) Shen, Six Records, 36. Godfather and godson, yifu and yizi in Chinese, did not have religious connotations.

(43.) Lee McIsaac, “Righteous Fraternities and Honorable Men: Sworn Brotherhoods in Wartime Chongqing,” in AHR Forum, Gender and Manhood in Chinese History, American Historical Review 105 no. 5 (December 2000): 1641.

(44.) Mann, Precious Records, 35.

(45.) Bryna Goodman, Native Place, City and Nation: Regional Networks and Identities in Shanghai, 1853–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 9–11.

(46.) Yulian Wu, Luxurious Networks: Salt Merchants, Status, and Statecraft in Eighteenth-Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017), 153–158.

(47.) Beverly Bossler, Courtesans, Concubines, and the Cult of Female Fidelity: Gender and Social Change in China, 1000–1400 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016), 13–38.

(48.) Wai-yee Li, “The Late Ming Courtesan: Invention of a Cultural Ideal,” in Writing Women in Late Imperial China, ed. Ellen Widmer and Kang-i Sun Chang (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 47.

(49.) Jacques Gernet, Daily Life in China: On the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1970), 185.

(50.) Arthur Waley trans., The Book of Songs (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 76.

(51.) Gu, Handai funu, 139–140.

(52.) Gernet, Daily Life in China, 193.

(53.) Wu Renshu, Shechi de nüren: Ming Qing shiqi Jiangnan funü the xiaofei wenhua (Beijing: Shangwu yingshuguan, 2016).

(54.) Mann, Precious Records, 179–180.

(55.) Wu Renshu, Shechi de nüren, 52–55. Also see Mann, Precious Records, 179–180.

(56.) Mann, Precious Records, 196.

(57.) Shen Hanguang, Jingyuan xiao yu (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2010, Qingdai shiwen huibian edition), 70/164.

(58.) Mann, Precious Records, 194–195.

(60.) Binbin Yang, “Literary Women of the Hui-Yang Families in Mid-Qing Yangzhou and Beyond” (paper presented at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, Denver, CO, March 22, 2019).

(61.) The earliest extant didactic work on women dates to the Warring States period. See Olivia Milbum, “Instructions to Women: Admonitions Texts for A Female Readership in Early China.” Nan Nu: Men, Women and Gender in China 20 (2018). Examples of published collections of didactic texts included Zhang Fuqing comp., Nϋ‎ Jie: Funϋ‎ de Guifan (Beijing: Zhongyan minzu daxue chubanshe, 1996) and Zhou Xiucai et al., comp., Zhongguo jiaxun daguang (Dalian, China: Dalian chubanshe, 1997).

(62.) Most of them are published in Chinese. Selections of translated writings by women are available in English, which include: Kang-I Sun Chang and Haun Saussy, eds., Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999) and Wilt L. Idema and Beata Grant, eds., The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004). A major online database of late imperial women writers and their works, created by Grace Fong and maintained by McGill University, is The Ming Qing Women's Writings digital archive and database project.