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Disgraceful Matters

The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China

Janet Theiss (Author)

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Looking beyond the familiar trappings of the cult of female chastity—such as hagiographies of widows and chastity shrines--in late imperial China, this book explores the cult's political significance and practical ramifications in everyday life during the eighteenth century. In the first full-length study of the subject, Janet Theiss examines a vast number of laws, legal cases, regulations, and policies to illustrate the social and political processes through which female virtue was defined, enforced, and contested. Along the way, she provides rich details of social life and cultural practices among ordinary Chinese people through narratives of criminal cases of sexual assault, harassment, adultery, and domestic violence.
A Note on Textual Conventions
A Note on Dynasties and Reigns

part one · The Chastening State: The Qing Chastity
Cult in Ritual,Law,and Statecraft

Prologue: A Chaste Barbarian Martyrs Herself on the Imperial Frontier

1. Defining Gender Orthodoxy for a Multiethnic Empire

2. Statecraft and Gender Order in the Qianlong Reign

part two · Female Virtue and the Politics of Patriarchy

Prologue: A Righteous Husband Plays the Politics of the Wifely Way

3. Enforcing Gender Order: Between the Ancestral Hall and the Yamen

4. Divided Loyalties: Natal Families and the Exercise of Patrilineal Authority

5. Adultery, Incest and the Multiple Meanings of Patriarchy

part three · Mapping Chastity across Boundaries of Body,Mind,and Space

Prologue: A Compromised Widow Sacrifices Her Body to Defend Inner Virtue

6. The Wages of Wanton Mixing: Violation and Gender Disorder

7. “Accommodating Sages”: Gender Separation in Social Practice

part four · “Being a Person”: Female Humiliation and Social Power

Prologue: Male Impropriety and Female Outrage Lead to a Tragic End

8. The Problem of Female Moral Agency

9. The Logic of Female Suicide


A Note on Archival Sources
Character List
Janet M. Theiss is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah.
“An elegantly rendered yet forcefully argued work in which crime and punishment play out as a form of moral theatre bent to the task of social engineering.”—Bradly W. Reed China Review
“A cogent work of scholarship that is brilliantly conceived and elegantly written. . . . This is solid scholarship that should be consulted by everyone interested in social, legal and gender history.”—Thomas Buoye Social History
"An important contribution to the rapidly growing Chinese gender studies field. No other work has so persuasively demonstrated the significance of chastity in High Qing political, social and cultural lives as Theiss's investigation has done. The author's analyses are nuanced and her conclusions compelling. This is a particularly enlightening read."—Martin Huang, author of Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China

"Outstanding and timely, this book significantly advances our understanding of late imperial Chinese history on several fronts. Theiss tells us a great deal that is new about cultural attitudes of this era. Clear and lively, this is research of very high quality."—William T. Rowe, author of Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China

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