Social Status of Widows in Qing Dynasty
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Social Status of Widows in Qing Dynasty
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PII
S268684310015728-8-1
DOI
10.18254/S268684310015728-8
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Article
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Published
Authors
Maria A. Terekhova 
Affiliation: Independent Researcher
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
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161-171
Abstract

The chastity cult in Qing China caused a striking ambiguity of widows’ status. They were praised and honored. Widow’s status became a symbol of the elite when a woman had enough financial freedom to protect her virtue and not to remarry. Their lives were described in the biographies and local gazetteers as Confucian legends about dignity. But no political agenda could mitigate the bitterness and hardships of a woman who lost her husband in the imperial times. The article analyzes the bilateral nature of widowhood in the Qing dynasty: governmental proclamations, juridical formulations, and widows’ biographies written by gentry, on the one hand, and women’s inner perception of chastity that we read between the lines in the legal documents. How did the concept of fidelity glorified in the law relate to real-life practices? The paper summarizes that state politics and the law often contradicted reality that detracted from women’s internal sense of morality and women’s personal meaning-making the chastity cult in Qing China.

Keywords
widows’ chastity, gender relations in imperial China, widowhood in China, women suicide in China, Chinese family law, property relations in imperial China
Received
27.07.2021
Date of publication
03.08.2021
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1 A widow is neither a wife nor is she an unmarried woman. Her position was vulnerable anywhere during any time of history. Nevertheless, the cult of chaste widowhood in the Qing dynasty is a unique case of treating women who lost husbands. The Qing government formed the cult of widow’s virtue beyond ethnic and class boundaries, embracing Confucian morality of widow virtue and spreading it to the world of Manchu women ((Fig. 1). Qing ruler expanded the already existed reward system for widows and elaborated procedures for locating, verifying and recognizing widows’ chastity [Mann, 1987, p. 38]. For preserving fidelity to deceased husbands, widows got privileges from the government: were exempted from serfdom and carvée labor tax, rewarded with immortalizing their names on the arches and in shrines.
2 The governmental laws honoring the social status of Qing widows and local gazetteers publishing astonishing stories about widows’ martyrdom were only one side of the medal. In the real-life, women who lost their husbands faced enormous hardships. Besides emotional anxiety and loneliness, widows had to deal with financial difficulties and social pressure. Chaste widowhood became “the hallmark” of moral education those norms were extrapolated on widows’ lives without considering any specific details of a widow’s case. Juridical and social sanctions discouraged widow’s remarriage. If a woman chose another man to continue her life with, she had to leave her children and the share of the property left from a husband to in-laws’ family. The same juridical and social conventions connected the concept of widows’ chastity with suicide that helped “valiantly” follow a husband to the afterword. This understanding of chastity sent many women to the grave ahead of time.
3 There are two approaches to the impact of politics pursued during the Qing dynasty on the chastity cult development. One emphasizes the continuity of the reward system across the dynasties and emperors resulted in a significant upsurge in testimonials for virtuous widows — a phenomenon called by Elvin [1984] “popularization” of moral norms. Another approach stresses the watershed between policies in Qing China and other dynasties. Liu Jihua [1934] sees the Manchurian epoch as a turning point of widow’s chastity perception that “became a religion” [Mann, 1987, p. 38]. The paper inclines to the second point of view.
4

5 Fig 1. Image of Li Wan, Widow Character from the Classical Chinese Novel “Dream of the Red Chamber” Written by Cao Xueqin. The Novel Portraits Li Wan as a Mild-Mannered Woman with No Wants or Desires, the Perfect Confucian Ideal of a Mourning Widow. URL: >>>> (accessed 06.04.2021)
6 Anyhow, according to the Confucian philosophy, wives were placed in the system of “hierarchical bonds” that permeating the whole Chinese society. Relations “ruler — minister”, “older brother — younger brother”, “parents — children”, “husband — wife” conformed to a certain conventionally accepted order. Fidelity (jie, 節) was women’s primary virtue, same as loyalty (zhong, 忠)for citizens, and filial piety (xiao,孝) for children [Liu, 1934; Mann, 1987, p. 37].
7 In the article, I consider the bilateral nature of widowhood in the Qing dynasty: the facet of governmental proclamations, juridical formulations, and widows’ biographies written by gentry against the inner reflection of chastity by women that could be read between the lines of the legal documents and seen in the documented actions of the women.
8 “Real Chinese widows, what did chastity meant for you?” — the question that the paper seeks to contribute to.
9 Widows in-between Neo-Confucian Morality and Manchu Politics
10 Chastity as a Political Agenda
11 The Qing concept of widow chastity derived from the institutionalization of Confucian morality in Yuan and Ming dynasties [Elvin, 1984, p. 123]. In 1304, the Yuan Board of Rites proclaimed that all women younger than thirty who lost husbands and at least during twenty years remained single without engaging in adultery had to be praised and honored [Mann, 1987, p. 132]. During the Ming dynasty, new detailed and explicit regulations regarding widows were published: they were called jingbiao (旌表) and described awarding imperial testimonials of merit to chaste widows [Mann, 1987, p. 37]. The Manchus first adopted the jingbiao to regulate widows’ lives in 1651 — seven years after the establishment of Manchu rule in Beijing [Elliott, 1999, p. 38]. In Qing times the concept of female chastity was transformed into a cult, e.g., “chaste widows” or jiefu (節婦) were commemorated with memorial stone arches (Fig. 2).
12

13 Fig.2. The Huang Family Widow’s Memorial at 228 Peace Park in Taipei. URL: >>>> (accessed 05.04.2021)
14 Сult of chastity in the Qing dynasty also manifested in the rapidly increased numbers of virtuous widows within the Eight Banners1 (Fig.3). More than 80% of Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese chaste widows appeared in the Eight Banners during the rule of Qianlong Emperor (1736–1795). Confucian norms penetrated not only deeper in the Qing society, but “widely, moving across ethic as well as class boundaries” [Elliott, 1999, p. 35].
1. Administrative and military divisions under the Qing Dynasty into which all Manchu households were placed.
15 The cult of women’s virtue was Manchus’ commitment to Confucian ideals, a part of state policy toward gender roles and ethnic agenda. Manchus started to build social norms and enacted laws based on Confucian morality that, as they thought, would help people to perceive them not as conquerors but legitimate rulers [Mann, 1997, p. 21–22; Elliott, 1999, p. 34; Zhang, Liu, 1995, p. 106]. The cult of the widow chastity was a part of the Manchu acculturation campaign to involve autonomous tribes into the mainstream of provincial governance [Mann, 1997, p. 44].
16 Demographic expansion as “the most striking feature of the High Qing era” was another premise that contributed to the rise of the chastity cult [Mann, 1997, p. 33]. It entailed an active migration among men and, therefore, influenced gender relations and raised the value of female chastity [Mann, 1997, p. 36]. Women, including mothers, wives, and daughters-in-law, were responsible for the whole household while husbands were sojourning with men.
17

18 Fig.3. Costumes worn by the people of the Manchu Eight Banners. URL: >>>> (accessed 07.04.2021).
19 Virtuous Widows and Society
20 Widows in the Qing dynasty enjoyed a special reward system. Women were nominated by the local community, and the list with their names was sent to the county magistrate for consideration. After the Board of Rights examined the biography, a family was rewarded with written commendation that could be placed at the entrance of the home. Community leaders or families were given money to put names of chaste widows on a stone arch (Fig. 4а, b) placed outside a temple specially created in honor of chaste and filial persons [Mann, 1997, p. 23–24]. Chaste widows could be also praised inside the temple where their spirits could be honored at the local spring and autumnal sacrifices [Mann, 1987, p. 42].
21
22 Fig.4a, b. The Three Widows Chastity Arch in Jinmen (金门) was erected to recognize Madam Chen and her two daughters-in-law. URL: >>>> (accessed 07.04.2021)
23 The virtue honoring campaign and the legal framework extension led to the rapidly increased number of petitions seeking the status of the chaste widow. Detailed biography sketches and long lists of chaste widows’ names rapidly grew up to thousands [Mann, 1997, p. 24]. During Yongzheng and Qianlong (1736–1795) reigns the legal category of chaste widowhood included women who committed suicide to “follow the husband to death” as a protest to forced remarriage or other life challenges that could pollute chastity as well as women who refused to remarry refrained from suicide and remained in faithful service to their deceased husbands’ family [Sommer, 2000, p. 170; Mann, 1987, p. 40]. This process was termed by Elvin [1984, p. 133–135] “popularization” of virtue — promotion of virtuous behavior and moral education among commoners.
24 Socioeconomic explanation of the number’s growth refers to the spread during the late 19th century of institutions that supported women who lost their husbands. In the mid-Qing, there were established charitable institutions for chaste women, mainly during the reigns of the Tongzhi (1851–1861) and Guangxu (1875–1908). Due to massive reductions in the male population after the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864), there was a necessity for “revival of the renewed emphasis on traditional Chinese virtues” [Tao, 1991, p. 110].
25 Eligibility of the privileges for chaste widows partly depended on the social class. Members of the Manchu imperial family and in the Manchu Banners received state subsidies for the construction of arches and installation in a temple in addition to silver, silk, and provisions: a lamb, wine, and other ritual objects. Manchu widows in the Banner system also got pensions after their husband’s death and could give a son the same positions in the army as a father had [Elliott, 1999, p. 57].
26 Han widows were not allowed to remarry until they leave the share of the property to in-laws, while Manchus in the Eight Banners could remarry without restrictions. Elliot [1999, p. 54–55] quotes the court statement about the remarriage of banner widows in 1724: “Henceforth the widows of all [banner] officers and soldiers who wish to remarry shall be free to do so. Those who wish to come back to the capital shall be allowed to return to the banner”. Moreover, rules even encouraged young Manchu widows to remarry by stopping husbands’ pension one year after his death. After 1727, to increase incentives, childless Manchu women after forty received no pension at all.
27 Women from the provinces had a right to receive a gift of silver from local officials because the construction of the arch, installation in the temple, and all the costs of sacrifice should have been paid by the family. Women who were “enslaved, indentured, or admitted to religious orders” could have a stone arch in front of their graves but were not praised inside the temples [Mann, 1987, p. 42].
28 The status of chastity spread not only to a woman but to the whole family, therefore, it became a means of competition for social status among local elites rather than simple recognition of a woman’s moral integrity. People were “more anxious to enhance personal or family prestige than to strengthen the moral value for which the shrines were supposed to stand” [Mann, 1987, p. 42; Hsiao, 1960, p. 229]. Seeking admiration from the government, families resorted to fraud and bribery. But this phenomenon had an even broader context.
29 In the middle of the 19th century, recognition of chaste widows became prestigious for the local communities. Personalities of chaste widows were described in biographies and local gazetteers. However, there are reasons to doubt the plausibility and impartiality of local gazetteers’ editors and the gentry who compiled the biographies of virtuous women. Gentry often practiced “historical nepotism” and introduced “an idealized version” of women [Spence, 1979, p. 61]. Editors used the possibility to memorialize mothers and sisters-in-law as virtuous. In general, the discourse about widowhood chastity was a male discourse among philosophers and scholars that presents a limited perspective to look at those women.
30 Life after Husband’s Death: Widow’s Perspectives and Challenges
31 Remarriage and Property Rights
32 But why women and exactly widows became the focus of governmental moral education? Mann [1987, p. 44–45] explains that in Chinese imperial society, a woman was highly dependent on a husband and his relatives as she cannot return to her natal family in case of unhappy remarriage or a husband’s death — there was simply no resources for her living. Since then, a widow’s position was permanently connected with ambiguity and anxiety in the family system. Without a share of property that she could rely on in old age, she fully depended on the husband’s family. At the same time, she was a source of sexual attraction and could bear children, therefore produced tension making a family weaker. Preserving a widow’s sexuality protected the self-regulating domestic cycle.
33 During the Song dynasty, the attitude to the widow’s remarriage was drastically different compared to later imperial times. Customary speaking, remarriage after divorce or widowhood was not shameful — behind that lied economic motivation. In a society where women could only survive as men’s dependents, widow remarriage was a necessity. After a husband’s death, if a woman’s natal family was poor, she had no one to ask for help. Another reason for a remarriage popularity practice was the uneven sex ratio in the countryside. Poor men often were “left without a bride”.
34 Second husbands were called “continuing” (jiejiafu; 接腳夫), and their existence was regulated by the government. The Administrative Documents of the Song said: “If his widow is still alive, she can summon a second husband to work on the first husband’s manorial land. The wife is appointed the head”. Noteworthy is also that “no new household name is to be established under the second husband’s name” [Zang, 2003, p. 133]. It defined the rule of a man coming to a woman’s household and not vice versa, possibly to protect children and prevent splitting up the land between households.
35 With the rise of the virtue cult in the Qing dynasty, to maintain the status of a chaste widow, a woman had to possess a certain level of financial independence. Сhastity in Qing times became a “symbol of the elite” whereas poor segments of society had no other choice but remarriage, living on charity money, or prostitution [Sommer, 2000, p. 167, 184]. Among these options, remarriage seemed to be the most virtuous and viable one.
36 Remarriage of a widow was often not the choice of the widowed woman because of her in-laws. If remarried, women had to leave a share of the property to the husbands’ family that was in the interests of brothers of a deceased husband, especially when they were peasants with a little surplus. They could improve life circumstances, if a woman decided to start a new life with another man [Sommer, 2000, p. 167]. When forced remarriage was considered as an option by in-laws, chastity played a significant role in the widow’s rights to manage her husband’s property and to live with and raise children. A widow enjoyed the unique right not to remarry since no other woman could refuse marriage. But ever since she committed adultery, she lost all her privileges and could be sold into marriage [Holmgren, 1985, p. 13]. Therefore, remaining chaste suited a widow’s interests, otherwise, she lost her independence completely — adultery eliminated her veto over marriage [Sommer, 2000, p. 177].
37 Making a woman remarry against her will was a crime leading to severe penalties [Sommer 2000, p. 171]. Selling into remarriage was an extreme measure and made by “the destitute or the unscrupulous”, i.e., families with extremely difficult financial situations. In Qing times, in-laws from lower and the middle class rarely resorted to the coercion of widow to remarry — increasing commercialization and diversification of labor started from the 17th century on, provided women with opportunities to earn money and complement their husband’s share of the property [Holmgren, 1985, p. 13].
38 Relations between adultery and remarriage for a widow represented a close legal connection between the sexuality of a woman and her property [Paderni, 1999, p. 262]. If a widow enjoyed material independence, it allowed her to engage in adultery until it was revealed by others. She could technically remain a part of in-laws’ family if they did not object [Paderni, 1999, p. 263–269; Sommer, 2000, p. 193–194; Mann, 1987, p. 48–49]. Since people around were convinced of her chastity, she enjoyed all the praise and respect from society and the state.
39 Sommer [2000, p. 199–202] described the case that took place in 1831 in Ninghe County, Zhili province, when a woman, even after she was caught naked with her lover, was persuasive enough to prove her chastity to the local magistrate. Fair or not, she won the battle for reputation according to the law: as long as she was chaste, her interests would be protected. This position contradicts the opinion of Zhang and Liu [1995, p. 10] that a widow in the Qing dynasty “had no way to live except to keep the body chaste”. As legal cases show, some women were not victims of their status and successfully used it.
40 In Qing times, taking an unofficial husband in the widow’s house had to be a secret, because illicit relations were criticized by society and punished by law. Pregnancy as a result of adultery could become the worst scenario for a woman. Some women tried to kill their babies directly after giving birth or to commit amateur abortion not to be caught for the illicit relations [Sommer, 2000, p. 203–204; Paderni, 1999, p. 66]. Adultery could be kept secret to preserve family honor because the widow’s chastity influenced the reputation of the whole family [Paderni, 1999, p. 270].
41 A widow was obligated to adopt the heir for her husband. The law of the Ming dynasty issued in 1369 and incorporated by Qing rulers legally connected a widow’s rights for the husband’s property share and the adoption of the heir:
42 A woman without sons who preserves her chastity after her husband dies is to receive her husband’s share of the property and must, through the agency of the lineage head, select a nephew of the appropriate generation as heir [Bernhardt, 1999, p. 62].
43 Following the law, priority was given to the sons of her brothers-in-law. However, in Qing times with the cult of chastity, a widow was often “rewarded” for not remarrying: officials did not go against her will to adopt whoever she preferred, even the distant nephew, unless she chose the wrong generation [Bernhardt, 1999, p. 65]. In 1775 edict of Qianlong established this concept as a law, recognizing common legal practices.
44 To sum up, a widow’s position within the family of a dead husband was only partially protected by the law in the Qing dynasty. She owned her husband’s share in the family property but it was rather the result of the concept that married couples formed one legal unit [Waltner, 1981, p. 132]. After the death of her spouse, a widow represented the couple, but she neither could dispose of the property nor take it into another marriage. Serve aging in-laws, raising heirs, and working were the main functions of a widow in the in-law family.
45 Suicide and the Perception of Virtue
46 Not all practices of chaste widowhood of the Ming dynasty were embraced by Manchus. A custom of “following husband to death” (xunsi;寻死) by young women that came from the Confucian perception of woman’s fidelity was not fully accepted by Qing elites, even though Manchu society had its tradition of “following to death”, independent of Confucianism and connected with long Altaic funeral tradition originated in the Inner Asian society [Elliott, 1999, p. 50–54].
47 Qing rulers’ attitudes towards women’s suicide had been changing over time. In the early Qing, widow suicide among Han women was perceived as a heroic act and highly respected. By the High Qing era (1683–1839), Manchus moved to the discouragement of widow suicide for both Manchu and Han widows. Widow suicide started to be seen as a violation of women’s duties as daughters-in-law and mothers. Yongzheng Emperor (1723–1736) emphasized a woman’s role in the family and her civil impact on the state welfare in his 1728 edict:
48 After a husband’s death, there are still many wifely duties to be fulfilled. She must take the place of a son in serving her father- and mother-in-law. She must take the place of a father in teaching and rearing her descendants... How can death put an end to her obligations? [Elvin, 1984, p. 128–129]
49 Life perspectives of widowhood brought little happiness, especially for young childless women. The is no wonder that a common response to unexpected challenges for some of them became suicide. The action of “the following husband to death” was to a great extent influenced by the customary law: a connection between suicide, remarriage, and chastity was enhanced by the female agency. Many legal cases prove the great impact of women’s interpretations of male behavior, tone of voice, or words. Zhang and Liu [1995, p. 100] described one of many similar cases when a young widow decided to commit suicide despite her husband’s dissuasions and even pleas to remarry after his death.
50 Indeed, there were motives for widow’s suicide beyond wifely fidelity to the deceased husband. In-laws have their reasons to wish a widow’s remarriage: parents had other children to be cared for by them, and brothers might have improved their financial situation as a woman left her share of the property to them. The interest of the husband’s family in excluding a widow from the family system could make her life unbearable. And since being remarried, she became twice defenseless as before: she lost her children, share in the property and even dowry [Holmgren, 1985, p. 11–12]. Besides, she had a perspective of an “inferior match” because a family who could afford a never-married bride would never accept a woman who had already been married [Mann, 1997, p. 25; Holmgren, 1985, p. 12].
51 Meanwhile, in stem families which were often so poor that could raise only one son till adulthood, after the death of a husband, a widow became the head of the household. In such families, sons tended to marry late, and there was a high possibility that after a husband’s death, a widow would stay with a little child and aged parents in poor health [Mann, 1987, p. 46]. Loneliness, emotional frustration, financial burden were hardships faced by a young widow — society reward was one of the political measures that could motivate a widow to stay alive [Mann, 1987, p. 46–47; Mann, 1997, p. 25].
52 How did women themselves perceive virtue and fidelity? Did women understand chastity the same as it was described in the legal documents? The judiciary often evaluated widow’s behavior based on the fact whether a woman committed suicide or not, her death often became a “paradigmatic gesture of wifely virtue” [Sommer, 2000, p. 177–178]. But, as legal evidence showed, in people’s minds the line between chaste and unchaste was unclear, especially when it was connected with sexual assault [Theiss, 2004; Sommer, 2000].
53 The legal case that took place in 1753 in Xiuyan District of Fengtian Prefecture in Manchuria told a story of a woman named Du Songshi, widowed and living alone with her three sons when one day she was assaulted by the man by name of Sun Er. He came into her house, terrified her with a knife, and raped her. To break free, she deceived him, making him put the knife down and promising to obey him after she moved children to another room. As he released her, she stabbed him with his knife and saved herself [Theiss, 2004, p. 121–130].
54 However, in the Qing Code, there were clear requirements to prove that illicit sex was coerced:
55 In a prosecution for rape, there must be evidence of violent coercion, and in the situation, there must have been such that the woman could not struggle free; there must also be persons who were aware and heard what happened, as well as physical injury to skin and body, torn clothing [...]. Only then shall the offender be sentenced to strangulation. If an offender joins with a woman by coercion but completes the act by means of her consent, then it does not count as coercion [Sommer, 2000, p. 325].
56 The magistrate suspected the case of consensual sex, as a person who was injured was Sun Er, not Du Songshi. Formally speaking, a woman obeyed him and used her “savvy” instead of “traditional” forms of defending chastity, i.e., cursing the offender or attempting to commit suicide. Du Songshi was vindicated by the court [Theiss, 2004, p. 130]. But this legal record demonstrated that a widow had an inner sense of chastity, true virtue was the fulfillment of family duties rather than preserving body integrity.
57 Nevertheless, the case of Du Songshi is rather an exception in the common Qing dynasty legal practice because the magistrate proved that rape took place. Sommer [2000, p. 183–184] described a similar case where a widow pretended to submit to a new husband, whom she was forced to remarry because she did not dare to commit suicide and leave her child alone. Magistrate “found this widow’s reaction far from ideal” because she should have killed herself for defending chastity, not consummated the marriage, and escape afterward.
58 In his manual for local magistrates Huang Liuhong repeated the logic of the Qing Code:
59 If illicit intercourse is committed by the use of force at the beginning, but the woman acquiesces at the end, or if during the commission of the crime she yells and struggles at first but accedes to the will of her violator when the act is successfully carried out, the crime cannot be considered rape [Huang, 1984, p. 434].
60 Once a young unmarried woman Xuanjie hanged herself after the hired hand of the family named Xu Da touched her. She started to shout, and he grabbed her skirt to stop her from running away and cursing him. The skirt was torn. Xuanjie, afraid of social dispraise, hanged herself the next day. Board of Punishments stated that Xu Da wanted to rape her, and Xuanjie was canonized for defending her chastity [Theiss, 2004, pp. 146–147].
61 Two legal cases above present polar perceptions of what chastity meant for women: some connected it with their responsibilities, and some with external praise of virtue. Widespread motives for suicide were losing face [Даулет, 2019], family shame, or social dishonor [Theiss 2004, p. 192–209]. For legal institutes, a woman’s chaste behavior during the assault was decisive: she must yell, struggle or commit suicide if her resistance was unsuccessful. However, for women, who provided the family, becoming “a martyr” by suicide was not an option [Theiss 2004, p. 143].
62 The chastity cult in Qing China caused a striking ambiguity of widows’ status. They were praised and honored. Widow’s status became a symbol of the elite when a woman had enough financial freedom to protect her virtue and not to remarry. Their lives were described in the biographies and local gazetteers as Confucian legends about dignity. But no political agenda could mitigate the bitterness and hardships of a woman who lost her husband in the imperial times. The understanding of virtue in the official documents was indeed constructed based on already existed ideology and perception of “husband — wife” relations, therefore accepted by the Chinese society. However, legal constraints, as it mostly happened, could not embrace the whole bunch of life practices. As legal evidence showed, a lot of women went through their meaning-making process derived from the cult of chastity promoted by Qing rulers. Chastity for them meant not only body integrity but in every case something broader: care for children, fulfillment of family duties, and simply desire to be alive. As Sommer [2000, p. 208] wrote: “The conflict of legal interpretations for losing chastity and life practices “gets us beyond [...] imperial ideologues, and shows how ordinary people incorporated the courts and official discourse into their strategies”.

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