Matthew H. Sommer
Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China
Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions
University of California Press 2015
First things first: Matthew H. Sommer‘s new book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the history of China and/or the history of gender. Based on 1200 legal cases from the central and local archives of the Qing dynasty, and focusing on the rural poor rather than the elite, Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions (University of California Press, 2015) looks carefully at polyandry, wife sale, and a variety of intermediate practices that mobilized a woman’s sexual & reproductive labor to help support her family. In a series of chapters that use fascinating stories and documents to transform how we understand what constitutes Qing law, Sommer’s book compellingly argues for the impossibility of maintaining a clear-cut, binary distinction between sex work and marriage in the Qing. The records on which Sommer bases this magisterial account are full of stories that are themselves worth the price of admission, sensitively rendering the lives of husbands, wives, children, and their communities as they attempted to navigate difficult, complex, and moving circumstances. This is a book that will change not only how we understand marriage, gender, family, and sex in late imperial China, but also how we think about these and related concepts more broadly conceived. Highly recommended!