Skip to content

Sex, Status, and the Cult of the Early Modern

March 27, 2010

Sex, Status, and the Cult of the Early Modern: New American Works on China’s Eighteenth Century

Jeremy Brown (2004)

Recently, Professor Joseph Esherick remarked that in order to be relevant, new historical work on the Qing dynasty must touch upon at least one of three themes: demographic change, the impact of the West, and ethnicity. This lineup of major issues combines the path-breaking contributions of fresh scholarship on Manchu identity (Crossley 1990, 1999; Elliott 2001) with the pressing concerns of earlier generations of American historians.

Today, few would deny that scholars hoping to grasp the full complexity of the Qing period must contend with the three factors mentioned by Esherick. However, to cover all three issues equally and adequately in one historical monograph would be impossible. Two important recently published books treat population change as a central theme, while largely ignoring ethnicity and the impact of the West. The result is still impressive and adds much to our understanding of Qing China.

Matthew H. Sommer’s Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China (2000), and William T. Rowe’s Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China (2001) share basic assumptions about change in eighteenth century China, but come to strikingly different conclusions about the implications of demographic shifts. While Rowe celebrates the creative response of Qing officials to the population crisis, Sommer holds a much less sanguine, more ambivalent view of the state. The purpose of this essay is to analyze and interrogate the distinct ways in which Sommer and Rowe depict domestic trends in late imperial China.

I will first place Sommer and Rowe’s assumptions about internal change within the context of earlier scholarly work. Next, a topical section will examine how the two authors treat the theme of status. Finally I will argue that distinct sources and agendas explain the variance in the books’ conclusions.

Resilient Consensus: Change from Within

Saving the World is a long, dense twelve-chapter biography of Chen Hongmou (1696-1771), who Rowe calls the eighteenth-century Qing empire’s most prominent Chinese official. Rowe uses Chen Hongmou as a window on elite mentality, a remarkably active example of how government authorities creatively wrestled with increasing social turbulence. The view through Matthew Sommer’s window could not be more different. While Rowe introduces readers to the probing minds of elite officials, Sommer’s Sex, Law, and Society depicts the sexually deviant world of penetrated males and pregnant widows. Although Sommer views society at the grassroots and Rowe’s angle is top down, a similar question drives the work of each author: how did the Qing empire deal with the rapid and turbulent social change engulfing China during the eighteenth century?

In his conclusion, Rowe elegantly sums up the nature of this change, arguing that population growth caused heightened competition over scarce resources and spurred the government to seek increased productivity (446-7). The bulk of Saving the World examines how Qing officials like Chen Hongmou faced the problems brought about by this population crisis. Sommer also accepts demographic change as the source of shifting policies, specifically those regulating sexuality. The population increase coupled with female infanticide led to a surplus of “rootless rascals” (guanggun), unmarried men who had lost out in the “competition over women” mentioned by Rowe. The destabilizing effect of these rascals on society, Sommer writes, demanded legal and legislative responses from Qing officials dismayed by the “moral and political implications of social and demographic change” (113).

Sommer and Rowe take rampant population change and concurrent social instability for granted as the impetus behind a series of seminal shifts in the eighteenth century. However, this view was not the consensus in the 1950s and 1960s, and has recently come under attack again. The important works of John King Fairbank (1953) and Mary Clabaugh Wright (1957) focus not on the eighteenth century but on change forced upon China by the coming of the West in the early nineteenth century. While Fairbank and Wright impressively document the dynamism of Chinese responses to the Western impact, the eighteenth century appears static, relatively stable, and above all, Confucian. While William Rowe would certainly not dispute the centrality of Confucian mentality for such officials as Chen Hongmou, he calls the eighteenth century a time of “extraordinary social dynamism and change” (446).

Scholars in the 1960s and 1970s laid the groundwork for Rowe and Sommer’s assumption that China was undergoing significant change prior to the coming of the West. In particular, Frederick Wakeman’s Strangers at the Gate (1966) and The Fall of Imperial China (1975) serve as rebuttals to Fairbank and Wright. Wakeman argues that the tripling of Chinese population between 1400 and 1800 led to important shifts, including “changes in the peasants’ social and economic status, proliferation of the gentry, and commercialization of the economy” (1975, 3). For Wakeman, these changes, and not a static Confucian mindset, conditioned China’s response to the Western challenge.

Later works, especially those of Philip C.C. Huang (1985, 1990), portray untrammeled population growth in late imperial China as the cause of economic involution and downward social mobility for peasants, inexorably leading to a crisis atmosphere ripe for revolution. Given that Huang was Matthew Sommer’s dissertation adviser at UCLA, it is not surprising that Sommer accepts the notion that population growth and a surplus of unattached males sparked a crisis – and in turn led to imperial regulation of sexuality. Recently, Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), and James Z. Lee and Wang Feng (1999) have attacked Huang’s version of events as confirming China’s backwardness vis-à-vis Europe. Pomeranz, Lee, and Wang reject Huang’s population data and argue that in many respects, China was ahead of Europe.

Rowe and Sommer were researching and writing their books well before Pomeranz, Lee, and Wang’s highly controversial work burst onto the Chinese history scene, challenging decades of established historiography (Rowe published his first article on Chen Hongmou in Late Imperial China in 1992; Sommer finished his Ph.D. dissertation, the basis for Sex, Law, and Society, in 1994). Even if Rowe and Sommer had the opportunity to take Pomeranzian scholarship into account, it is unlikely to have dramatically shifted their working assumptions and conclusions about the eighteenth century – domestic change brought about by population growth is far too essential to each author’s argument. However, as we shall see, Rowe is much more amenable than Sommer to the opinion that Europe and China were roughly on par. We will follow this thread in a discussion of how Rowe and Sommer treat the central theme of status in the eighteenth century.

The Yongzheng Status Reforms: Emancipation or Clampdown?

In 1723, the Yongzheng emperor effectively eliminated hereditary status distinctions. His edict elevated members of certain debased social groups (jianmin) to the ranks of commoners (liangmin). Few scholars would negate the importance of this legislative shift, but disagreement remains about the effects of the reform. How Sommer and Rowe treat the issue of shifting status boundaries reveals a significant fissure between the two authors. Sommer views the Yongzheng status reforms as a watershed in the regulation of sexuality, with decidedly mixed results for ordinary Chinese people. Rowe attributes less importance to the reforms, only analyzing them within the context of Chen Hongmou’s vision of humanity. Nonetheless, Rowe’s analysis of Qing status leveling exposes his optimistic opinion of Chinese historical progress in the eighteenth century – an opinion that Sommer does not share.

Rowe characterizes the Yongzheng reforms as “emancipatory” (303). This one word is remarkably revealing, for we clearly see Rowe’s positive assessment of the Qing response to rampant population growth and its attendant problems. Rowe acknowledges that Chen Hongmou rarely thought about changes in legal status distinctions (296). But when Chen did ponder related issues, he was remarkably upbeat. According to Rowe, Chen viewed the relatively “open structure of opportunity” of the eighteenth century as an improvement upon earlier eras when family background and inherited status stifled upward mobility (306). Of course, Chen Hongmou himself would not have called the changes of the Yongzheng reign an “emancipation.” Nobody in China used that term at all. Unlike certain Western scholars who eagerly search for evidence of emancipatory progress toward liberty and equality, Chen operated within a different framework.

But Saving the World is Rowe’s book, and it is Rowe who establishes the framework. One of his central goals is to demonstrate that eighteenth-century China and Chen Hongmou belonged to the early modern world. Rowe approaches this task by asserting that Qing China shared many characteristics with Europe. Viewed through Rowe’s comparative lens, the Yongzheng elimination of hereditary status boundaries matches up nicely with the decline of feudal distinctions in Europe. Likewise, Rowe sees Chen Hongmou’s favorable view of merchants – a group customarily scorned in imperial China “as an ‘early modern shift'” (300). Why is this early modern? Rowe does not state his rationale directly, but we can surmise that he has the newly ascendant bourgeoisie of eighteenth-century Europe in mind. Rowe is probably accustomed to his Europeanist colleagues in the history department at Johns Hopkins University exclaiming that the increasingly independent merchant class played a crucial role in the development of European capitalism. In Saving the World, he retorts that important officials in China also approved of merchants and appreciated the demise of feudal-like status labels.

It appears that Rowe has pored over Chen’s extant works in a search for “early modern” elements. But if Rowe is obsessed with early modernity, Matthew Sommer is obsessed with sex. Sommer’s discussion of how Yongzheng status reforms affected the regulation of sexuality flies in the face of Rowe’s positive, progress-oriented analysis. Sommer explicitly takes issue with scholars who call the 1723 Yongzheng edict an “emancipation.” Not only is the term a “strange anachronism,” he argues, but a closer look at how the edict influenced sexual practices reveals a tightening of state control, not linear progress toward some universal ideal (264).

Sommer calls the abolition of debased groups an “extension of the reach of civil law” that actually held the affected groups to a “far stricter standard of conduct than before” (272, 264). Whereas many members of debased music households (yue hu) previously provided sexual services for remuneration without penalty, the 1723 changes mandated that all people were subject to punishment for prostitution. Sommer also shows that stricter surveillance by local officials followed in the wake of the 1723 edict. So rather than setting people free, the emperor had broadened the Qing’s crime and punishment apparatus and abolished all forms of legalized prostitution.

Sommer holds that the Yongzheng reforms were just one element in the kit of administrative and legal tools used by Qing rulers to regulate sexuality. From new substatutes governing rape and sodomy to the official elevation of chaste widows, the long arm of Qing law reached into bedrooms throughout the empire. Why the increased imperial attention to sexual practices? Sommer returns to demographic change. The surfeit of rootless young men threatened social stability and traditional morality. By punishing deviance and rewarding chastity, Qing officials hoped to push potentially volatile unmarried men into conventional family relationships.

It should now be clear that Sommer’s analysis of Qing status reform is more ambivalent than Rowe’s praise for “early modern” advances. Sommer recognizes that the intent of sex regulations was not outright repression but rather to “strengthen an embattled peasant family against the moral implications of downward mobility” (316). But he is careful not to call increased regulation and status leveling progressive phenomena. As Sommer writes, “treating people the same as one another does not necessarily mean endowing them with political rights,” and can actually serve the interests of autocracy (303).

In treating the Yongzheng status reforms, Sommer emphasizes autocracy and the pressing threat of a downward social spiral in the eighteenth century, while Rowe highlights creative state responses and opportunities for upward mobility. What is behind this striking difference between the two authors, and what can the fissure tell us about the state of the Chinese history field today? The final section of this essay will address these questions.

China’s Eighteenth Century and the Battle Against Eurocentrism

William Rowe’s version of the Qing state looks rosy. Innovative and flexible, staffed by selfless, diligent, and productive officials like Chen Hongmou, the Qing government coped with the crises of the eighteenth century as well as it could. Rowe’s source base helps to explain this pretty picture. Rowe draws most heavily from Chen Hongmou’s own prolific writings. By all accounts Chen was a remarkable official. His reports, letters, and memorials display the workings of a sharp, dedicated mind. And for Rowe’s purpose of illuminating elite consciousness in Qing China, Chen Hongmou’s writings serve as an eminently useful window. But because of the official, top-down nature of Rowe’s sources, and because of Chen’s natural tendency as a bureaucrat to justify state intervention as a positive force, readers get a somewhat skewed, pro-government view of Qing society.

Rowe’s clear agenda of emphasizing China’s early modernity vis-à-vis Europe also contributes to his glorification of the Qing state. Rowe wants to show that Europe was not the sole fountainhead of world progress in the eighteenth century. So he plays up the marvelous, supple nature of the Chinese bureaucracy and imperial initiatives. The end result is certainly a rich portrait of a complex era, but it is also a celebration of the state as the arbiter of social order.

Sommer views the demographic crisis of the eighteenth century not just as a problem demanding state attention, but also as a dire threat to people on the margins of society. One of his agendas in ensuring that scholars and readers do not ignore the plight of the marginalized. This concern is clear from the attention Sommer pays to poor widows, rootless young men, prostitutes, and gay laborers. Because of the involutionary economic situation brought about by untrammeled population growth, he writes, poor people turned to unconventional sexual arrangements as survival strategies.

Unlike Rowe, Sommer is not so concerned with knocking Europe out of its dominant position in American history departments. He accepts China, sexuality, and the marginalized as worthy historical topics in their own right and sees little need to compare China with Europe. Through this difference between Rowe and Sommer, we can identify two distinct camps among historians of China.

One camp makes value judgments about Chinese historical progress, asserting that at various points in time China was as good as or better than Europe. Kenneth Pomeranz’s work, with its provocative demand that scholars recognize Chinese economic supremacy, belongs to this camp. As I have made clear, we can situate Rowe’s Saving the World in this group. Although Rowe accepts the idea of population growth that has been so hotly disputed by Pomeranz, Lee, and Wang, it is safe to surmise that Rowe would be sympathetic to the Pomeranzian agenda of trashing Eurocentrism. Perhaps Rowe’s Europeanist colleagues are particularly grating in their narrow-minded orientalism. Or maybe Rowe himself has a strong background in European history that, when combined with his deep knowledge of China, fires his passion to debunk the continent as the only possessor of early modernity.

A second camp portrays China as undergoing its own unique processes. Such scholars as Frederic Wakeman find it useful to occasionally refer to phenomena in Europe but dispute the notion that China and Europe were directly comparable. Sommer’s warnings against using ahistorical, anachronistic labels like “emancipation,” place him squarely in this group. Sommer’s graduate training under Philip Huang has conditioned him to look at China for China’s sake.

In my view, Sommer’s approach is more fruitful. Fighting the battle against Eurocentrism (and its close cousin, racism) should be the goal of all Asianists. The question is not whether to fight, but which tactics to use. Sommer’s strategy of closely studying domestic change and recognizing the innate worth of researching Chinese society is more effective. By accepting China on its own terms and by implicitly humanizing Chinese people through his attention to sex, sexuality, and the struggles of the poor and marginalized, Sommer has succeeded in decentering Europe.

Rowe’w book is well written, expertly researched, and an important contribution to our understanding of elite officials in the eighteenth century. But if Europe was indeed not the center of the of the eighteenth world, as all red-blooded historians of China would assert, why is it necessary to continuously refer to European trends and concepts? Why must we stoop to the limited vocabulary of Europeanists by using their terms (early modernity, for example) to explain Chinese phenomena? The battle against Eurocentrism would be better fought by shifting our cognitive focus away from Europe, not toward it.


Fairbank, John K. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1953.

Huang, Philip C.C. The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985.

Huang, Philip C.C. The Peasant Family And Rural Development In The Yangzi Delta, 1350-1988. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Lee, James Z. and Wang Feng. One Quarter of Humanity : Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Rowe, William T. Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Sommer, Matthew H. Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Wakeman, Frederic. The Fall of Imperial China. New York: Free Press, 1975.

Wakeman, Frederic. Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Wright, Mary Clabaugh. The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-Chih Restoration, 1862-1874. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

© Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: