The Woman Question in Semi-Colonial China: The Case of Concubines

While never colonized, China was subject to European, American and Japanese imperialism from the beginning of the Opium War in 1839 to the conclusion of World War II in 1945, a period many Chinese refer to as “a century of humiliation.” Chinese intellectuals often described China’s relations with colonial powers in gendered terms, comparing the foreign encroachments on Chinese soil to rape. Yet reformers realized that ridding China of colonialism required, paradoxically, inviting legal experts from the very countries threatening China’s sovereignty. The legal reforms begun in the twilight years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) offer a unique opportunity to analyze how China’s semi-colonial status influenced legal thinking on the woman question. Discussions of the plight of women mirrored discussions of the fate of the nation. Just as China needed to lift itself out of the semi-colonial state a century of imperialist aggression had reduced it to and achieve parity with the “civilized” nations of the world, so too did women need to liberate themselves from the subordinate status to which centuries of patriarchal authority had relegated them and attain equality with men. By comparing Chinese and Anglo-American perspectives on concubines, adopted daughters-in-law and slave girls, my paper analyzes the ways in which the discussion on women’s status is embedded in discourses of nationalism and colonialism. For Chinese reformers, these women embodied the weakness of China; improving women’s situation was seen as a critical step to strengthening the nation. Foreign observers saw these women as evidence of China’s backwardness and invoked the spirit of “white man’s burden” to justify their intervention. Reconstructing the dialogue between Chinese reformers and foreign observers and analyzing the gendered implications of the legal changes resulting from that dialogue reveal the ways in which China’s semi-colonial status shaped and was shaped by the woman question.

Lisa Tran is Assistant Professor in the Department of History of California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of “The Concubine in Republican China: Social Perception and Legal Construction”, Etudes chinoises 28 (2009), p. 119-150 ; “Sex and Equality in Republican China: The Debate Over the Adultery Law”, Modern China: An International Quarterly of History and Social Science 35.2 (March 2009), p. 191-223 ; “From Concubine to Wife: Implications of the Wedding Ceremony Requirement in the Guomindang Civil Code, In Philip C.C. Huang and Kathryn Bernhardt, eds. Research from Archival Case Records: Law, Society and Culture in China. Beijing: Falü chubanshe, 2009, p. 321-350 ; “Marriage and Family in China: Ideology and Practice,” Education About Asia 13.1 (Spring 2008), p. 17-20.


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