Like women in many parts of the world whose husbands
predeceased them, widows in China were free electrons, unbound
elements in the social chemistry. Economically vulnerable, ritually
superfluous, and at the same time socially destabilizing and sexually
threatening, they were archetypal liminal figures—marginalized,
caricatured, and feared. This has made the widow a good subject for
literary critics, anthropologists, and historians interested in the
way that societies treat women and in the way that treatment of widows
in particular is intended to ward off or contain potential disturbance
to the status quo. For China, as pioneering work by Mark Elvin and
Susan Mann has shown, examining changing attitudes toward widows
can illuminate larger social, political, and economic shifts in the
late imperial period, roughly the thirteenth through the early
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