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Manchu Widows and Ethnicity in Qing China

  • MARK C. ELLIOTT (a1)
    • Published online: 01 January 1999

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 twentieth centuries.Mark Elvin, “Female Virtue and the State,” Past and Present 104, 111–52; and Susan Mann, “Widows in the Kinship, Class, and Community Structures of Qing Dynasty China,” Journal of Asian Studies, 46:1 (February 1987), 37–56. Among newer work, see the excellent discussion in Bettine Birge, “Levirate Marriage and the Revival of Widow Chastity in Yüan China,” Asia Major, 8:2 (Fall 1995), 107–46. By focusing on Manchu widows, the present essay attempts to improve our understanding of widowhood in late imperial China and at the same time shed light on the role of widows, and women generally, in the construction of ethnicity in the Qing period (1644–1911), when the alien Manchu dynasty ruled the country.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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