Friday, March 17, 2017

[Dissertation] Divorce and the Divorced Woman in Early Medieval China (First through Sixth Century)

Tang Qiaomei

Harvard University



This dissertation consists of two parts: a cultural study of divorce in early medieval China and a literary study of the divorced woman as represented in various early medieval Chinese writings, including literary and historical writings, legal, ritual and medical texts, and tomb epitaphs. 

A comparison between the rites, norms and regulations prescribed for women in ritual classics, and women’s lived experiences as recounted in historical writings, shows a greater discrepancy between norm and practice in the early medieval period than in later periods. Normative prescriptions were generally not followed by women of this period, and women enjoyed a more relaxed social and familial environment than their late imperial counterparts. The gap between norm and practice was extended into many areas of familial and social life, including marriage and divorce. An examination of actual divorce cases reveals that neither the Seven Conditions (qichu 七出) nor the Three Prohibitions (sanbuqu 三不去) were strictly adhered to when divorce took place. Divorce happened to people from all levels of society, and could be initiated by both men and women for reasons outside of the Seven Conditions and the Three Prohibitions. Divorce was not regarded as a social taboo in early medieval China.

The unstable social and political environment that characterizes the early medieval period gave rise to some ritual deviations and anomalies, among which was the two-principal-wives (liangdi 兩嫡) phenomenon. Debates and discussions on this marital predicament anchored on the issue of divorce, that is, how should the martial status of the two wives be defined? A thorny
case of a sixth-century liangdi dilemma reveals that during the long divide between north and south, the contestation between wives for the principal wife status mirrored the contention for cultural supremacy and political legitimacy between northern and southern elite.

Generally speaking, divorced women were not stigmatized in early medieval China, and remarriage was an acceptable recourse for them. Historians appeared to be indifferent to her plight, and tended to write of the divorced woman only to help tell the story of the man who divorced her. In contrast, in poetic writings, the divorced woman was not viewed only in relation
to her ex-husband. She was instead a disconnected, isolated figure, and her emotions took center stage. This comparison reveals that the image of the divorced woman in early medieval China reflects both the mindset of the men who formulate her in writing, as well as the constraints imposed by each writing genre.

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