Chinese Women on the Run


A review of On the Run: Women, City, and the Law in Beijing, 1937-1949, by ZHAO MA. 

Zhao Ma opens with several cases of “deserting wives” who used their women-centered social networks in 1940s Beijing tenement courtyards to leave dissatisfactory husbands. Their dissatisfaction stemmed in one case from recurrent beatings (p. 46), but hunger was the most common culprit (pp. 40, 48). Zhao contrasts the late Qing, Nationalist, and Japanese occupation governments’ tightly regimented baojia mutual surveillance system, with lower-class women’s unorthodox social networks to illustrate their creation of “networks of cooperation” in order tosurvive in an era of runaway inflation and resource shortages (p. 39). Drawing on a legacy of urban studies (including the works of Madeleine Yue Dong, Mingzheng Shi, David Strand, Di Wang, and Yamin Xu), Zhao demonstrates that financial deprivations in wartime Beijing tore lower-class women’s lives asunder. In seeking means of survival, these women “became an invisible force that left visible marks on the city’s social and moral geographies “ (pp. 2-3).

Chapter Two couples three court cases against bigamists—two men and one woman—with an analysis of Beijing marriage license procedures to demonstrate that in the eyes of both the people and the state, the most important element signaling a binding marriage was a ceremony witnessed by “the public” (i.e. people other than invitees). The precise rituals performed during the ceremony and the papers signed as a result thereof were of secondary importance to this element of public witness. Zhao argues that, given limits on state power, officials purposely left room for broad interpretations of their marriage contract regulations, and he therefore contests Susan Glosser’s assertion that the 1930-31 Nationalist Marriage Law signaled a penetration of the state into people’s private lives (pp. 55, 75-79). It was precisely within this space left by vaguely worded documents that women like Ying Wang—who was eventually charged for bigamy—could leave one husband and re-marry in a new neighborhood, sealing the second marriage through neighborhood recognition rather than official registration. Zhao asserts that “fluid marriage patterns” were a survival strategy for lower-class women whose husbands were their main source of financial support.

Opening with the story of a young woman who fled her abusive husband and took up with a circus performer, Chapter Three utilizes court depositions of runaway women to illustrate the various entertainment options open to, and in turn transformed by, lower-class women in 1930s and 40s Beijing. Affordable entertainment was available at cinemas, public parks, temple fairs, or while playing mah jong and listening to the radio within one’s tenement compound. Court cases involving “illicit” sex show that these types of entertainment could lead to extramarital affairs. Zhao demonstrates that the variety of entertainment available at temple fairs increased in the 1930s and 40s, despite the overall number of fairs decreasing, and thus argues that lower-class people’s demand helped a fading cultural tradition persist into the mid-twentieth century. In this manner, lower-class women’s appetite for entertainment and pursuit of sexual relationships transformed the urban moral and cultural landscapes.

Court cases involving daughters who absconded with their lovers serve as the source base for Chapter Four. As in late imperial cases, daughters in these court records are universally portrayed as chaste and naïve, though in the 1930s and 40s only the parents held such a view, while the “victim” often portrayed herself as an active partner (pp. 142-43). Because the Republican code did not criminalize extra-marital sex, officials invented a new crime, “Offense against the Institution of Marriage and Family,” in order to ensure parents’ control over their daughters’ bodies (pp. 134). Although court records show that women’s revelations of their sexual pasts were not necessarily damning in court, and the civil code defined all women who were not currently in prostitution as “chaste,” male partners never got off lightly (pp. 144, 147). Seduction of all women under the age of twenty—regardless of whether or not they consented to the relationship—was illegal, thereby enabling the courts to protect family integrity while also ensuring women’s self-determination (pp. 169-72).

In the final section, Zhao Ma cites a wide variety of government and sociological surveys, economic data, and court records to analyze the financial pressures placed on lower-class marriages in wartime Beijing. Chapter Five demonstrates that the state frequently labeled as “unemployed” women who worked in the informal economy—their most common means of livelihood—which included smuggling, mending and washing clothing, and sex work (pp. 198-99).

Chapter Six returns to deserting wives to illustrate that finding more solvent husbands was another means by which these women sought financial support and argue that the social norm of man as provider and woman as dependent actually turned on men during the war when many lost their wives (p. 218). Wives defended themselves in court by explaining that their choice to leave was a last resort for survival (p. 216). Their departures were not attempts to challenge marriage as a patriarchal institution; in one case a deserting wife referred to her search for a new husband as “look[ing] for a master” (pp. 244, 250-51). Citing studies of late imperial court cases by Thomas Buoye, Matthew Sommer, and Janet Theiss, Zhao demonstrates that whereas the Qing legal code criminalized wifely desertion as a crime against family authority, reformers in the Republican era de-criminalized it to ensure gender parity in marriage (pp. 232-33).

Zhao’s dissertation reveals the lively function of lower-class women’s social networks prior to the Communist takeover which, he argues, actually curtailed “the latitude for women to define the city on their own terms” by heavily reconfiguring Beijing’s neighborhoods (p. 265). For the women featured here, neighborhood connections were their most important resource. If it is true that CCP campaigns dismantled these relationships, valuable comparative studies can be undertaken after this dissertation’s publication.

Zhao also demonstrates the degree to which twentieth-century women’s reform movements were based on middle- and upper-class concerns. The women featured here left husbands not to challenge patriarchy but in search of their next meal. This dissertation thus illuminates an important era in lower-class women’s lives in twentieth-century Beijing.

Nicole Elizabeth Barnes
University of California, Irvine
Chongqing, Shapingba district
Shaiguangping Rd. No. 69, 12-10-2 400030 CHINA

Dissertation Information

Johns Hopkins University, 2007. 297 pp. Primary Advisor: William T. Rowe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like