Sexuality in China on the Verge of Modernity

Polygamy and Sublime PassionFor centuries of Chinese history, polygamy and prostitution were closely linked practices that legitimized the “polygynous male,” the man with multiple sexual partners. Despite their strict hierarchies, these practices also addressed fundamental antagonisms in sexual relations in serious and constructive ways. Qing fiction abounds in stories of female resistance and superiority. Women—main wives, concubines, and prostitutes—were adept at exerting control and gaining status for themselves, while men indulged in elaborate fantasies about female power. In Polygamy and Sublime Passion: Sexuality in China on the Verge of Modernity, Keith McMahon introduces a new concept, “passive polygamy,” to explain the unusual number of Qing stories in which women take charge of a man’s desires, turning him into an instrument of female will. To this he adds a story that haunted the institutions of polygamy and prostitution: the tale of “sublime passion,” in which the main characters are a “remarkable” woman and her male lover.

“This book is a tour de force, the first in English to discuss Chinese fiction from the nineteenth century through the first decade of the twentieth within a comprehensive thematic frame. McMahon’s familiarity with Chinese fiction of the period covered is extremely impressive, as is his command of the secondary sources, both English and Chinese.” —Theodore Huters, UCLA

December 2009 / ISBN 978-0-8248-3376-3 / $55.00 (CLOTH)