The Inner Quarters:
Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period

Patricia Buckley Ebrey

University of California Press 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
In China the Sung period (960 to 1279) saw "the spread of footbinding and strong condemnation of remarriage by widows", but was also a period when "women had particularly strong property rights". Our sources for the lives of Sung women are mostly anecdotal narratives, with a distinct class and gender bias: pretty much everything was written by scholarly men, with funerary biographies of upper class women emphasizing positive aspects and legal cases involving poorer women negative ones. From these sources, however, Patricia Buckley Ebrey teases a fascinating portrait of the lives of women in Sung China, focused on marriage; she also uses halftones of art works to good effect.

Confucianism stressed physical separation of the sexes; accompanying this was an ideological distinction between inner and outer, ying and yang. Male and female body images and clothing were clearly distinct (an extreme example, footbinding spread from the palace and the entertainment quarters to the elite).

We know most about upper class marriages: Ebrey describes their language and terminology and the legal frameworks, Confucian ethics and ritual, and literary and popular images (such as notions of predestination) surrounding them. Selection of partners involved friends, relatives, go-betweens, and young men and women with "minds of their own". The most important ceremonies and rituals involved multiple exchanges of gifts, first during the betrothal process and then again during the wedding. Common components of dowries were land, cash, cloth, and jewelry and control of dowries was critical in family politics. There were changes during the period, but "within the long course of Chinese history, the Sung seems to have been the period in which wives and daughters fared best with regard to dowries".

Ideal upper-class wives were "inner helpers", holding together complex extended families, managing households, giving sage advice, producing literary works, and piously performing religious rituals. The details varied, but making cloth — splicing and spinning, raising silkworms and reeling silk, weaving and dying — was a key part of women's work. Relations between husbands and wives involved more than "willing submission" — they were also represented as loving and companionate, alongside stereotypes of bossy or jealous wives and violent or smitten husbands. Women's identities revolved around others, particularly around children and their moral development; wet nurses were common but a matter for concern, and abortion and infanticide were condemned.

There were more fundamental threats to ideal marriage. Neo-Confucian ideology praised chaste widows, but remarriage was always legal — either way, widowed women were likely to face property lawsuits from relatives of their deceased husband. Concubines were little more than sex slaves, with few rights or protections — they could have children taken away from them and their children had to ritually honour their father's wife. The importance of maintaining lineages created a place for adoptions and uxorilocal marriages (where daughters were kept at home), though this was perhaps more common in frontier and non-Han areas. And women usually came off the worst from "adultery, incest, and divorce" — judges might, for example, expel a daughter-in-law rather than chastise her father-in-law for treating her indecently.

Contemporaries wrote from an intellectual perspective that denied change, but Ebrey concludes with an outline of changes during the Sung period — in women's economic life, in the gender rhetoric associated with Neo-Confucianism, and in marriage practices. She argues that status consciousness and the dynamics of class inequalities were important driving forces of change. And Sung Neo-Confucianism was not misogynist, just focused on patrilineal principles.

October 2002

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- Patricia Buckley Ebrey - The Cambridge Illustrated History of China
- books about China + Chinese history
- books about women + feminism
- more social history
- books published by University of California Press
%T The Inner Quarters
%S Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period
%A Ebrey, Patricia Buckley
%I University of California Press
%D 1993
%O paperback, references, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520081587
%P xviii,332pp