Polygamy and Sublime Passion: Sexuality in China on the Verge of Modernity
224pp. December 2009
Polygamy and Sublime Passion: Sexuality in China on the Verge of Modernity
Author: McMahon, Keith;
For 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, 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.

Throughout the book McMahon examines how polygamy, prostitution, and the story of sublime passion encountered the first stages of paradigmatic change in the nineteenth century, decades before the legal abolition of polygamy. By the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, love stories were celebrating the exploits of street-smart prostitutes who fleeced gullible patrons in the bustling city of Shanghai. What do these characters have in common with their early counterparts as men and women became inhabitants of a new city in an era flooded with ideas from radically foreign sources—all of this taking place in a time of economic and cultural dislocation? McMahon reads late Qing love stories in a historically symbolic way, taking them as part of a larger fantasy of Chinese civilization undergoing a fundamental crisis. The polygamous marriage and the affairs of the brothel became metaphorical staging grounds for portraying the destiny of China on the verge of modernity. Finally, McMahon speculates on the changes polygamous sexuality underwent after the Qing dynasty ended and whether it exerted a residual influence in later times.

Polygamy and Sublime Passion will undoubtedly engage those interested in Chinese society, culture, literature, and gender studies as well as comparativists seeking to understand the diverse responses to modernization around the world.

"McMahon has distinguished himself as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the history of sexuality in China. Looking mainly at fiction dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries, this book addresses a fascinating topic: traditional China’s ‘polygynous male’ and his multiple sexual partners (mainly wives, concubines, prostitutes). . . . A valuable resource for those interested in gender studies in China and/or late imperial culture, society, and literature. . . . Highly recommended." —Choice (47:10, June 2010)

"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

"This study presents an unexcelled portrait of what Western-oriented reformers reacted against in the society they grew up with, thus making a tremendous contribution to scholarly understanding of late imperial literature. Moreover, as a basis for comparative analysis, this monograph will be widely heralded as essential reading on twentieth-century Chinese culture and society and for modernization studies more generally." —Robert E. Hegel, Washington University in St. Louis

Author: McMahon, Keith;
Keith McMahon is professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Kansas.
Read the introduction (PDF).

List of Frequently Cited Titles in English

Introduction: The Male Consort of the Remarkable Woman

1. Sublime Passion and the Remarkable Woman

2. Qing Can Be with One and Only One

3. The Otherworldliness of the Courtesan

4. The Love Story and Civilizational Crisis

5. Passive Polygyny in Two Kinds of Man-child

6. Fleecing the Customer in Shanghai Brothels of the 1890s

7. Cultural Destiny and Polygynous Love in Zou Tao’s Shanghai Dust

8. The Polygynous Politics of the Modern Chinese Man in Nine-times Cuckold

Conclusion: The Postpolygynous Future


Character Glossary