Sommer Uncovers Cross-Dressing in Eighteenth-Century China

By Griselda Jarquin – During the Qing dynasty in China, cross-dressing was a crime punishable by death. Why? And how common was the practice? Matthew Sommer, professor of history at Stanford University, addressed such questions on January 25, 2017, in a talk entitled "Cross-Dressing and Gender Passing in 18th-Century China."

Sommer began by describing a widowed woman, X.M., known in her adopted village as a skilled midwife. When her father died, she sued her brother to reclaim half of her father’s estate. In a countersuit, X.M.’s brother revealed that she was in fact a man. When X.M. confessed, the state accused her (falsely) of “debauching women.” She was sentenced by the local magistrate under the statute of “using heterodox doctrines to provoke and deceive the people.” Outraged by the leniency of the sentence, Chinese government authorities at the provincial level demanded a harsher punishment. The Emperor eventually decided that X.M. should be sent to Manchuria to spend her life as a slave in the army.

X.M. left no written records, and as such her motivations remain unclear. Imposing modern concepts to explain her behavior—such as the possibility that she may have been a transsexual—would, Sommer said, be unethical. Easier to parse was how Chinese authorities understood such occurrences, and why they reacted the way they did.

Mythical monsters

Offering several paradigms to understand gender passing, Sommer began with an example that was well known to many in the audience thanks to a Disney film: Mulan. Known as the woman warrior who dressed as a man to carry out her filial duty (typically, service in the armed forces), Hua Mulan also represented the virtuous woman, who, upon completing her mission, returned to her feminine attire and behavior.

The most nefarious example of cross-dressing was the renyao, a transsexual monster and hyper-masculine sexual predator who masqueraded as a female in order to seduce and rape women. Eventually, the renyao acquired mythical status, becoming a way to demonize men who dressed as women. Sang Chong, who used female disguise and black magic to rape more than 170 women, perhaps best embodied fears of the renyao. He was executed in 1477.

Quasi-sacred roles

Sommer presented two case studies. Each involved a man who dressed and passed as a woman, entered a long-term relationship with a man, and later adopted spiritual healing practices. Upon arrest, the partners of these man claimed ignorance of their lovers’ anatomies, but later, under torture, confessed to full knowledge. 

The state authorities understood spiritual healing practices as a deceitful means for seducing women, although both parties denied such behavior. Prosecuted under heterodox doctrines, the partners were condemned to life as a slave in the military, while the cross-dressing men were executed.

Perhaps, Sommer speculated, the fact that these individuals were crossing gender boundaries enhanced their ability to play these special roles. He pointed to various examples, such as the berdache in Native American culture, to highlight his point. Acknowledging the controversy surrounding the berdache, he suggested that individuals who were anatomically male, but who lived and played a woman’s social role, often played a quasi-sacred role in their societies.

Relating this to China, Sommer speculated, “It was probably no accident that one of these individuals was a midwife, while the other two were spirit mediums, because those also involved very powerful, very loaded, and very gendered crossings.”

A life-changing experience

Over coffee, Professor Sommer described how his interest in Chinese history was sparked by a trip to the country in 1978, when he was still in high school. At that time, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Beijing were not established, and tourism was almost non-existent. The country looked much as it had under Mao.

“There was very uniform clothing, only a few colors,” he said. “Women were wearing pants. There were only a couple of haircuts that women had. No makeup, no kind of permed hair or styled hair, no dresses, no heels, no nylons, no jewelry, no accessories, nothing like that. Instead, most people wore dark blue or gray or green.” 

The trip provoked an epiphany of sorts. “It was like I had been living in a two-dimensional world and suddenly it had three dimensions,” Sommer said. “It was a life-changing experience.”

Glimpsing ordinary lives 

In 1989, while earning his Ph.D at UCLA, Sommer was introduced to legal history. Taking a research seminar with renowned Chinese historian Professor Philip Huang, Sommer encountered Chinese sources newly available to foreign scholars: state papers, legal cases, and court records.

High rates of illiteracy meant that most surviving texts from the eighteenth century were penned by members of the cultural elite. But, as Sommer explained, legal history offered a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people who did not leave any written records. Thus, legal documents proved a helpful tool in the writing of social history.

Sommer’s research interests culminated in his first monograph, Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China. This was followed by Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions. As Sommer was conducting research for his first book, he came across 2,000 legal cases that spurred his current research project, which examines male same sex desire and masculinity.

Learn more about Matthew Sommer.

This event was hosted by the Department of History’s Women’s and Gender Research Cluster. It was co-sponsored by the Department of East Asian Studies and Cultures and ISS.

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