Tainted by Name: The Moral and Social Perils of Associating with Concubines in Republican China

Dr Xia Shi1

1New College Of Florida, Sarasota, United States

Republican China (1912-49) witnessed a perplexing phenomenon: concubines became both publicly highly visible yet simultaneously socially stigmatized as glaring symbols of a degenerate Chinese nation/civilization. This paper examines the politics involved in associating with concubines amidst virulent critiques of concubinage as backward, exploitative, and anti-modern. It zooms in on the phenomenon that reputable women in progressive organizations were willing to work for concubines but not with them, demonstrating that for progressive women seeking to break the traditional gender norm that required “good women” to stay in the domestic realm, the simultaneous presence of concubines in the same new social spaces was a moral danger that jeopardized their whole project of legitimizing Chinese women’s public roles. Furthermore, it examines how gossiping about the number of concubines owned by a public male figure had gradually become a way of denigrating a political opponent, delegitimating a new political and social category such as the warlords, or discrediting the progressive credentials of a steadfast revolutionary. In these ways, the personal became political and the familial became national. Overall, this paper provides new insights on how gender functioned in important yet hitherto overlooked ways in the progressive politics of the new Republic.


Xia Shi (Ph.D. University of California, Irvine) is Associate Professor of History and Marian Hoppin Chair of Asian Studies at New College of Florida. She is the author of At Home in the World: Women and Charity in Late Qing and Early Republican China (Columbia University Press, 2018).


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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