Pragmatic Confucian patriarchs: Marriage and divorce among the Chinese in nineteenth century urban Java

Guo-Quan Seng

National University of Singapore, Singapore

Between 1830 and 1916, to be “Chinese” on Dutch colonial Java was to be required to reside within designated Chinese quarters in cities and towns, pay a head tax, report movements, and register marriages, or plead for divorces with the local Chinese ward-master and officer. Unlike in colonial Malaya or Indochina, where the British and French largely left the familial affairs of their Chinese immigrant subjects to their own native-place organizations (hui, huiguan), the Dutch built a paralegal infrastructure of communal leadership to manage the everyday and major life events of their Chinese subjects. Records of more than 700 divorce pleas filed with the Chinese Council of Batavia between the 1820s and 1890s show that the officers ran their communities as pragmatic Confucian patriarchs. Although divorce rates were relatively low, it is remarkable that up to three-quarters were filed by women. Tried as the officers did to reconcile estranged wives (and some husbands) with their husbands (or wives), they had neither the lineage, nor the official penal authority to enforce their Confucianist vision of familial harmony. All in all, the Kapitans approved up to fourth-fifths of all divorce pleas. In the process of reconciling and allowing estranged wives to leave their husbands, I argue that the officers consolidated the urban Chinese communities around a legal-moral notion of the patriarchal family.


Guo-Quan Seng researches and teaches the transregional histories of Chinese migration and settlement, the formation and dissolution of empires, and the rise of nation-states and capitalism at the intersection of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Within these big processes and categories, he approaches from the bottom-up the histories of peoples, commodities, cultures and ideas, as they connected, circulated and disconnected over space and time. He is also broadly interested in social theory, and reflecting critically about our received disciplinary boundaries.

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