Legitimating and Constraining Womanly Violence in Ming China (1368-1644)

Legitimating and Constraining Womanly Violence in Ming China (1368-1644)
Shiau-Yun Chen


This dissertation investigates socially-recognized, legally-allowed violence performed by women in positions of authority— mothers, wives, and masters—in fourteenth- to seventeenth-century China. I argue that during this period, changes in family structure both provoked new conflicts and led people to prioritize consanguineal relationships. Examining legal, didactic, and literary texts, this research identifies apparatuses that legitimated—and in certain contexts constrained—womanly violence. Violence by wives at the time had become inseparable from accusations of jealousy. Such violence was constrained when it challenged the premier value of the patriarchal family—having heirs; yet, wifely violence was considered legitimate when it was motivated by the maintenance of hierarchical order between the wife and the concubine. Mothers’ violent disciplining of children was considered to be a moral performance. Whether or not motherly violence was considered to be an appropriate form of discipline or transgressive depended on the relationship between mother and child. In disciplinary violence against consanguineal children, mothers were expected to exhibit the fatherly virtue of strictness. Disciplinary violence against non- consanguineal children was deemed more problematic. Violence by female masters was legitimated as a performance of status rather than gender. Women's expected gender performances could, in certain circumstances, come into conflict with status performances. Ming Literati used the hierarchical metaphor the parent-child relationship to legitimate their control and ownership over servants. Yet, being “parents” constrained masters’ violent abuse of and sexual access to their “children”- servants. My research thus reveals the ways in which women’s violence was integral to the changing structure of Chinese families. I argue that women, far from being passive victims of patriarchy, played essential roles in maintaining, reproducing, and transforming familial order in late imperial China.


Shiau-Yun Chen

Defended in


PhD defended at

History Department, the Faculty of the Graduate School of Cornell University




East Asia