Chinese infanticide and polygyny

Ron Unz has commented on my comments on China in my article on monogamy as a unique aspect of European civilization. First, I hope I didn’t give the impression that the only source for my views on China came from a novel. Actually, China was much on the minds of evolutionists when I got into the field in the early 1980s, particularly with the work of Mildred Dickemann, Richard Alexander, Bill Irons (and later Laura Betzig) on how elite males were able to have very high reproductive success via polygyny. Evolutionary anthropologists like Dickemann (“The ecology of mating systems in hypergynous dowry societies” [Social Science Information 18(2), 163-195) were showing that the stratified societies of Asia — China was an exemplar — were typified by wealthy males having large numbers of wives of different rank as well as concubines.

For example, in China during Former Chou Dynasty, the king was permitted one queen, three consorts, nine wives of second rank, twenty-seven wives of third rank and eighty-one concubines. One Tang Dynasty text reports that there were 3,000 women in the Palace seraglio; other estimates range from 1200 to 10,000 (van Gulik, 1974, p. 17, 206). …

Van Gulik’s (1974, pp. 17-18) description of Chinese Imperial Harem procedures, involving copulation of concubines on a rotating basis at appropriate times in their menstrual cycles, all carefully regulated by female supervisors to prevent deception and error, shows what could be achieved with a well-organized bureaucracy. Given nine-month pregnancies and two- or three-year lactations, it is not inconceivable that a hardworking Emperor might manage to service a  thousand women.

Such societies are hypergynous—that is, women tend to move up the social ladder, while men tend to move down. Families compete to purchase inheritance rights for their daughters via dowries; but dowries are expensive, contributing to high rates of female infanticide.  Poor families would be unable to provide dowries, but would be paid brideprice—their daughters becoming concubines with much lower prospects of inheritance. This is precisely the situation portrayed in the novel Jin Ping Mei mentioned in my article.

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The shortage of women was exacerbated by polygyny at the top—polygyny drawing women upward via dowry payments and concubinage, and females being more likely to suffer mortality because, as Dickemann notes, “with too small a likelihood of finding a groom, the cost of rearing a daughter outweighed the probability of benefit.”   Males with resources become the target of dowry competition, intensified compared  to a monogamous  society because grandsons are able to be polygynous: men would be willing to pay a larger dowry with the prospect that their grandson would be relatively wealthy and polygynous. But that means that marrying females up  the social ladder becomes a financial burden, including for the upper classes and even for royalty (Q. Jiang, “Bare Branches and Social Stability,” Frontiers in the History of China 2011, 6(4): 538-561). Female infanticide  therefore becomes an attractive option. It  follows  also that polygyny exacerbated the shortage of females because it makes investment in sons more attractive, especially for families with some wealth, because successful sons are able to marry polygynously.

Polygyny was a status symbol—the prerogative of middle- and upper-class males (Jiang, unpublished MS) and hence far from universal. But it certainly existed at substantial levels and was a major reason for the shortage of females at the lower levels of society.

Polygynous marriage was legal in China, but taking concubines was not a universal practice across all classes, and no more than five percent of families included concubines during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The decision whether to take a concubine, and how many to take, was closely linked to a man’s social status and economic situation.  The higher his social status and economic situation, the more likely it was a man would take concubines. Government officials, local squires, and other prestigious figures were generally much more likely to take concubines, while many underclass poor men remained single involuntarily. 14.28% of males from the prominent Chen clan in Haining took concubines, while in the 1930s, between one third and one half of the wealthy class in Guangzhou did so. The prevalence of polygyny made finding a spouse much more difficult, in a situation where an imbalanced Chinese sex structure had already reduced the number of available females. (Jiang, 2011, Ibid.)

Polygyny was a major reason why lower status males could not find mates, both indirectly (by making female infanticide more likely because polygyny increases the payoff for investment in sons and in grandsons via dowry), but also directly via polygyny on the part of successful males. High  levels of female infanticide and polygyny were thus really part of the same Darwinian picture. Jiang also notes that female servants and maids filled the same functions as concubines, their employers having sexual access to them. Thus the local landlord may have been monogamously married, as Unz suggests, but his reproductive opportunities likely extended well beyond his wife.

These patterns continued into the 20th century. “In China, there was a permanent shortage of women, due to infanticide, female surmortality, and polygamy. Men from poor families tended to marry later and to remain celibate more often.” (“Who Married How? Modeling Marital Decisions in Early-Twentieth Century Taiwan”; S. Wang, J. Kok & Y. Chuang, Journal of Family History 33 [2008]: 430-451, [431]). 

The data on China convinced me that it was radically different from Europe, resulting in a series of papers (1990, 1995), beginning with a 1983 paper where China was the exemplar of what Europe was not. Again, my view is that monogamy is part of a suite of traits of critical importance for understanding the difference between the West and the  rest: Bilateral kinship, monogamy and companionate marriage implying a relatively high status for women and high investment in children, exogamy, the simple household rather than compound household, relatively low ethnocentrism and xenophobia—in short,  individualism (see discussion here, p. 26ff).

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