The end of polygamy in China

As some of our American readers may know the California Supreme Court has recently ruled that men and men in California can get married. This has led a number of people (Krauthammer) to speculate that polygamy is right around the corner. (Volokh) Most of the arguments about the meaning of marriage make a lot of arguments (usually pretty bad ones) based on evidence from “marriage through history.” Very few people seem aware of how -very-different modern companionate, equal marriage is from the various forms of usually economic and always unequal relationships that have existed throughout human history. It is true that throughout most of history “Bill and Ted are in love so they should get married” was not considered a good argument, but the same can be said of “Susan and Ted.” This makes it tricky to get much useful ammunition for contemporary debates from historical evidence unless you twist the history quite a bit. Still, it is sort of interesting to thing about the disappearance of polygamy, which was pretty common in upper classes around the world before the modern era, and specifically about the end of polygamy in China.

Although an awful lot has been written about attacks on the traditional family in Republican China there has been relatively little on polygamy as a specific issue. I think this is true of Japan as well. Polygamy as such was not really singled out much as one might expect. Nevertheless it died out rapidly. Polygamy seems not to have been a major issue for early feminists like He Zhen although they did mention it. For them the big issue in marriage was equality, which of course does not mix with polygamy. If a husband in a modern marriage gives his wife “everything” (particularly emotionally) how can he do so for more than one woman? 1 That polygamy was out would seem to almost go without saying with modern ideas of marriage.2

It might also matter that most scholarship on Chinese feminism has wanted to focus on women. I would assume that the people making the decision to not have a second wife were men. Being a secondary wife was never regarded as a good thing, so for the educated women who read and wrote for the early radical journals becoming a secondary wife would not really be a threat. The poorer women who might have ended up secondary wives were not reading He Zhen in 1907 or making many other choices about their lives.3 Well-off men were presumably making the decision not to have secondary wives. One presumes that whatever pressure their families may have put on them to have a first wife that fit with traditional ideals (Lu Xun did it) there would be much less pressure to have a traditional secondary wife if they did not want to. Why and how secondary wives became unfashionable (or were replaced with mistresses) would be an interesting study.

I can’t really speak to the legal issue in the U.S. (what legal arguments would the state have to prevent one woman from marrying two men at the same time or whatever) but as a social issue it seems to be a non-starter. Polygamy is tied to a class structure and view of marriage that just don’t exist any more and never will.

  1. A parent can give ‘all’ their love to more than one child, but of course women are not (any longer) children 

  2. To the extent polygamy exists at all today it is in places or subgroups without much of an idea of gender equality. The examples used in discussion are always one man with more than one woman, since while that would fit in with some traditional ideas the opposite would just be bizarre. 

  3. Class and consumption sort of fit here too. In a modern relationship both spouses should be equal in their use of the joint assets. How can you do that with too many of one type of spouse?  


  1. I think you’re right about the historical process. The ban on multiple wives in Japan was considered a necessary part of Westernization of law and culture (Fukuzawa Yukichi, among others, spoke out against polygamy and concubinage), and existing multiple marriages were grandfathered in (including the Emperor’s) but the keeping of mistresses remained a fairly standard feature of upper-class life. On the modern issues….

    Actually, I personally know at least one family which could benefit from a multiple-marriage system: a family of four lesbians; Reality is always stranger than what we can imagine. Robert Heinlein, in Friday posited as one of the many societies in that book a system by which multiple men and women could become a collective family, with assets in common (and a fairly substantial buy-in for new members, if the family is well-off), sexual partner rotation and childrearing duties shared widely. Spider Robinson had something like that, too, in a small commune-style community.

    The only way I could see polygamy becoming acceptable — and eventually legal — in the US would be family structures that were more balanced rather than overtly patriarchal. I’m not sure how you legislate it, though. (perhaps by requiring that multiple marriages be the result of combining married couples, instead of individuals?)

  2. Johnathan,

    Yes, I was thinking about Fukuzawa when I put in that bit about Japan, although I was too lazy to go look up any of his stuff. I think Japan is different in that you get a lot more elite-class continuity between Bakumatsu and Meiji that you do with the May 4thers in China. On the other hand the two seem pretty similar in that in both places “Westerners don’t do it” was a strong argument without anything else needed to back it up and in that it seems to have been mostly changes in male attitudes that made (formal) polygamy end.

  3. This is an interesting discussion, but I feel that the ‘Westerners don’t do it, so we shouldn’t either’ might be a weak, or at least incomplete, explanation for such a societal change.

    A related recent discussion of polygamy is here:

    In a polygamous society, some men have several wives, and a lot of men have no wife. This ‘surplus’ of single men is useful in military contexts, but in times of peace could be a source of societal instability. I don’t have the text to hand, but I have read that this was part of the issue with women in China being at risk of abduction: aside from anything else, there were men who would never get a wife at all unless they stole one. Certainly the effect of a critical mass of restive young men who have no hope of ever marrying is something that is discussed in relation to Middle Eastern regions where polygamy is still widely practiced. Could desire for social order been part of the reason for abandoning polygamy in East Asia?

  4. Katerina,

    Yes, I think the changing class structure has something to do with the change. In a polygamous society some men have lots of wives and some men none, and the men who have lots are really, really rich. You need a class structure that is very different from what most modern societies have. I suppose someone may have sat down and figured out that the practice might lead to more unrest, but that seems a bit social-science-y for someone in China to do in say 1919 or more to the point too social science-y for a Chinese state to enforce/propagandize. And if someone did propagandize it where is the evidence? Have we just missed it? That’s why I think the Japan comparison works so well. All I know of as evidence for Japan is a handful of high-status men like Fukuzawa trying to convince other high-status men not to do it, but that might be all it would take. I would also not sell “The Westerners do/don’t do it” short. It’s not a sufficient explanation for anything, but it seems to fit in a lot of contexts.

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