There is a sharp debate in Chinese legal historical studies about the basis for local magistrates' adjudication of routine cases (i.e. "minor matters related to household, marriage, and land" that did not have to be reported up the chain of command). Wife sales (in which one man sold his wife to another, to become the latter's wife, in exchange for a substantial cash payment, documented with a written contract) provide an excellent case study for illuminating this issue, because the practice was very widespread, being driven by poverty and the shortage of wives, and yet was banned by the Qing code as a violation of normative marriage and sexual relations. Given this sharp contradiction between the imperatives of social practice and the ideological dictates of codified law, how did local magistrates actually handle such cases when they came to court? Moreover, given the illegality of such transactions, how did people actually negotiate and enforce them? Why did they use written contracts, given that such documents constituted evidence of criminal behavior? Why did such cases come to court in the first place, given that the parties presumably shared an interest in avoiding official attention? In fact, illegal wife sales exemplify a broad field of social practice that operated outside of -- and in defiance of -- the formal legal system and that must be taken into account when we consider the nature of law in late imperial China.
For further information please contact Judith Scheele at judith.scheele@all‐souls.ox.ac.uk