Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

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Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby Sun Fin » Thu Feb 01, 2018 5:32 pm

A conversation on Tumblr, which includes a few of our members, got me thinking so I decided to continue the discussion here. I'm going to start of by quoting the relevant sections from the initial conversation:

Anonymous wrote:How important was it for a woman to be a virgin when she married back then? Virginity probably would have been a highly desired virtue of women back then, but many influential men who could get a virgin wife quite easily (ie Cao Cao, Cao Pi) had non virgin wives (Lady Bian was supposedly a hooker, Lady Zhen was previously married).


CaTigeReptile wrote:There’s no reason for Anon to make the assumption they have, China was not a Christian nation. Sex and virginity weren’t quite as linked to female purity and worth. A woman or concubine should always be solely faithful to her husband or master, of course, so it’s still hypocritical and misogynistic, but no, virginity was not a factor in decision making quite like it was/is in Western, especially Christian/post-Christian, societies. As long as she could make you some sons, it didn’t matter.

Sex in China was way different. It wasn’t viewed as sinful or immoral, so women weren’t devalued like used cars or something like they were in the west. I’ve got a translation of like a Han Dynasty pamphlet on sex it’s pretty great I bet it’s available online


Compare this to a conversation that was had in the 3K Question thread about three years ago:

TigerTally wrote:I would say that is exactly because bastards were often looked down upon. The Han laws apply severe punishment on adultery. Either being or having an illegitimate son would disgrace one and his family. As a result the authors of the biographies would tend to cover for them, leaving us no explicit record about bastardy.


There seem to be some discrepancies here and I just wondered if anyone might be able to explain them for me?

CaTiRe said that as long as a woman could produce sons it didn't matter if they were virgins or not. So are we saying it would have been acceptable for an unmarried girl from a upper class family to have a dalliance with a lad before marriage? That doesn't appear to fit with what TigerTally said about bastards? Nor does it fit with my knowledge of the Xiahou Ji situation where I believe Liu Bei forced Zhang Fei to marry the young Lady Xiahou after he got her pregnant? Setting aside the awful truth that Zhang Fei raped the poor girl, my understanding was that Liu Bei forced him to marry her because she was pregnant?

Alternatively are we saying that it was virginity that wasn't valued so highly? Therefore people didn't care about remarriage after the first spouse had died, I'm thinking of Cao Pi and Lady Zhen as an example here.

My last thought is that perhaps there was a difference in views on this between Confucianism and Daoism as TigerTally is referencing the first and CaTiRe the second?

Thanks in advance for any thoughts anyone shares.

I'm probably also going to provoke a completely unrelated debate (that if anyone wants to continue we should probably take it to another thread) but... it's not an orthodox christian view to see sex as inherently sinful. Instead I believe it is a wonderful gift from God but only when it's explored within its intended context - marriage. Anyone who thinks the Bible frowns upon sex in general hasn't read Songs of Solomon.
Last edited by Sun Fin on Fri Feb 02, 2018 10:32 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby CaTigeReptile » Thu Feb 01, 2018 10:02 pm

Let me clarify myself here a little bit. Premarital sex would most certainly not be normal or accepted, because a child without an official father would be unacceptable. But what TigerTally is saying is not in opposition to what I was talking about - adultery as in cheating on your husband or master is different than, say, being remarried - so the latter interpretation of what I said is what I meant. For instance, Lady Zhen having already been married, and being a few years older, did not detract from her attractiveness to Cao Pi.
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby Sun Fin » Thu Feb 01, 2018 10:05 pm

Sweet, that makes tons more sense and was what I thought was the most likely interpretation. My comprehension skills must have taken a hit today - I blame work. :lol:
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby Lady Wu » Thu Feb 01, 2018 10:51 pm

I think it might be a mistake to conflate virginity with legitimacy.

Han Dynasty culture wasn't obsessed with intact hymens. (In fact, my impression is that most of the time when people talked about virginity, it was about male virginity in the Daoist context--not exactly sure when it started (maybe the Wei-Jin period when all the weird stuff started?) but not "losing your essence" was supposed to help you preserve vital energy and grant long life.) There was no prohibition against widows remarrying, or marrying a widow. There were several empresses in the Han that had previous husbands--in the Western Han, Empress Dowager Bo (mother of Emperor Wen) and Empress Wang (mother of Emperor Wu) both became empresses through their second marriage, and the historians didn't seem to have been super concerned about it. (It's unclear whether Empress Wang's previous marriage was known when she married the future Emperor Jing, but her son was certainly not bothered by it, since he actually acknowledged his half-sister and granted her titles and stuff.) Later on, in Wu, Sun Quan's daughter Sun Luban remarried Quan Cong after the death of her first husband, Zhou Xun (Zhou Yu's son). There are just too many examples of women remarrying (either after a divorce or after being widowed) to support the argument that virginity (or chastity of a widow) was a celebrated virtue in the Han. (Even the writer Lu Xun, one of the leading figures of modern Chinese literature, pointed out that female chastity wasn't a thing between the Han and the Tang, and it was only after that when Confucian scholars started freaking out about women remarrying.)

TigerTally's point as quoted was about legitimacy, which is a completely different kettle of fish. Extramarital affairs were generally not presented in a positive light (one Du Qin of the Western Han resigned out of shame when his nephew had an affair with the empress dowager's sister). The Han, for all its more relaxed morality about women, was still obsessed with family lines and legitimacy in relationships, which was why bastardy was not tolerated. But that isn't the same thing as whether or not a woman has had sex with somebody else (except, of course, it's the woman who ends up with the baby and then there would be legitimacy issues for the baby...).
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby Elitemsh » Fri Feb 02, 2018 6:58 pm

Sun Fin, where did you get that Liu Bei forced Zhang Fei to marry that girl? I haven't heard this before. I thought Zhang Fei just made her his wife of his own accord?
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby Sun Fin » Sat Feb 03, 2018 8:29 am

Elitemsh wrote:Sun Fin, where did you get that Liu Bei forced Zhang Fei to marry that girl? I haven't heard this before. I thought Zhang Fei just made her his wife of his own accord?


Honestly? Not from a source. I thought I'd read it somewhere, probably on tumblr but I might well be wrong about that.

Lady Wu thanks for your post, it helped clarify that for me!
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby CaTigeReptile » Sat Feb 03, 2018 4:36 pm

Sun Fin wrote:
Elitemsh wrote:Sun Fin, where did you get that Liu Bei forced Zhang Fei to marry that girl? I haven't heard this before. I thought Zhang Fei just made her his wife of his own accord?


Honestly? Not from a source. I thought I'd read it somewhere, probably on tumblr but I might well be wrong about that.

Lady Wu thanks for your post, it helped clarify that for me!


Yeah, for what it's worth, I haven't heard that story either.

And yes thank you LW!
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby DaoLunOfShiji » Sat Feb 03, 2018 11:40 pm

I'm not familiar with the forced marriage by Liu Bei either. I'm curious as to where that comes from.
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby Sun Fin » Sun Feb 04, 2018 8:58 am

Sounds like it was a Sun Fin invention :lol:.
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Re: Sexual morality in the Later Han Dynasty

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Sun Feb 04, 2018 5:42 pm

Interesting discussion point

I can't say I have ever come across a "not a virgin" scandal in the dying days of the Han or three kingdoms but then I don't notice "and had sex before marriage" scandal either. I don't think a woman being untouched mattered if there was a good reason for that, it is certainly true that Cao Cao (and Guan Yu wanted), Cao Pi, Liu Bei married either widows or already married women so that isn't an issue. A widow who refuses to remarry could be celebrated ala Tang Ji or that Cao Shuang's officers wife who mutilated herself but it wasn't expected while it is amazing how Bian's background (no idea if singer is a euphemism but even if an untouched singer, that is hardly a distinction Cao Cao's foes are going to get hang up on) was not an issue at the time.

Where I tend to find scandals is 1) the big bad's ergo they are evil ergo they shag lots of women who they shouldn't. Sun Hao, Dongy, Cao Shuang. It helps paint them as uncontrolled vice and defying the natural order of things, particularly if imperial woman which endangers legitimacy.

2) Kinship is an issue. Liu Bei's wife and Sun Luban's second cousin affair.

3) It becomes an issue of state. Liu Yan's allegations meant Liu Shan's wives couldn't have people staying over anymore as well as PR embrassment, expensive harems due to size or a feeling ruler was distracted (Shan, Ling and Cao Rui), Sun Luban's lovelife.

4) Where it was deemed excessive (and it doesn't need to be sex, excessive love was also a scandal). He Yan's love life, possibly Xun Can's relationship with his wife (Yun/imanick mentioned some interrupt the discussions as about his sex life), the large harems, Zhong Yao ghost story which as amusing as it is is a reflection on his reputation as a player. I'm guessing this is where Liang Ji and his wife Sun Shou come under.

I believe Rafe's tome of awesome has Fan Yue's list of good and bad women for han and 3kingdoms (pre Cao Cao's death) with Bian the bad place for her past but not sure that reflects Han/3kingdoms culture?
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