Sedition, sexuality, sorcery, and seduction were among many anxieties that the Qing associated with unmarried men
It was high summer in Anhui province, when Wang Yuzhi found himself both alone and drunk. By his own confession, Wang had lusted after the 18-year-old wife of his neighbor, Li Guohan, for months. That night, emboldened by alcohol, he decided to take action.
Creeping up to the couple’s hut, Wang used his knife to dig through the earthen wall, slithered in, and attacked Li’s wife as she slept naked. Realizing the interloper was a stranger, she fought back, managing to bite off part of Wang’s tongue. When the couple reported the attack to the local magistrate, they presented the gory tip as evidence. For the crime of forcible rape, Wang was executed by strangulation in 1762.
Wang Yuzhi was a 光棍儿 (guānggùnr), or “bare branch,” a term for a man without a spouse or prospects, nor hope of finding either. Chinese society is rooted in family, but as many as one in four men in 18th-century China were unmarried, a number that increased dramatically the lower one looked on the socio-economic ladder, or the further away from a city or town. Wang’s case, described by Matthew Sommer in Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China (2000), was typical of what Sommer, and historians including Thomas Buoye and Vivien Ng, describe as the anxieties that lifelong bachelorhood provoked in Chinese society.
Concerns about guanggunr would prove a fundamental part of the legal and popular discourse on gender in the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911). The 18th century was a time of great prosperity for the Manchu empire, a stability that brought population growth. As the population doubled to almost 300 million, demographic challenges ensued. A societal preference for boys ensured a surplus of marriageable men. Polygamy among the elite and a tradition of women “marrying up” (but rarely down) meant fewer potential brides for men at the bottom rungs of society. This growing underclass became a constant source of concern.
Frustrated guanggunr were viewed as potential predators, capable of polluting both men and women. Officials were wary that men with nothing to lose might constitute a criminal class. Guanggunr made up the bulk of arrests for rapes, murders, and kidnappings. During the “sorcery scare” of 1768—involving allegations that masons were harvesting men’s ponytails for supernatural purposes, as detailed in Philip Kuhn’s Soulstealers—the main suspects were identified as guanggunr. The Qing court eyed roving bands of rootless young men as potential fodder for rebellious movements.
As is too often the case, women suffered for the anxieties of their husbands, brothers, and fathers. Female purity became synonymous with social order; to defend one was to uphold the other. A series of Qing laws narrowed the definition of legitimate sexual contact to solely the penetration of a wife by her husband; another series of edicts stiffened penalties for rape and illicit sex—which could include almost any physical contact outside of marriage. But proving rape relied heavily on the status of a woman’s fidelity, with her virtue usually demonstrated by how forcefully she resisted her attacker.
As historian Vivien Ng notes, “The price of chastity was very high indeed. It was worth at least one life—that of the rapist. Sometimes it exacted two lives—that of the victim as well.” It was assumed that a woman should prevent an attacker from penetrating her—or, at the very least, die trying. (In fact, the death or significant dismemberment of the victim was often required to get a conviction for rape; or, as in Wang Yuzhi’s case, the maiming of the attacker). Anyone with an “illicit” sexual past could disqualify themselves as a victim (male prostitutes could also forget about getting a fair hearing). Moreover, consent, once given, could not be rescinded and there was no concept of “marital rape.”
Women “stood on the frontlines to defend the normative family order, and the standards of chastity would determine its fate,” argues Sommers. Conversely, “through promiscuity and sloth, they might destroy it.” Far from repressing women, though, Sommers argues that Qing law actually strengthened their position, protecting the family from downward mobility of the guanggunr underclass.
But the law’s strict emphasis on defining “coercion” clearly reflected a male anxiety: the fear of nymphomania, the concern that a woman might be complicit in deviant sexual behavior. Those who enjoyed legal access to a woman’s sexual favors welcomed increasingly stricter penalties to protect against their displacement.
The idea of unmarried vagabonds as being a threat to the social and political order is not limited to history. Contemporary China faces its own gender imbalance. Census data suggests that there may be as many as 34 million surplus males—almost the entire population of California, or Poland—doomed to perpetual singledom.
As in the Qing era, these gender ratios skew ever more heavily male the further one descends on the socio-economic ladder or travels out into the countryside. Involuntarily celibate in a society which prizes the family unit, China’s leftover men are once again a cause for official concern and popular anxiety; a 2012 report from the Institute for Population and Development Studies warned that rural guanggunr were more prone to rape, incest, wife sharing, unsafe sex, human trafficking, and homosexuality. Authorities fret about criminality while international observers grow uneasy about the possibility that frustrated young men could fuel an increasingly aggressive and aggrieved nationalism.
Whether real or imagined, the fear of the guanggunr is a grim reminder that prosperity comes with its own costs. For the Qing, demographic pressures and stress on available resources began to overwhelm the state’s ability to maintain social order in the 19th century. Nearly a century after that hot and terrible night in Anhui, young men like Wang Yuzhi would be tinder for the spark of rebellion during the Taiping War and Nian Rebellion. Demographics may not be destiny, but the specter of the guanggunr over 18th century China proved one of many ill omens for the century which lay ahead.
Single and Scary is a story from our issue, “The Masculinity Issue.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.