Servants as Sons and Daughters


This presentation, hosted by the Chinese program of UW-Milwaukee, discussed the legal understanding of illicit sex between masters and servants in the household in Ming China (1368-1644). In the Ming legal context, sex outside marriage was, in principle, illicit. Only if one party could show signs of being coerced into sex would that party be exempted from punishment. While sex between the male master and female servant was considered immoral, it was not punished due to the social hierarchy. This seemingly stable privilege became problematic when the social hierarchy was based on an adoption contract instead of state power. A new legal status for servants, yinan yifu義男義婦 (adopted men and adopted women), reconstituted the normative relationship between masters and servants— servants were sons and daughters under this legal framework. Focusing on the legal discussion about male and female masters’ sexual privileges — those based on their social status relative to servants— my examination reveals that male masters’ sexual access to female servants and male servants’ wives became problematic when servants became “real” children through adoption. In contrast, while Ming literati commonly described women as sexually passive, they assumed female masters to be the initiators of sexual relationships with their servants because, in theory, their superior position should preclude coercion by inferiors.


Dr. Shiau-Yun Chen (Ph.D. Cornell, 2019), Assistant Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Ball State University, researches the inter-relationships of law, culture, family authority, and family violence in Ming China, with a special focus on wives and concubines. A specialist in women’s and gender history, she has published articles in Chinese language journals and, most recently, “Jealous and Violent: Constraining and Celebrating Wifely Jealousy in Mid-to-late Ming China” in Ming Studies (volume 79, 2019).