AAS 2017 Paper Abstract

Paper title:Mothers, Maidens, and Ghosts: Afterlives of Qing Chastity Paragons on the Taiwan Frontier

The expectation that virtuous women in late imperial China lived confined to their homes quickly reversed after deaths. Particularly if these women received imperial canonization, chastity martyrs became community property. With death sealing their virtues unbesmirched, public consideration of such women’s private deaths (sometimes, even their corpses) was encouraged by Qing officialdom as a means for inspiring analogous loyalty from subject to emperor.

In this paper, I examine two chastity shrines founded during the Qing in the seat of imperial authority on the Taiwan frontier, Taiwanfu (present day Tainan). The first, founded by locals to their neighborhood luminary Madam Gu, appears to suggest that marginal Qing subjects enthusiastically accepted the imperial civilizing project with religious fervor. Centrally located, the shrine developed a reputation for inspiring a powerful desire for chastity among nearby women. Undermining this appearance of zeal for commemorating chastity, outside the south city gate, the grave of the last Ming prince’s five concubines, who committed suicide to preserve their virtues when Taiwanfu fell to the Qing in 1683, remained ignored by locals. Only the periodic attention of government officials ensured its maintenance as a chastity shrine.

The contrast between the active power of hometown heroine Madame Gu’s temple and the tranquil semi-decay of the last Ming concubines’ grave enables us to consider how imperial morality campaigns were interpreted at the local level, what kind of space chaste women’s bodies and souls take up outside the home after death, and who gets to tell these women’s stories.