Penitent Mothers and Vengeful Fetuses: The Price of Infanticide

Paper: Penitent Mothers and Vengeful Fetuses: The Price of Infanticide
Presenter: Katherine Alexander

Abstract: A wealth of popularly circulating morality literature informs recent scholarship on anti-infanticide efforts in 19th century China. Many of these materials were produced by the charismatic Jiangnan moralist and schoolteacher Yu Zhi (1809-1874) and organizations influenced by his philanthropic work. One major criticism scholars have made is that in these tales, horrific karmic punishments are disproportionately visited on mothers, even though external pressures, including from the infants’ fathers, are often directly responsible for the killings. Such criticism perpetuates the characterization of Chinese women solely as victims of the traditional family system, and does not take into account tales in which infanticidal mothers are allowed to redeem themselves and their families.

Drawing on portrayals of infanticide in late Qing baojuan (precious volumes), this paper examines two such tales. I show how these overlooked baojuan, one written by Yu Zhi and another likely edited by him, address infanticide in a radically different manner, taking the same tales that condemn mothers as the basis for their amended retellings. These versions involve women voicing their own stories, a function of the genre’s nature as oral performance often purposefully aimed at female audiences. These versions recognize of the painful truths that induced infanticide, rather than simply condemning mothers to grisly deaths and hell.

These two baojuan show how our understanding of this emotionally fraught topic requires revision. Yu Zhi and his cohort of moralists produced visions of karmic justice that were much broader and more nuanced than we have heretofore understood.

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