2007 Annual Meeting


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Infanticide in East Asia: A Comparison of Historical Responses in China and Japan

 Organizer and Chair: Michelle T. King, University of California, Berkeley

Discussants: David R. Ambaras, North Carolina State University and Joanna Handlin Smith, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies

Infanticide has occurred across an extensive range of times and places, yet many today would identify it primarily as an anti-female practice in China and India. Most recent research follows suit, investigating the demographic significance of sex ratio imbalance for contemporary Asian populations. Such studies tend to assume the uniform coherence of this social practice across time and space. When considered as a social phenomenon, however, the practice of infanticide in Asia is far from unchanging: it is situated at a temporal juncture of distinct cultural and religious beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife, alongside notions of appropriate child-rearing and family structure. This comparative panel examines differing social responses to infanticide in late 19th and early 20th century China, and Edo-period Japan. How did Chinese, Japanese and foreign missionary observers react to the phenomenon of infanticide? What forms did social critique take, and what concrete solutions to the problem were developed? When an infant’s life was saved, how was it to be reared into adulthood? These and other related questions are addressed in the three panel papers. Fabian Drixler examines Edo-period infanticide propaganda in Japan and what it reveals about the conceptual universe of its creators. Michelle King analyzes the gendered negotiations surrounding the decision to commit infanticide as described in late 19th century Chinese morality books. Henrietta Harrison studies the response to infanticide in late 19th century China by a French Catholic missionary group and the strategic use of missionary orphanages by the rural poor. 

Human Nature in Edo-Period Infanticide Propaganda

Fabian Drixler, Harvard University

In 1789, a new genre arose in Eastern Japan and flourished well into the Meiji period: prints, scrolls, and votive tablets portraying infanticide as inhumane and unnatural. Within years of the first sketch of a cat-faced woman crushing a child, similar materials captured the imaginations of local elites throughout Eastern Japan. That headmen and administrators identified infanticide as a major problem speaks volumes about their wider concerns in this period. Beyond this, their arguments against infanticide are a comprehensive record of the universe they imagined to inhabit. Political identity and conceptualizations of space and time, gender notions and delineations of human life all find expression here. Particularly arresting is the discourse of the natural order evident in the propaganda texts and images. Equating the natural with the moral, they extol animal behavior as a model for human action. If animals cherish their offspring to the point of self-sacrifice, how can humans cull their newborns so callously? On the other hand, animals also appear as metaphors for fallen humans, who by acting unnaturally have forsaken their exalted position in the natural order. Where infants are killed, horns sprout from fashionable coiffures, and fur mats powdered cheeks. As if to leave no doubt about the origin of this tension, terms coined by Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714) share the pages with Buddhist vocabulary. Despite its internal contradictions, this synthesis of Tokugawa concepts of nature proved remarkably durable, changing little between the first infanticide print of 1789 and the proclamations of early Meiji administrators. 

 Gender in 19th century Chinese Morality Books on Infanticide

Michelle T. King, University of California, Berkeley

Discussions of infanticide in China often begin with a flat statement about the cultural preference for sons over daughters, which has led to the sex selective targeting of infant girls as the primary victims of infanticide. The scant historical scholarship that exists on the subject has focused on economic motives for this gender bias, such as the burden of providing a daughter’s dowry. Exclusive attention to the gender of infanticide victims, however, limits our understanding of the broader dimensions of the Chinese social world in which infanticide took place. In this paper I aim to look beyond the daughter-as-victim paradigm, examining instead a more expansive circle of perpetrators and rescuers—those men and women who were most intimately involved with a child’s birth and death. These participants included not only the mother and father, but also the midwife, parents-in-law, neighbors, and even local magistrates. In this complex Chinese social world, denizens of the underworld could have as much if not more influence than the living: ghosts of drowned daughters could return to wreak havoc and revenge on their murdering parents. For my sources I turn to 19th century morality books (shanshu), didactic texts that spelled out rewards and retributions for various social behaviors. While men and women shared the same ultimate reward—the birth of a son who later achieved examination success—punishments were distinctively gendered, inscribed on the reproductive bodies of women alone. 

The French Holy Childhood Association and Families of the Poor in 19th and Early 20th century China

Henrietta Harrison, Harvard University

This paper uses the records of the Holy Childhood Association to examine the family structures of the rural poor and argues that they were more open and flexible than is usually imagined, but that that flexibility created spiritual problems. The Holy Childhood Association was established in 1843 as an organization through which French children could give money to rescue Chinese babies from infanticide. The main aim of the Association was to find and baptize abandoned infants. In most cases the souls of the children would then fly straight up to heaven where they would be powerful intercessors for the conversion of China to Christianity, but the association also ran orphanages to rear any that survived. This paper looks at how these institutions were used by the families of the poor. It examines how families dissolved in times of crisis through the sale and abandonment of the children who filled the orphanages, and sometimes even the expulsion of unwanted souls through Christian baptism. But families were also built up in times of prosperity through the willing adoption of filial sons and obedient daughters-in-law from the orphanages. Such activities went against the assertion of bloodline that is essential to the discourse of the lineage and this was reflected in fears of the spiritual power of abandoned children that fitted easily with the Holy Childhood’s belief in the power of infant angels.