Women in rural China had two or more husbands back in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to a historian who studied over 1,200 legal cases documented in the courts of the Qing Dynasty.
Surprisingly, the polyandrous culture was not just tolerated but even accepted at the time, except for the dynasty’s elite who viewed it as extremely immoral.
What China experiences today, however, was among the catalysts of the seemingly bizarre social norm — men simply outnumbered women.
The country basically suffered what scholar Ted Telford called a “marriage crunch”, resulting from female infanticide and the elite’s habit of concubinage, among other variables, Quartz noted.
Yet the women’s primary motivation for getting two husbands is more practical than pleasure oriented.
As historian Matthew Sommer put in his study of “Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China,” the purpose was to ensure economic security for their families, which had been going through difficult times of poverty.
And so, instead of resorting to more drastic measures, such as selling their wife or children, a family would look for a second husband to bring more household income.
In return, the second husband would find himself a “family”, and he is usually free to have children with the wife.
Some arrangements were formalized through local marriage custom, with others even signing contracts — an oath of brotherhood between the husbands.
But then again, it is important to note that the Qing courts never recognized such relationships.
Many of them ended in tragedies as well, with one spouse killing the other.
Yet as Sommer found, there are exceptional trios whose union lasted for decades, with one enduring 28 years before the first husband died of natural causes.
While Sommer’s findings provide what could be, for some, a whole new perspective on Chinese history, it is virtually impossible to determine how exactly commonplace the practice had been.
The documents, after all, were only court cases — the rest must be, quite perfectly, hidden in the fabric of time.
Featured Image [Cropped] via J. Thomson, Wellcome Library, London/Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0).
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