University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

Physics and Astronomy Calendar

Friday, April 17th 2015
Speaker: Francesca Bray, Social Anthropology, University of California Santa Barbara/University of Edinburgh
Subject: Happy Endings: Narratives of Reproduction in Late Imperial China
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

A rich resource for exploring the reproductive cultures of late imperial China ca. 1500 – 1800 is the abundant corpus of gynecology (fuke) treatises and case-histories. Demographic historians have recently used quantitative sources to argue that deliberate checks on fertility became common during this period, and that a rational, "modern" demographic mentality emerged which saw elite or better-off families matching numbers of children to resources and opportunities. In documenting specific attempts to intervene in natural processes, the fuke medical cases offer some very different perspectives on how childbirth and fertility were understood by Chinese families, what was considered a successful outcome, what a failure, and whose opinions counted. Here I focus on the temporal framing and narrative choices of selected fuke cases to ask what they can tell us about how practitioners and their clients attempted to control reproductive processes, and about the ideals, decisions and emotions associated with childbearing. The medical sources corroborate several elements of the demographers' model of reproductive agency and rationality, yet vividly portray the uncertainty, peril and intense emotions of reproductive life, and underline the heavy price the many women had to pay in order to produce a socially desirable family.

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