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China and Inner Asia
Wives at Men’s Parties: Gender Ethics and Expressions of Closeness
Individual Paper Presenter(s)
University of Pennsylvania, United States
My paper examines how elite men made the closeness of their relationships visible to others from the third to the seventh centuries. Elite women, especially married ones, played a greater part in elite men’s social networking than what has previously been imagined. I investigate a practice in which a husband commanded his wife to sit in at a home banquet with his friends. I contend that the practice functioned as an effective strategy to express link and intimacy between elite men. I also argue that canonical teachings of gender segregation (man at the outer, woman inner) ironically became the ground for this social practice. I pinpointed the practice’s positive contribution to elite networking as well as disputes over the appropriateness of intimate friendship engendered by the practice. The presence of wives at men’s banquets is recorded in sources like dynastic histories, intellectual critiques, and Dunhuang manuscripts. I find in the sources that elite men did not socialize with one another in a strictly sex-segregated society. Wives’ physical presence was deemed important in solidifying men’s connections. I also find that the practice was a diplomatic strategy for members of the second-tier clans to flaunt their knowledge of the high society. In so doing, they secured their status in the provincial society. My discoveries demonstrate that medieval elite men took advantage of manipulating the ideologies of the gendered division of space for their own benefits other than restricting women’s behavior. A history of the perception of the presence of wives at elite banquets is a history of a paradigm shift of elite culture, the development of gendered space at home, and the dynamics of social networks.