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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Chinese Domestic Life between State Ideologies and Family Strategies, 1800-1985
1: Matches Made in Consultation with Heaven: Legal Uses of Divination Records in Qing Marriage Cases
Friday, March 26, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States
Though a robust body of scholarship has emerged examining marriage and law in traditional China, few have explored the important practice of calculating the bazi (“eight characters”) of a prospective match during a marriage proposal. The practice’s enduring popularity through the present has obscured its evident legal implications going back centuries to late imperial China. In this paper, I will show that divination records (gengtie) for potential partners were recognized as critical pieces of legal evidence in lawsuits over marriages. Divination records could be cited to allow a marriage to proceed or to end the courting process, and they had a wide range of functions, including legitimizing child marriages, wife-sales, and divorces. For these reasons, the imperial state expressed great concern when officials reported that records were forged, or when calculations were intentionally misconstrued. Drawing on cases from county and national-level archives, this paper documents the imperial state’s participation in a traditional divinatory “science” and its applications to the practice of law in China.