Intimate Politics
Repositioning the Family and the Household in a Global History of Abortion: The Case of Early-Twentieth-Century China

Repositioning the Family and the Household in a Global History of Abortion: The Case of Early-Twentieth-Century China

In May, NC editor Cassia Roth and Diana Paton organized the Intimate Politics: Fertility Control in a Global Historical Perspective conference at the University of Edinburgh. The conference explored reproduction, gender, and race from the perspective of multiple time periods, geographic locations, actors, and methods. Scholars from Europe, the United States, South Africa, Turkey, and Canada presented on topics as wide-ranging as child abandonment in Ancient Greece to contraceptive use in late twentieth-century Ireland, exploring how women’s individual or social practices of fertility control intersected with larger political, economic, and cultural trends. Participants problematized the idea of “control” and “agency” in the history of reproduction. What did it mean to “control one’s fertility” in different historical periods and geographical regions? How did historical actors understand, define, and practice what we now call fertility control? How can we expand conventional definitions of fertility control to interrogate ideas of infertility, menstruation, and heteronormativity? Contributors also highlighted how race, ethnicity, and class intersect with gender to shape if, and how, women and men approached fertility control. Over the coming weeks, the Intimate Politics series will highlight some of the work presented at this conference.

Imagine that we have travelled back to early twentieth-century China and are tweeting on what the issue of abortion meant to folks there and then. What hashtags would we use to capture the gist of local concerns?

When I embarked on archival research for my dissertation on abortion in Republican China (1912-1949), I started with questions about the tension between individual freedom and governmental or religious establishments — a contradiction that has mobilized a wide spectrum of political forces in post-war Europe and North America and has drawn the lion’s share of English-language scholarship.

As I dug into the archives, however, I began to wonder what a history of abortion would look like if we give more attention to household dynamics. What happens when we bring out the texture of the interaction among the family, individual women, and the state? At least in the context of early twentieth-century China, I found that expanding criminalization and public surveillance did not substantially alter the hierarchical nature of reproductive life. Rather, familial demands adapted to and rewrote the mixed blessings of the law.

For Li Jiamin (born around 1921), for example, whether to bring her pregnancy to term was a communal decision, about which she had little say.1 An elementary school teacher living in the northern port city of Tianjin in the late 1930s, Li became pregnant after she spent a few nights with her co-worker Tan. Tan tried to marry Li, but Li’s mother felt deeply ashamed of the couple’s sexual affair and rejected his marriage proposal.

Homes in Tianjin, China. (Tiger Wang/Wikimedia Commons)

The widowed mother, taking pride in her unflagging observation of chaste widowhood, was terrified that her hard-earned reputation and her survival in the extended family of her deceased husband would be ruined if her in-laws and relatives found out about her daughter’s baby bump at the wedding. Even though Chinese law had decriminalized fornication more than two decades earlier, premarital sex on the part of women remained a taboo for families who were eager to maintain their respectability.2 Li’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy must have dealt an even heavier blow to her widowed mother, as few widowed daughters-in-law in this period had a line of independent income or inheritance; thus, they had to live at the marital family’s mercy.3

Li’s mother reached out to Tan’s father and pressured him to find a cure for her daughter’s “illness,” inflicted, as she saw it, by his son. The two parents arranged for Li to be treated with alleged abortifacients, including a musk-based suppository prescribed by a physician’s driver. When her daughter later died from a fatal “needle treatment,” Li’s mother arranged a rushed burial on the pretext of death from a contagious disease to cover up the affair and unnatural death from her extended family and the police.

Li Jiamin’s story is one of the many ambiguous cases that were prosecuted as “voluntarily obtained abortion,” but bear the suspicion of coercion on the part of family members. In the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China’s military and diplomatic defeats in conflicts with Japan and Western powers precipitated a political crisis and gave rise to reformative initiatives. To abolish foreign powers’ extraterritorial rights on the grounds of the inferiority of Chinese law, Chinese legal reformers introduced a blanket ban on abortion in the criminal code drafted in 1907, following German and Japanese precedents.4

The Chinese ban on abortion stipulated penalties for any pregnant women who voluntarily procured a miscarriage and for anyone who assisted her (including medical professionals and family members). It also introduced a ban on abortions procured without the pregnant woman’s consent or with “consent” obtained through violence, threats, detention, or deception.5 Chinese lawmakers paid attention to coerced abortion partly because they understood that family elders’, husbands’, and relatives’ tight control of women’s bodies was entrenched in patrilocal marriages and the domestic domain. For example, a poverty-stricken husband’s selling or leasing his wife’s sexual and reproductive labor to bear offspring for his creditor had become such a common practice in the nineteenth century that magistrates and local customs came to tolerate it.6

In other words, at least in principle, while the early twentieth-century ban on abortion narrowed Chinese women’s realm of reproductive autonomy, it also demonstrated a protective and liberating potential for women by curtailing the privileges that kin members had effectively enjoyed in managing “their women’s” bodies under earlier codes and customs.

The new law’s tough position on forced abortion enabled some women, particularly those who had the support of sympathetic relatives, to redress domestic grievances and picture reproductive life in a new light.7 For those who had no allies and advocates within the family, however, the distinction between voluntary and coerced abortions remained obscure.8 The police and the judiciary prioritized the preservation of local order and were reluctant to venture into the difficult waters of domestic conflicts. By and large, they adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance toward family heads’ aggressive interference in reproductive affairs and avoided taking pains to investigate reproductive coercion on behalf of a deceased woman or one who blamed herself.

In Li Jinmin’s case, the nine-month criminal proceedings generated a paper trail of seven hundred pages. Yet the investigation paid scant attention to Li’s agency (or her lack of it) in obtaining the abortion, and authorities never invoked the stipulation on coerced abortion. Judges simply assumed that Li Jiamin was a voluntary participant in the unlawful abortion that killed her. Based on this premise, her widowed mother was punished according to the provision on “assisting” a woman to procure an abortion, which resulted in a lighter punishment — a sentence of one and a half years on average — than the seven-year to lifetime sentence that a forced abortion would entail.

The letter of Republican Chinese abortion law gives the impression of the advancement of a unified medico-legal system into the mundane aspects of personal lives. But the realm of the “personal” has never been a power vacuum, and the expansion of public surveillance in this era did not necessarily diminish or eliminate the intermediary role that family and kin used to play in the management of reproduction. Rather, the process generated a re-engagement and realignment of the intimate relations among the family, individual women, and the state.

Li Jiamin’s dilemma remains relevant when we turn to China’s reproductive landscape today, which has been profoundly shaped by the draconian birth-planning campaign that the Chinese government launched in the late 1970s. Facing state-sanctioned reproductive coercion, from mandatory contraception to forced sterilization and abortion, many families hungry for sons resorted to sex-selective abortion and infant abandonment to fulfill their reproductive agenda.9 Among its devastating effects, the clash of reproductive goals left deep scars on the wombs of Chinese mothers, whose consent was often obscured and whose bodies became the very site for the tug of war between the state and the family. The root of the layered, intimate coercion that led to Li Jiamin’s death is still alive. It awaits our attention.


  1. All references to Li Jiamin’s case are is based on the following case file: Tianjin Municipal Archives J0044-2-008172. Return to text.
  2. Alison Sau-Chu Yeung, “Fornication in Late Qing Legal Reforms: Moral Teachings and Legal Principles,” Modern China 29, no. 3 (2003): 297-328. Return to text.
  3. Phillip Huang, “Women’s Choice under the Law: Marriage, Divorce, and Illicit Sex under the Qing and the Republic,” Modern China 27, no. 1 (2001): 3-58; Kathryn Bernhardt, Women and Property in China, 960-1949 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 126-132. Return to text.
  4. For the late Qing Chinese adoption of the blanket ban on abortion, see Ling Ma, “Gender, Law, and Society: Abortion in Early-Twentieth-Century China,” PhD diss., (University at Buffalo, 2016), chapter 2. Return to text.
  5. For the wording of the ban on coerced abortion in various versions of Republican criminal codes, Ma, “Gender, Law, and Society,” Appendices. Return to text.
  6. Matthew H. Sommer, Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015), 31, 104-5. Return to text.
  7. Ma, chapter 5, and see for instance, “Bipo duotai,” in Shen Bao, July 5, 1929; Beijing Municipal Archives J065-014-00918; Beijing Municipal Archives J0044-2-125553. Return to text.
  8. For cases similar to that of Li Jiamin, see, for instance, Shanghai Municipal Archives Q180-2-2348; Shen Bao, October 24, 1934; July 25, 1929. Return to text.
  9. See, for example, Junhong Chu, “Prenatal Sex Determination and Sex-selective Abortion in Rural Central China,” Population and Development Review 27 no. 2 (2001): 259-81; Kay Johnson, China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Return to text.

Featured image caption: Mother with two young children in sleeping area of dwelling in the Jiangsu Province or Yunnan Province in China in 1946. (Courtesy Arthur Rothstein/Wikimedia Commons)

Ling Ma is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Geneseo.