East Asian Humanities Workshop: The Fox Spirit, the Stone Maiden, and Other Transgender Histories from Late Imperial China by Matthew Sommer

This is an Archive of a Past Event

In imperial China, people moved away from the gender they were assigned at birth in different ways and for many reasons. Eunuchs, boy actresses, and clergy left behind normative gender roles defined by family and procreation. “Stone maidens”—women deemed physically incapable of vaginal intercourse—might depart from families or marriages to become Buddhist or Daoist nuns. Anatomical males who presented as women sometimes took a conventionally female occupation such as midwife, faith healer, or even medium to a fox spirit. Yet they were often punished harshly for the crime of “masquerading in women’s attire,” suspected of sexual predation, even when they had lived peacefully in their communities for many years.

Exploring these histories and many more, this book is a groundbreaking study of transgender lives and practices in late imperial China. Through close readings of court cases, as well as Ming and Qing fiction and nineteenth-century newspaper accounts, Matthew H. Sommer examines the social, legal, and cultural histories of gender crossing. He considers a range of transgender experiences, illuminating how certain forms of gender transgression were sanctioned in particular social contexts and penalized in others. Sommer scrutinizes the ways Qing legal authorities and literati writers represented and understood gender-nonconforming people and practices, contrasting official ideology with popular mentalities. An unprecedented account of China’s transgender histories, this book also sheds new light on a range of themes in Ming and Qing law, religion, medicine, literature, and culture.

Matthew Sommer

The East Asian Humanities Workshop invites you to a book talk featuring Professor Matthew Sommer’s most recent monograph. Our discussant will be Kelly Fu (History, PhD student).

This event will take the form of a seminar. It will begin with a brief lecture by Professor Sommer, followed by a discussion led by Kelly. We warmly encourage participants to read the introduction and Chapter 5 of the book prior to the seminar. For those with a keen interest in the topic, or if you're participating for course credit, we suggest exploring additional sections. This deeper dive might contribute to a more vibrant and insightful discussion. This session would provide abundant time for Q&A to enhance this in-depth learning experience.

If you would like to purchase Professor Sommer’s book at a subsidized price of $10, please kindly indicate it in your RSVP by April 3, 2024.  

To ensure that every participant has ample time to acquire and read this most recently published book before Spring Break, we are thrilled to announce its availability, thanks to the exceptional efforts of our EALC Administrative Coordinator, Lupita Ramirez. The first 30 participants who register with us and express interest in purchasing the book can access it immediately. For acquiring your copy, please contact Lupita Ramirez at lupitar@stanford.edu, or visit her at the Knight Building, 521 Memorial Way, K204. Additionally, for those interested in previewing the book without making a purchase, a copy is available at the library for your convenience.


About the Speaker

Matthew Sommer is Bowman Family Professor of History and, by courtesy, of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University. He is a social and legal historian of China in the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), whose research focuses on gender, sexuality, and family. The main source for his work is original legal case records from local and central archives in China. Professor Sommer is the author of Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China (Stanford UP, 2000) and Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions (U of California P, 2015). His third book, entitled The Fox Spirit, the Stone Maiden, and Other Transgender Histories from Late Imperial China, was recently published by Columbia University Press.