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Fear of Gynarchy in an Age of Chaos: Kong Qi's Reflections on Life in South China under Mongol Rule

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image of Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

Over the long term, the Mongol conquest of the Southern Song in 1276 was less destructive to members of the local South Chinese elite than was the failure of the Yuan regime to establish strong and durable institutions of dynastic rule. For not long after the elite survivors of the Sino-Mongol wars had returned to a comfortable prosperity under Yuan rule, their children were buffetted by the instability and civil wars that engulfed Yuan society from the late 1330s to the collapse of the dynasty in 1368. The Kongs of Liyang typify many of the most salient features of elite life in South China under the compressed Yuan dynastic cycle: the orphaned son of a minor Song official who immediately capitulated to the Mongols, by the 1320s Kong Wensheng had translated talent, pedigree, and his position as a respected clerk in provincial government into such accoutrements of elite Yuan life as a library, sojourning literati guests, and a steady flow of slaves and bondservants thrown onto the market by penury and natural disaster. The prosperity built up by men like Kong Wensheng unravelled in the last tumultuous decades of the Yuan, an era of chaos that is captured by Wensheng's son Kong Qi in his Frank Recollections of the Zhizheng Era of ca. 1365. Even as it exemplifies many aspects of the compressed Yuan dynastic cycle, this collection of cautionary anecdotes and observations is also colored by Kong Qi's special circumstances as a minor son and a uxorilocal husband, circumstances that incline Kong Qi to blame the perils of his family, his society, and ultimately his dynasty on women's usurpation of male-centered institutions of public authority to create their own private gynarchies. Kong's jeremiads against usurpatious women in turn raise the possibility that during the Yuan, if not at all times, women exercised far more power and autonomy than normative prescriptions would suggest.

Affiliations: 1: Haverford College


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