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Inside the Home, Outside the Family: Wet Nurses in Republican China

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In Republican Beijing matchmakers (mei) not only arranged marriages, but also acted as brokers in domestic labor. Finding and helping a family to keep a suitable wet nurse often proved contentious. Changes to the legal environment from the 1910s to the 1930s made the task even more challenging. Previously Chinese society may have treated wet nurses as part of a household with stakes in the overall well-being of the family and a paternal guarantee of food and shelter, but the emphasis on contract as the mode of engagement in the early twentieth century altered wet nurses’ status. For some women contracts became a device through which to confront their employers, while for others the loss of constructed family obligation proved devastating. This article draws upon police records to expose rivalries between servants and the precarious nature of domestic employment in this transitional period. The experience of wet nurses also reveals competing ideas about what constituted a family at the beginning of the twentieth century, as eventually co-sanguinal prevailed over co-residential conceptions of the household unit. 

Affiliations: 1: University of Chicago


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