Between Despair and Heroism: Toward a History of Male Suicide in the Qing

Tue May 17th 2022, 12:00am
Event Sponsor
Center for East Asian Studies
Yvon Wang

Men of varying classes, ethnicities, and ages across the Qing empire (1644-1911) resorted to suicide. This presentation reflects an initial social history of male self-killing against the blurring social hierarchies, increased geographic mobility, and more violent and widespread challenges to imperial power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

 Today, we assume suicides are bad and preventable. By contrast, in the Qing, suicide could be seen as positive. While jurists scrutinized evidence for legal responsibility in a suicide case, there was an acceptance of some suicides simply not being avoidable. Without an automatic moral and religious condemnation of all suicide, the workings of a "necropolitics" to separate "good" from "bad" self-killings are far clearer in the Qing context: whether a given suicide was trivialized as an overreaction borne of ignorance and irrationality, commemorated as an act of ultimate courage, or prosecuted as symptomatic of a real trespass of justice depended significantly on the position of the deceased in the sociopolitical hierarchy— as with much else in Qing elites' deeply stratified view of society. But even the lauded suicides of powerful men contained tensions between individual agency and the fundamentally elitist, patriarchal structures and cultural ideals of power.

This is a hybrid with public attendance (non-Stanford) restricted to Zoom.

About the Speaker:

Yvon Wang is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto, St. George. They earned their Ph.D.  in 2014 from the History Department at Stanford University. Dr. Wang's book about explicit sexual representations in Chinese print commodities across the turn of the 20th century, Reinventing Licentiousness: Pornography and Modern China (2021), is available via Cornell University Press. They have recently published a co-authored paper on “gray” markets during the Great Leap Forward with Wang Chunying (Southern U. of Science & Technology) in Modern China

Dr. Wang is currently at work on several new projects: researching a monograph on the social history of suicide in China, editing and translating a volume of oral histories about the “Small Third Front” military-industrial complex with Xu Youwei (Shanghai U.), and translating a monograph series by anthropologist and rural studies expert Zhang Letian (Fudan U.). Other research interests include gender and sexuality, material culture, food, and popular media--in late imperial and twentieth-century China as well as in a broader world-historical perspective.