The persecution of M-F crossing in imperial China


In China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), it was a capital offense for “a man to masquerade in women’s attire.” Occasional instances of male-to-female (M-F) cross-dressing are documented in Chinese legal archives. Matthew Sommer, a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow and Bowman Family Professor of History, draws on such cases to study transgender history in imperial China. Through the careful analysis of court records, Sommer explores the stories of individuals who were assigned male at birth, but lived as women, all while concealing their assigned sex from others. His research asks: how did these figures understand their gender presentation? How did imperial authorities interpret this violation of gender norms? And why did they punish such behavior so harshly?  

Like most transphobic legislation today, Qing criminalization of M-F cross-dressing was rooted in paranoid fears of the transgender woman. In imperial China, these anxieties centered on the fantastical figure of the renyao, a hyper-masculine, shapeshifting sexual predator who would pose as a woman to enter the inner quarters of the imperial court and rape vulnerable women. Translated as “human prodigy” or “human monster,” the renyao not only reflected Qing notions of normative masculinity, but also an abiding concern for the preservation of female chastity. 

Like most transphobic legislation today, Qing criminalization of M-F cross-dressing was rooted in paranoid fears of the transgender woman.

Sommer’s recent presentation to the faculty research fellows focused on two case studies from 18th and early 19th century China. The first presented the 1744 case of a “widow” named Xiong Mumu, who was a prosperous and popular midwife in a Hunan village. Her gender presentation came to light during a family property dispute, wherein she claimed the right to inherit as a “son”—despite having identified as a woman for more than thirty years. Looking to maximize his inheritance, her brother brought the gender discrepancy to the attention of Qing officials, revealing Xiong Mumu’s “masquerade” in the process. 

The second example centers on the 1807 case of Liu Xing Shi and her husband, who were arrested on the suspicion of cross-dressing and heterodox religious practice. Liu was a successful spirit medium, who practiced faith healing by channeling a female fox spirit, long associated with healing powers in northern Chinese popular religion. In a fascinating twist, though Liu and her husband enjoyed an intimate sexual relationship, he claimed never to have realized that his wife had male anatomy. 

Qing officials responded to both cases of M-F cross-dressing with incredible alarm. Behind these acts of feminine self-presentation, imperial authorities imagined sexual aggression. With the dangerous renyao figure in mind, they were convinced that Xiong and Liu could only have presented themselves as women in order to harm women. Both parties denied ever having raped or even desired women, yet their protests were to no avail. As punishment under the Qing code, Xiong was beaten and sent to serve as a slave in the army in Manchuria; Liu was put to death and her husband also beaten and sentenced to military slavery. 

A common theme of feminine healing joins the two cases presented in Sommer’s talk. As a skilled midwife, Xiong delivered countless babies in her village community. Liu channeled the female fox spirit to offer faith healing services to the ailing, especially women. Noting that hijras—a third-gender category including transgender, nonbinary, and intersex communities in South Asia—are also associated with spiritual powers, Sommer speculates that there may be a broader symbolic connection between transgender experience and the boundary-crossing acts of faith healing. 

The legal cases that figure in Sommer’s analysis paint a strikingly rich picture of gender norms in late imperial China, yet many questions remain unanswered. How did Xiong learn the trade of midwifery? How was it that Liu’s husband was so ignorant of her anatomy? We may never know the subjective consciousness of these two individuals, who lived as women for decades at great risk to their lives. 

Over the course of the Qing dynasty, there may have been thousands of people whose gender performances challenged imperial expectations of masculinity. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, as only those who ran afoul of imperial law have left traces in the historical record.