The Mongol conquest of China in the thirteenth century and Khubilai Khan’s founding of the Yuan dynasty brought together under one government people of different languages, religions, and social customs. Chinese law evolved rapidly to accommodate these changes, as reflected in the great compendium Yuan dianzhang (Statutes and Precedents of the Yuan Dynasty). The records of legal cases contained in this seminal text, Bettine Birge shows, paint a portrait of medieval Chinese family life—and the conflicts that arose from it—that is unmatched by any other historical source.
Marriage and the Law in the Age of Khubilai Khan reveals the complex, sometimes contradictory inner workings of the Mongol-Yuan legal system, seen through the prism of marriage disputes in chapter eighteen of the Yuan dianzhang, which has never before been translated into another language. Birge’s meticulously annotated translation clarifies the meaning of terms and passages, some in a hybrid Sino-Mongolian language, for specialists and general readers alike. The text includes court testimony—recorded in the vivid vernacular of people from all social classes—in lawsuits over adultery, divorce, rape, wife-selling, marriages of runaway slaves, and other conflicts. It brings us closer than any other source to the actual Mongolian speech of Khubilai and the great khans who succeeded him as they struggled to reconcile very different Mongol, Muslim, and Chinese legal traditions and confront the challenges of ruling a diverse polyethnic empire.
[An] exciting addition to the scholarship on the Mongol Yuan empire…An indispensable source for both specialist and general readers who are interested in the social, legal, and gender history of the Mongol empire.
Birge has been working on Song and Yuan marriage law for more than two decades and is better qualified than anyone else to do the translation. This is a pleasure to read; she writes lucidly and gracefully. The subjects—law in China, marriage law, the Yuan period—are all ones that will draw readers to the work. Birge’s translation will be used not only by historians of China, but also by scholars and students interested in comparative law, social life and marriage, plus the Yuan dynasty and the Mongols more generally.
Based on painstaking research on legal decisions concerning marriage during the Yuan dynasty, this work illuminates the contradictions and difficulties the Mongols faced in attempting to develop a consistent approach to marital law. Birge’s descriptions of the Mongol government and the lawmaking process are informative, and her translations accurate and readable. The book offers many revealing insights, including that women instituted many of the legal cases, an indication that they were not as secluded or powerless as commonly thought.
- 2019, Winner of the J. Franklin Jameson Award
- 336 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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