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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"Wounding our customs and debasing our traditions" : law, gender, and pluralism in the Chinese community at Batavia, 1740-1811 Cenci, Luther Cox


Mass migration of male Chinese merchants and laborers to maritime Southeast Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries fundamentally reshaped world trade networks and colonial state-building, but it also catalyzed social and cultural interactions between Chinese migrants and the Europeans and Southeast Asians they encountered overseas. The existing literature focuses almost exclusively on the bilateral exchanges between Europeans and various Asian groups, paying little attention to the ways that Chinese migrants constructed and adjusted their own group identity in response to the multilateral cultural interactions that were an inescapable part of life in overseas port cities. This study examines how elite Chinese merchants managed to carve out a political and legal constituency in Batavia (modern Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East India Company in Asia, and how they and their subjects turned that constituency into a forum for the negotiation of what constituted proper Chinese behavior. First, I use Dutch administrative documents to show how a Chinese council staffed by wealthy male merchants solidified their control over a constituency composed of nominally “Chinese” households, although most female members were of Indonesian descent. Second, I show how elite men on the Chinese council attempted to use Dutch legal codification projects to impose a highly patriarchal vision of proper gendered behavior within those households. Finally, using the minutes of the law court administered by the Chinese council, I explore the ways that ordinary male and female litigants articulated their own notions of justice, and how the judges of the Chinese council used their privileged position as judges to intervene in the lives of their subjects. The image of the Chinese elite that emerges is one consumed by anxieties over the supposed failure of Chinese-status women to conform to elite standards of behavior: seeking divorces, behaving disgracefully in public, and engaging in interethnic sexual relationships. This paper illustrates the tension between a Chinese political elite whose jurisdiction was predicated on a relatively distinct Chinese community and the widespread tendency of their subjects to blur the lines between ethnic groups and articulate counterhegemonic constructions of Chinese customs.

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