Organized Panel Session
Across the British Empire in the early-twentieth century, the push for marriage reforms was part of a global shift emphasizing “respectable domesticity” and “companionate marriage” in conjugal relations. This paper explores how Chinese polygamy in the Straits Settlements served as a site upon which jurists and colonial elites – both British and Asian – debated and formulated ideals of marriage and modernity, as well as diasporic identity and imperial subjecthood. Like child marriage, Chinese polygamy was invoked by colonial reformists as a shorthand for civilizational backwardness and cultural inferiority. Yet, in the Straits Settlements, while ordinances for both Christian and Muslim marriages were enacted, Chinese marriages were never elevated to statutory law. Instead, colonial jurists relied on both English common law and a set of local Chinese customary law to adjudicate over matrimonial disputes. Drawing on colonial Supreme Court and Privy Council cases, commissions of inquiry, newspapers, and oral interviews, this paper maps out the idiosyncratic relationship between marriage, Chinese customs, and colonial law. It argues that the unstable legal foundations of customary law not only generated heated debates about Chinese “difference,” but also granted colonial jurists immense power and leeway in determining marriage legitimacy in polygamous households. As such, proving matrimony ultimately rested on the cultural performance of “Chinese-ness” and a woman’s reputation and sexual morality.