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Chinese Legal Documents Series #7

The ISCLH Blog is happy to provide another update to the Chinese Legal Documents Series! This special series invites researchers to introduce a document from their own collections, provide a translation, and discuss what these texts might be used to study. Our goal is to showcase the research of members, offer a small corpus of legal texts for the training of students, and give readers a wide view of what the study of Chinese legal history looks like.

Our latest post comes from Eric Schluessel, Assistant Professor of History and Political Science in the Department of History, University of Montana. Professor Schluessel teaches courses in the history and politics of China. His research focuses on the social history of Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region in Chinese Central Asia, during the Qing dynasty (1636-1911) and twentieth century.

The document below is a translation of an 1881 petition from Han shi, Hui woman from Turpan. Her petition describes her difficult life in the aftermath of the 1877 reconquest of Xinjiang by Qing forces. While Han shi herself was not a historically important figure, her experiences are historically significant. In essence, they embody the struggles of many people coming to terms with loss and recovery across postwar Xinjiang. Her petition is also an example of one narrative strategy otherwise helpless individuals employed to secure official support for their quotidian disputes.

A printable PDF version is also available for download here. As always, we welcome any comments and suggestions you might have and would be especially eager to hear from those who have used this document in the classroom. Finally, please e-mail Maura Dykstra if you are interested in contributing a future document for the series.

Eric Schluessel, “Families Divided and United in Late-Qing Xinjiang,” Chinese Legal Documents Series (International Society for Chinese Law and History) 3, No. 2 (June 2016) Permanent Link:

Families Divided and United in Late-Qing Xinjiang


1877 was a glorious year for the Hunan Army. The fighting force under the command of Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885) completed its campaign to retake Xinjiang, lost in the Muslim uprisings of 1864, from the Khoqandi regime of Yaʿqūb Beg (1820-1877). The army settled in to rule. For thirty more years, its officers directed a program to transform the Inner Asian region into their vision of a Chinese provincial society.

For ordinary people who lived in Xinjiang – Uyghur, Hui, and Han alike – 1877 was simultaneously a relief and a shock. Individuals’ narratives of the uprisings, reconquest, and reconstruction are recorded mainly in local yamen documents, which have been inaccessible for most of the past century. Fortunately, the late-Qing archive of the Turpan prefectural yamen was recently published in facsimile, and its ninety-one volumes contains thousands of stories.[1] Plaints and testimonies tell us that, for the people of Turpan, a Muslim-majority city in Eastern Xinjiang, the preceding thirteen years had been very difficult, especially for the Hui. After the Han had fled, conflicts continued between Hui and Uyghurs. At one point, Yaʿqūb Beg’s forces besieged the Hui of Turpan for six months, starving them out, then marched many of them off to Kashgar as slaves. Later, when the Hunan Army arrived, many others fled. When the army wintered in Turpan, they stretched the local supply of grain, causing food prices to rise sharply. While the army’s presence meant an end to the ongoing violence between groups, it ushered in a new kind of turmoil as displaced people struggled to survive.

The Turpan prefectural archive attests to the nature of those struggles and the means that people used to address them. At the same time that economic instability and sudden shifts in the social fabric of the region threatened the livelihood of many residents, the Hunan Army’s reconstruction agencies (shanhou ju 善後局) began to process displaced people and establish them in new households. Demobilized soldiers were often “assigned” women to be their wives, including Hui and Turki who had no interest in marrying a non-Muslim Han, as well as women who were already married. If their husbands reappeared, the agencies ruled that this original marriage was no longer valid. An agency marriage was a permanent reassignment.

The documents in the “rites section” archive speak to the ways in which Xinjiang society changed on an intimate level in the wake of the uprisings and reconquest. They point to the attitudes of Han soldiers and merchants with regard to sexuality and gendered relationships. Most importantly, perhaps, they provide a rare chance to listen to women themselves, who have been almost invisible in scholarship on Xinjiang history. Despite layers of convoluted representation, editing, and self-censorship, we may get some sense of what life was like for a woman struggling to survive in 1870s Xinjiang and what her range of possible actions might have been.

GX 07.06 “吐魯番廳為回婦韓氏婚變之批文” in Qingdai Xinjiang dang’an xuanji, (Guilin: Guangxi Shifan Daxue Chubanshe, 2012), vol. 28, 218.

Original Text


具懇恩回民婦韓式,年四十五歲,係本屬人,為懇 恩存案,以杜後患事。




不料本月初四日,氏回夫馬朝昇由南台歸來,在街相認。氏無著落,正在兩難,原配相認,不敢苟,且請本城鄰約理處,且現在女婿家安身,恐離別之後,氏後夫李朝榮聞知,來吐與女婿姜姓另生枝端,眾等不敢定奪,只得呈明,懇祈 青天大老爺作主存案,賞准氏婦與原配,則氏感戴 深恩於生生世世矣。





A petition.

I, the Hui woman Han shi, 45 sui, from this jurisdiction, petition to preserve a plaint on file in the yamen, so as to prevent trouble in the future.

In Guangxu 3, when the great army retook Turpan, my husband Ma Chaosheng was carried off to the South by the Andijani bandits. I was in Turpan with two children, scraping by, doing odd jobs to keep us fed.

In the spring of Guangxu 4, the price of grain shot up, and it was hard to get ahold of food. I, of my own volition, married a Han man, Li Chaorong, as his wife and brought along two of my children into his household, a boy and a girl.

Last spring, I married my daughter to Jiang Xingshun. Li Chaorong moved me and my little boy north over the mountains to farm. Sadly, when we got to Manas, my little boy got sick and died. After Li Chaorong saw my little boy die, his resentment grew day by day. There was nothing else for it: he asked a local headman in Suilai to mediate. I was ordered back to Turpan to live with my son-in-law.

Suddenly, on the fourth day of this month, my Hui husband Ma Chaosheng returned from the South. We recognized each other on the street. Now I have no solution for this – I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. When my first husband and I recognized each other, we dared not act carelessly. Instead, we asked a local headman to mediate. Right now, I am at my son-in-law’s. I am afraid that, now we are separated, my second husband Li Chaorong will hear about this, and he will come to Turpan and start some new trouble with my son-in-law Mr. Jiang. We do not dare make a decision on our own, so we can only beg the just magistrate to step in. If you will permit me to return to my first husband, you will have our gratitude for generations.

Petitioner: the Hui woman Han shi

Order from Magistrate Yang [Danian]: Order the village headman to investigate.

Guangxu 7.6.6 [1 July 1881]


The life of Han shi, a Hui woman from Turpan, reflects the social and economic conditions described above: first her husband was carried off by Yaʿqūb Beg’s army of local Muslims and “Andijanis.” Like so many other separated during the Muslim Uprisings, she gave her husband up for dead, or lost for good. She worked as best she could to keep her family fed, until rising grain prices in 1878, one year after the Hunan Army’s arrival, pushed them to the edge of starvation. Han shi responded to these worsening conditions by finding a new husband who could maintain her and by marrying off a daughter. That her second husband was Han mattered little – such arrangements were common enough. Like many demobilized soldiers, after arriving in Turpan, he sought out some land to farm in one of the Northern, Chinese-majority towns that the Muslim Uprisings had reduced to ruins and fallow land. Along the way, her last child died, and the couple’s relations soured.

When Han shi returned to Turpan to stay with her son-in-law, a familiar story played out: her first husband returned. Now Han shi now had two husbands. According to her petition, she wanted to clear the air and receive permission from the magistrate to return to her first (Hui) husband.

Like many documents concerning these matters, it is a loner in the archive – it does not form part of a larger case documented at the level of the prefecture. As was normal in cases dealing with the family, the magistrate sent the matter back to a village headman for mediation,[2] effectively ending the paper trail. Nevertheless, Han shi’s case points to a number of questions of agency and representation that are relevant for a critical reading of the Xinjiang archive.

When the people of Xinjiang approached the Qing authorities, either on their own or through translators and other intermediaries, they tended to weave their own stories into the grand weft of history. They positioned their own narratives in relation to the traumatic events of the Muslim uprisings, the disasters of the Yaʿqūb Beg period, and the further terror and displacement caused by the Hunan Army’s reconquest. Indeed, through wave after wave of violence, internally displaced people and refugees really did struggle to maintain their lives. In the context of the yamen, however, the language of the empire’s loss and recovery of territory could lend legitimacy to their stories. In this document, Han shi represents herself as a victim of Yaʿqūb Beg’s military adventures, now a Qing subject seeking the magistrate’s help to restore her proper familial relationship.

Moreover, Han shi was not the only Hui woman who ended up married to a man of the “wrong” creed in the aftermath of the Muslim uprisings. Xinjiang’s provisional government assigned many such women to Han husbands, and then settled the couples together in areas slated for land reclamation. Still others were trafficked by (mostly Hui) merchants, who “married” them to Han soldiers. After a few weeks, the traffickers would affect their disappearance, or the women would sneak back on their own, only to be married to other men. Prostitution also became increasingly common.

When someone approached the yamen, of course, they were likely to present any and all of these arrangements in terms of normative marriage. Words like “to marry” (jia 嫁, qu 娶) and “wife” (qi 妻) euphemized a broad range of relationships that Han officials or Muslim commoners might find suspicious, inappropriate, immoral, or illegal. Men who trafficked in women presented themselves as their “husbands,” for example, while a group of prostitutes living in a common home might present themselves as a family unit. On the other hand, someone might depict a marriage they sought to disrupt as “kidnapping and selling” (guai mai 拐賣) or “Stealing a woman” (qiang nü 搶女).

Similarly, we ought to consider Han shi’s presentation of her personal narrative of loss and recovery in its broader cultural context. First, narratives of familial separation had become common in the Northwest after 1864, when communications between people in Shaanxi or Gansu and family sojourning in Xinjiang were cut off, while after 1875 stories of recovery became a means to talk about the reclamation of both relatives and imperial patrimony. Thus, Han shi’s narrative fit into a common set of narratives with which the yamen staff would have been familiar and possibly sympathetic.

Second, Han shi’s specific problem – the return of a lost husband – became a trope in the stories of the Turpan archives. Because of the social and economic changes described above, Han shi was one of many women said to have remarried in error. Yet, the yamen would have possessed no record of such a woman’s first husband – so how could the magistrate have known if their claim to be husband and wife was genuine? Perhaps, all over Xinjiang, families really were reuniting – or perhaps people found a way to convince the magistrate to extract women from abusive or difficult relationships by inventing long-lost husbands.

[1] Qingdai Xinjiang dang’an xuanji, (Guilin: Guangxi Shifan Daxue Chubanshe, 2012).

[2] Some may wonder at the translation of yue 約 as “headman,” and xiangyue 鄉約 as “village headman.” While it is true that in China proper this term denoted a “village compact,” it came in the Northwest to indicate the individual elected to lead a village.


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