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August 30, 2005


Dr Ngo: It has, as others have noted, very little to do with polyandry, the revolutionary idea that a woman might be in a position to have more than one husband.

Polyandry is traditional, not revolutionary, in a handful of cultures:

Polyandry has occurred in Tibet (see Polyandry in Tibet), Zanskar, Nepal, India (Zanskar, Ladakh, Toda of South India, Nairs of Kerala, the Nymba and Pahari of North India), and Sri Lanka. It is also encountered in some regions of China (especially Yunnan- the Mosuo people), and in some Subsaharan African and American indigenous communities (notably the Surui of northwestern Brazil).cite
As I said upthread, the successful triples I know personally have been effectively two-men-one-woman marriages: the only triple I knew well enough to ask the question, both men were heterosexual.

While it would be difficult to set up triple-marriage as a social structure (much more difficult than simply opening marriage up to same-sex couples as well as mixed-sex couples) I don't see it as intrinsically impossible, if the political will was there. Which is pretty much isn't.

To avoid the spectre of endless line marriages in which survivor benefits have to be paid out to infinity, one might have arrangements such that any three (or four?) people could present themselves for a polymarriage, but none of them could be married to anyone else already, not even to each other. So if a couple met a third person, the couple would have to divorce, in order for the triple to get married to each other... I'm not exactly recommending this: I don't know that it would work. I just note that triples do seem to work, in some cases, just as couples do.

"The prize-winner was a statement actually and seriously spoken by the contributor's girlfriend: 'I'm sorry, but I'm not going to apologize anymore.'"

I once, decades ago, had a sweetie who was so over-inclined towards apologizing for everything (despite being incredibly smart and a great writer) that she would literally apologize for losing control and having an orgasm when she hadn't planned to.

In the middle of it.

She was a very orderly person, but I felt this was a bit unnecessary.

Polyandry is traditional, not revolutionary, in a handful of cultures:

Jes: you are of course correct. I omitted reference to these polyandrous minorities because they did not seem relevant to the Egyptian case or the majority of the world's polygamous (=polygynous) societies. The Mosuo in China are fascinating, but the 1.2 billion "Han" (and other) Chinese look at the handful of Mosuo as extremely odd indeed, almost a human freak show. (They're almost proud of them: like pandas.)

This, by the way, seems to me an almost insuperable bar to the "polyandrous" solution mentioned by another poster to the gender imbalance rising in China today. There'll be literally *millions* more men than women in the next generation, thanks to the "one-child" policy and sex-selective abortion and infanticide, but I can't see many Chinese men agreeing to "share" a wife. Instead there'll probably be either a mass importation of foreign women (Thai, Filipinas, Indian, whatever), if China's economy continues to boom, or an enormous number of frustrated, because perpetually un-mated, young men.

If I implied some limit to the range of human diversity in relationships, I apologize. We should be celebrating all the myriad ways in which people can hook up, so long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses.

OTOH, I continue to feel that if we care about the original theme of this thread, calling for renewed "polygamy" in Egypt and the like, we need to remember that globally the issue is primarily one of class-based polygyny, and what we - as feminists, liberals, or simply human beings - think about that.

Sorry that I'm picking up this late into the thread, but I'm still reeling a bit from this:

Society does have an interest, however, in fostering the kinds of relationships that have been proven, over time, to sustain it.

3. For modern society, a conventional one-woman-one-man marriage is the standard, and it has worked very well (thank you very much). von

This seems to me to be a particularly odd view of the multiplicity of relationships that occur in our society. The most common that I know, for example, is not "one man-one woman" monogamy but failed monogamy: two people who used to be married to each other, but are now married to other people/dating other people/simmering in a pool of mutual hatred etc. With 2/3 of marriages ending in divorce, this seems far more common statistically, which backs up my anecdotal perception that it is more common than successful monogamy. The next most common, anecdotally, is serial monogamy, where people move from one partner to another in rapid succession, switching every couple of years or so. My parents are a couple who I would consider to be strict monogamists -- they were married at 19 and remain married to this day, and they've been honest with me about enough that I'm pretty sure neither of them has ever strayed. But they are a rare breed, even among their generation.

There are prostitutes, adulterers, randy bachelors and singletons in our society, and they fit in perfectly well. There are men with mistresses and wives that know, men with mistresses and wives that don't know, women shagging the postman, soldiers coming back from a ten month tour to find their wives six months due, live-in-lovers and all manner of "open" or "friends with benefits" relationships that don't fit into the traditional framework.

With this rich tapestry of human sexual and romantic interaction occurring all through human history, and with the most popular kind of marriage in the population seeming to be the failed one, it seems positively bizarre to say that the State has based itself on this seeming minority practice of functional monogamous marriage. It may well be that people have believed this to be the case, but they've been wrong.

I can see that the logistical arguments against standardising a marriage contract between more than two people would be a headache to look at, but the idea itself seems no more morally or socially destructive than what we already have in operation. I can well envisage having arguments in fifty years time that are poly equivalents of the gay marriage debates now.

OTOH, I continue to feel that if we care about the original theme of this thread, calling for renewed "polygamy" in Egypt and the like, we need to remember that globally the issue is primarily one of class-based polygyny, and what we - as feminists, liberals, or simply human beings - think about that.

With 2/3 of marriages ending in divorce,

This is the first time I've ever seen that number bandied about. Do you have a link to some kind of cite for that?

(I'm always skeptical of these statistics anyway, since they seem to rely on a simple calculation of "# of marriages in year X/# of divorces in year X," which really doesn't tell us much of anything, particularly when it's often the same people getting married over and over. Between me and Elizabeth Taylor, we have nine marriages and seven divorces, which sort of skews the statistics.)


I always suspected there was something between you and Liz Taylor. I didn't realize it was that serious, though.

According to the OECD, the number of divorces per 100 marriages for the United States in 1998 was 50.6

Cite (Excel file, GE5.1)

Dr. Ngo's comments are wonderful, in large part because they do rather better than I managed to do in emphasizing the question of how polygamy is actually practiced. It seems to have the effect of concentrating power. One successful man has three wives, and a poorer man can't get any. It sounds like a deeply problematic arrangement--particularly if pre- or extra-marital sex is seriously punished.

With a broad historical lens, the set-up looks very much like women become commodities. Or, if one prefers, the women are canny traders, rationally choosing to align themselves with the more powerful men who have demonstrated their ability to protect and support a wife. It sounds like an arrangement that would arise out of pretty hard-scrabble economic conditions.

But when the economic conditions that make polygamy make sense, what happens to the cultural traditions? In the case of the Mormons, the Federal government came down like a ton of bricks on Utah, and the Mormons blinked. The mainstream capitulated, and the underground hardcore is gradually dying off. In the case of Islam, there seem to remain many areas where polygamy still makes economic sense (in sub-saharan Africa, perhaps, although wealth is incredibly concentrated in the mideast as well). The laws remain very much on the books. Maybe it's actually a good sign that polygamy seems outre enough in Egypt that the call of a middle-class woman to increase the practice should be considered newsworthy.

I'm kind of grasping at straws here, but I do think that Dr Ngo's questions point to the more relevant problems in the article.

By the way, Dr Ngo, while I think your argument about imported wives for China makes total sense, I remember having heard about a fair degree of anxiety about miscegenation among some Chinese. Do you think that's a misapperception on my part, or do you think that the rising generation of men would simply get over it?


I think it would be very salutary if the excess of unmarried young men in China were to lead to a reduction in the "anxiety about miscegenation among some Chinese".

There is another traditional way to soak up excess unmarried young men that has me far more worried, sc. starting wars.

Starting wars or starting revolutions. But yeah, violence is the more obvious worry.

Still, there are a lot of desperate women in the region, and if miscegenation turns out not to be that big a deal for Chinese men, the male surplus might not result in catastrophe.

I simply don't know enough to say, but the questions are worrisome enough by themselves.

Jackmormon: Yes, some concern over miscegenation does exist in China, which is in its own way just as racist as any other society I know (e.g., they have exactly the same stereotypes of lazy, backward Southeast Asians that Americans do or did). But this is likely to be much more directed against foreign ("barbarian") males than females. Since only the male line counts in genealogy or culture, any woman, regardless of background, can be relatively easily incorporated, even if her inlaws may sneer at her. Chinese merchants travelling overseas for centuries have taken native wives in the ports they frequented, often in addition to good Chinese wives at home. And of course emperors accepted the tribute of daughters from the "barbarian" kingdoms which they had taken under China's "protection"; the women's quarters of the Imperial Palace in Beijing were polyglot, like those of the Seraglio in Istambul.

Looked at on the grand historical scale, the huge size of China's population today is due less to their fertility than to their immense success, over the past 2000+ years, in "Sinicizing" newcomers. If we were able to do a detailed genetic and genealogical survey of all the Chinese today, it is probable that well over half of their ancestors (going back, say 2000 years) were *not* Chinese, i.e., did not think of themselves as Chinese and were regarded by the Han as "barbarians." But the cultural genius of China is that not only did it conquer these people, it assimilated them so thoroughly that they now regard themselves as fully Han Chinese, and are startled, or even upset, when one suggests otherwise to them. (E.g., a study by the University of Hong Kong School of Dentistry [!] indicating that most HK Chinese are Sundadonts, with tooth types more closely related to those of Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Filipinos than to the Sinodonts of the Yellow River valley.)

So my guess is that the only real impediment to the mass importation of women to service the excess Chinese males would be economic, if the "miracle" economy implodes. Culturally, China will always adapt, assimilate, and survive.

"Culturally, China will always adapt, assimilate, and survive."

Resistance is futile.

Thanks for the detailed response!

In the long run, we all run together genetically, but what kind of shorter-term effects might this sort of thing have?

China is starting to assert itself, and if my Chinese students' essays are any indication, Chinese nationalism is just *this far* from reaching international screaming levels. Even if the central Chinese banks didn't hold a chunk of US treasury notes, the short-term social integrity of China would seem to be pretty important for the US.

In some ways, I'm coming at this from an almost purely logical standpoint because I know so little about the area. So please forgive and correct me when I go wrong.

Given: vast surplus of male population coming of age.

Given: desperate south-asian female population.

Given: cultural Chinese racism, at least in the short term.

Likely: sudden large-scale interracial marriage.

Possible: a radically new idea of what it means to be Chinese.

Speculative: Would latent racism in Chinese society easily assimilate a big mixed-race influx? Would that generation grow up under racist disapprobation? Or would that generation form a new notion of what is means to be Chinese? Would a non-Han Chinese identity be more ideological?

I became a historian to escape the future, not to cope with it.

Nevertheless, since speculation is requested, I would _surmise_ that China is capable of absorbing a great number of non-Chinese women and convincing itself that their children are Han Chinese, so no wholescale rethinking of "racial" identity would be required, so long as the *fathers* are Chinese.

I can think of half a dozen different scenarios in which China - vast, fast-growing, "Market-Leninist," environmentally catastrophic, clever, powerful and self-deluded - could be a major problem for the world in the next half-century. A possible influx of foreign women would IMHO be relatively low on the scale of destabilizing factors.

But one never knows, do one?

"I became a historian to escape the future, not to cope with it."

That's a great line. But if you were really trying to escape the future, you would have become a Classicist.

You know the joke about the Classicist who has to take an exam on general history? He gets to a question saying "Discuss the effects of the French Revolution on European politics".

He answers: "Too soon to tell."

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