Monogamy as a Western Invention?

When the Western powers colonized Asia, naturally they enforced their own views on sex, gender, and relationships onto the subjugated civilizations. This is from a chapter on ‘Gender’ taken from the East-West dichotomy.


Monogamy – It’s a White Man’s Thing

Almost alone among barbarians they [the Germanic people] are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance. (Tacitus, AD 92)

In the preceding chapters I talked about the common metaphor of culture as a living being (e.g. Oswald Spengler, 1922; Arnold Toynbee, 1958 etc.). In this chapter I go further by exploring the gender, sexual orientation, and maturity of that culture.

Among the many things that impressed Marco Polo in the thirteenth century, and what captured his readers’ imagination throughout the centuries, is the absolute correct observation that a Mongol man, like the Mussulman, could take as many wives as he wanted: “When a husband leaves his wife to go on a journey for more than twenty days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, in this she is fully entitled to do by local custom. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way” (Polo, 2007).

Now, I believe Marco Polo often confused the Mussulmen with the Mongols, and the Mongols with the common Chinamen (of whom there were countless clans), as there were many hundreds of cultures existing side by side in thirteenth century Cathay (China). The Mongols took over Cathay and established the Yuan dynasty (1264-1368) under Kublai Khan, who ruled from his court in Beijing, but they did not introduce polygamy in China. Far from it: Although polygamy was accepted in many societies around the globe, nowhere was it as common as in Asiatic societies. However, by far more popular was the phenomenon of concubinage, that is, the maintenance of mistresses.

Concubinage does not mean having multiple wives, like in traditional polygamy, and it is certainly not a form of prostitution either. I will discuss this shortly. Having multiple wives, as long as a man could afford such a costly status symbol, was common in Hindu societies, too (the mythical Krishna had 16,108 wives!), but since monogamy was introduced in the nineteenth century by the British Imperialists, having multiple wives became illegal in many parts of India. Yet in the Muslim world, it is often legal. Until the Marriage Act of 1953, the ideal household in China consisted of “one man, many wives, and as many children as possible” (Gu, 1922; Xia et al., 2003). In Japan, polygamy was declared illegal only after the country was defeated in World War II and occupied by the U.S. army. But I will stop here and turn to more important facts…

Next post: Western sexual dominance versus Asian sexual submission

Image credit: Jonathan Kos-Read/Flickr.com

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