Making Love Legible


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NEIL J. DIAMANT Making Love “Legible” in China: Politics and Society during the Enforcement of Civil Marriage Registration, 1950-66 NEIL J. DIAMANT This article looks at marriage registration as a window into state building and state- family relations in Maoist China. It focuses on the interaction between officials and citizens as they tried to make sense of the new state’s unprecedented demand that people register their marriages prior to their consummation. Marriage registration was expected to make Chinese society more “legible” to the state, as well as contrib- ute to a “healthier” nation. While much of the literature of Maoist China would anticipate state success, archival evidence points to widespread evasion and resis- tance, as well as accommodation, to the state’s effort to reshape family relations. REGISTERING STATES, REGISTERING PEOPLE Register : to record formally and exactly —— Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Although the modern state has been conventionally defined as an organization that successfully monopolizes the use of violence (legitimate or otherwise) and controls the population in a given territory, 1 state officials generally spend far less time war making and controlling borders than maintaining “formal” and “exact” records of ordinary citizens’ lives. Likewise, for most citizens, the state looms large not so much as a coercive organization but as a registering one. For most of us, registering address changes, property transfers, marriages, divorces, annul- I am grateful to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for International Studies and to the China Council for providing me with the time and resources necessary to write this article. I was also the ben- eficiary of very helpful comments from Kevin O’Brien, the editors of , and anony- mous readers. POLITICS & SOCIETY, Vol. 29 No. 3, September 2001 447-480 © 2001 Sage Publications 447
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ments, births, and deaths occupy the lion’s share of our time dealing with state institutions. As much as we in the twentieth century have grown accustomed to filling in boxes and signing on the dotted line of numbered government forms (think about it: who among us now thinks twice about registering a marriage?), states’ drive to record both mundane and life-cycle events is still, in historical time, a relatively new phenomenon, one closely connected to the rise of the modern secular state and the development and elaboration of what Michael Mann called “infrastruc- tural power.” 2 Because rulers need revenue to maintain bureaucracies and militar- ies, many adopted strategies that allowed them to keep track of their population. Oftenthismeanttransferringtheauthorityfortheregistrationofmarriages,births,
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