Single and Scary

It was high summer in Anhui province, when Wang Yuzhi found himself both alone and drunk. By his own confession, Wang had lusted after the 18-year-old wife of his neighbor, Li Guohan, for months. That night, emboldened by alcohol, he decided to take action.

Creeping up to the couple’s hut, Wang used his knife to dig through the earthen wall, slithered in, and attacked Li’s wife as she slept naked. Realizing the interloper was a stranger, she fought back, managing to bite off part of Wang’s tongue. When the couple reported the attack to the local magistrate, they presented the gory tip as evidence. For the crime of forcible rape, Wang was executed by strangulation in 1762.

Wang Yuzhi was a 光棍儿 (guānggùnr), or “bare branch,” a term for a man without a spouse or prospects, nor hope of finding either. Chinese society is rooted in family, but as many as one in four men in 18th-century China were unmarried, a number that increased dramatically the lower one looked on the socio-economic ladder, or the further away from a city or town. Wang’s case, described by Matthew Sommer in Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China (2000), was typical of what Sommer, and historians including Thomas Buoye and Vivien Ng, describe as the anxieties that lifelong bachelorhood provoked in Chinese society.