Matthew Sommer

Associate Professor of Chinese History

At Stanford Since

Ph.D., UCLA, 1994; M.A., University of Washington, 1987; B.A., Swarthmore College, 1983

Research Interests

My research focuses on sexuality, gender relations, chosen kinship, and law during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and the main sources for my work are legal cases from central and local archives in China.  The main local archives I use happen to be located in Sichuan, which is my favorite part of China (the photo shows me eating Yibin-style “flaming noodles” at a restaurant in Chengdu).  I also like to use popular fiction and other non-legal sources for historical research. 

My first book (see below) is primarily a legal history, but my current projects use legal cases to explore social historical topics.  The manuscript of my second book is near completion; its title is POLYANDRY AND WIFE-SELLING IN QING DYNASTY CHINA: SURVIVAL STRATEGIES AND JUDICIAL INTERVENTIONS.  I am also working on a long-term project on male/male sexual relations and masculinity in eighteenth-century China.  In conjunction with that project, I hosted an international conference on "Same-Sex Desire and Union in China: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives," which took place at the Stanford Humanities Center in 2008 (

Courses Taught

Undergraduate Lecture Classes

  • Late Imperial China: From the Mongol Invasions to the 1911 Revolution
  • Historical Roots of Modern East Asia (with Kären Wigen)

Undergraduate Colloquia

  • Chinese Women’s History
  • Law and Society in Late Imperial China
  • Homosexuality in Historical and Comparative Perspectives

Graduate Colloquia

  • Gender and Sexuality in Chinese History
  • Law and Society in Late Imperial China
  • Frontier Expansion and Ethnic Statecraft in the Qing Empire
  • Key Topics in Qing History
  • Homosexuality in Historical and Comparative Perspectives
  • State, Society, and Economy in Qing Dynasty China

Graduate Research Seminar

  • Qing Legal Texts as Sources for Historical Research

Selected Publications

  • Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China, Stanford University Press, 2000.
  • “Dangerous Males, Vulnerable Males, and Polluted Males: The Regulation of Masculinity in Qing Dynasty Law,” in Susan Brownell and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, eds., Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, University of California Press, 2002, pp. 67-88.
  • “Making Sex Work: Polyandry as a Survival Strategy in Qing Dynasty China,” in Bryna Goodman and Wendy Larson, eds., Gender in Motion: Divisions of Labor and Cultural Change in Late Imperial and Modern China, Rowman and Littlefield, 2005, pp. 29-54.
  • “清代縣衙的賣妻案件審判:以272件巴縣、南部與寶坻縣案子為例證” (The Adjudication of Wife-Selling in Qing County Courts: 272 Cases from Ba, Nanbu, and Baodi Counties, trans. by Lin Wenkai 林文凱), in Qiu Pengsheng 邱澎生 and Chen Xiyuan 陳熙遠, eds., 明清法律運作中的權利與文化 (Power and Culture in Ming-Qing Law), Lianjing Chuban Gongsi, 2009, pp. 345-396.
  • “Abortion in Late Imperial China: Routine Birth Control or Crisis Intervention?” Late Imperial China, 31: 2 (2010), pp. 97-165.
  • “堕胎在明清时期的中国:日常避孕抑或应急性措施?” (Abortion in Late Imperial China: Routine Birth Control or Crisis Intervention? trans. by Zhang Yu 张宇), 中国乡村研究 (Rural China: An International Journal of History and Social Science), 9 (2011), pp. 1-52.
  • “Scandal in the Garden: The Story of the Stone as a ‘Licentious Novel’,” in Andrew Schonebaum and Tina Lu, eds., Approaches to Teaching The Story of the Stone (Dream of the Red Chamber), Modern Language Association of America, 2012, pp. 186-207.
  • “The Field of Qing Legal History,” in Zhang Haihui et al., eds., A Scholarly Review of Chinese Studies in North America, Association for Asian Studies, 2013 [open access e-book], pp. 113-132.
  • “The Gendered Body in the Qing Courtroom,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 22: 2 (2013) [Special Issue: Sexuality in Imperial China], pp. 281-311.