Plain Words: A Spouse Is a Spouse Is a Spouse

Michael Schoenhals's picture

It normally takes those of us who are non-native speakers of the Chinese language quite a long time to develop a ”feel” for the insignificance of certain minor terminological differences in official PRC documents. What I have in mind are not the kind of subtle differences that gave rise to Pekingology, but in a sense their opposite: those that we in the end may safely decide don’t mean all that much. Today, as I was reading my way through the Cultural Revolutionary file of a physician by the name of 王觉生 employed in a clinic attached to the Beijing General Knitting Mill, I discovered what I would like to think of as a perfect example of terminological inconsistency that we as historians should not over-interpret. The example concerns different ways of including (i.e. referring to) a second wife on forms and in various quasi-official contexts back in the 1960s.

In this case, the doctor has two wives who go by the names of Zhao Shumei and Wang Shuzhen. The text no. 1 below comes from Wang Juesheng’s 审查登记表 as completed by the北京市针织厂保卫科 on 21 July 1965. Here Zhao Shumei is mentioned first and Wang Shuzhen second, and both women are described as wives/airen(爱人).

The text no. 2 below comes from an extended 30-page summary, of Wang Juesheng’s family background and alleged misdeeds, bearing the generic title 《王觉生的材料》completed by the 北京针织总厂第八连队on 6 April 1968. Here Wang Shuzhen is mentioned first as Wang Juesheng’s wife/airen(爱人)and Zhao Shumei second as his wife/qi (妻).

The text no. 3 below comes from Wang Juesheng’s 反革命分子登记批示表 completed by the 北京针织总厂革命委员会 on 26 April 1968. Here Wang Shuzhen is mentioned first and Zhao Shumei second, and both women are described as wives/qi (妻).

The text no. 4 below comes from brief 5-page summary, of Wang Jusheng’s family background and alleged misdeeds, bearing the generic title 《王觉生材料》completed by the北京针织总厂革委会in May 1968. Here Wang Juesheng is described as having two wives/laopo (老婆)of which Wang Shuzhen is the second or ”lesser” (小老婆).