Cover of Marriage Unbound by Ke Li
Marriage Unbound
State Law, Power, and Inequality in Contemporary China
Ke Li


July 2022
344 pages.
from $30.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503613140
Paperback ISBN: 9781503632011
Ebook ISBN: 9781503632028

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Excerpts and More

Winner of the 2023 ASA Sociology of Law Distinguished Book Award, sponsored by the American Sociological Association (ASA) - Sociology of Law Section.

Winner of the 2023 Herbert Jacob Book Prize, sponsored by the Law and Society Association (LSA).

Winner of the 2023 Victoria Schuck Award, sponsored by the APSA - American Political Science Association.

Winner of the 2023 C. Herman Pritchett Award, sponsored by the American Political Science Association (APSA) - Law and Courts Section.

China after Mao has undergone vast transformations, including massive rural-to-urban migration, rising divorce rates, and the steady expansion of the country's legal system. Today, divorce may appear a private concern, when in fact it is a profoundly political matter—especially in a national context where marriage was and has continued to be a key vehicle for nation-state building. Marriage Unbound focuses on the politics of divorce cases in contemporary China, following a group of women seeking judicial remedies for conjugal grievances and disputes.

Drawing on extensive archival and ethnographic data, paired with unprecedented access to rural Chinese courtrooms, Ke Li presents not only a stirring portrayal of how these women navigate divorce litigation, but also a uniquely in-depth account of the modern Chinese legal system. With sensitive and fluid prose, Li reveals the struggles between the powerful and the powerless at the front lines of dispute management; the complex interplay between culture and the state; and insidious statecraft that far too often sacrifices women's rights and interests. Ultimately, this book shows how women's legal mobilization and rights contention can forge new ground for our understanding of law, politics, and inequality in an authoritarian regime.

About the author

Ke Li is Assistant Professor of Political Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York.

"Ke Li's sophisticated multi-disciplinary analytic framing and explicit critique of received wisdom engage debates over the role of courts, legal professionals, and black-letter law beyond those of China or of authoritarian states. One of the most analytically original and theoretically informed investigations of divorce I have ever read."

—Deborah Davis, Yale University

"An instant landmark work. Li seamlessly fuses extensive firsthand interviews with a masterful analysis of Chinese legal developments to illustrate the harsh realities confronting migrant women seeking divorce. A must-read for anyone interested in law, society, and gender in China today."

—Carl Minzner, Fordham Law School

"Li's book presents an illuminating look at the changing social institution of marriage in contemporary China. Highly recommended."

—S. K. Ma, CHOICE March

"Ke Li's analysis is more than a superb ethnographic and historical account of changes in the Chinese court system and its effect on women. It is also a sustained effort to place the historical changes within an analytical framework that explores how cultural beliefs shape governmental policy and, thus, the resolution of a divorce case."

—William Jankowiak, NAN Nü

"Based on more than 10 years' in-depth field research in two rural townships in Sichuan Province, Li provides a vivid picture of how rural women struggle in strained marriage, and how they mobilize state law to fight for their freedom and rights in intimate relationships, and how the judicial institutions respond to these women's claims.... Li sees through the gendered outcomes in different individual divorce cases to make a big story that links state law, power, and inequality together."

—Mengni Chen, Social Forces

"Well-written and insightful, Li's work on divorce litigation sheds significant new light on the law, politics, and inequality in an authoritarian state."

—Soo-Yeon Yoon, Contemporary Sociology

"Marriage Unbound is an impressive work of interdisciplinary scholarship, grounded in empirical research, that significantly advances understanding of authoritarian legality and dispute resolution while yielding insights about statecraft and women's rights in China. The author Ke Li empathetically relates, and meticulously analyzes, injustices encountered by migrant women who seek divorce, often to escape domestic violence."

—Arianne M. Gaetano, Pacific Affairs