Yuan Bingling


           The aim of the present paper is twofold: a) to introduce newly available and as yet unpublished source materials concerning the Chinese community in colonial Jakarta (Batavia) and b) to look at the position and the role of Chinese women within that urban society. [1]

That such a study can be envisaged today is entirely thanks to the recent availability of the “Kong Koan Archives”, a magnificent collection of a great variety of administrative documents from the Chinese Council (gongguan 公館) of Jakarta covering the period 1775-1950. Five years ago, the collection, which also comprises, for the period after 1909, a great number of Malay and Dutch documents, was brought to the Netherlands and added to the holdings of the Sinological Institute at Leiden University. The collection can be termed unique inasmuch no comparable archives are as yet known from other Chinese communities, even on the Chinese Mainland.

Since the archives arrived in Holland, they have been inventoried and a beginning has been made with their study. Parts, such as the important judicial records (Gongan bu 公案簿) that are central to this article, have been entered on computer file. The records are relatively complete for the years 1787 to 1950. All records before 1909 are in Chinese. The Chinese ledgers amount to a total of more than fifteen thousand pages, which are more than two and a half million characters. The study and the exploitation of this unique material have just started. The work is difficult, as it not only demands a sound knowledge of classical and administrative Chinese, but also familiarity with other languages, such as Hokkien, Malay and Dutch. Insight into the history and geography of Jakarta, as well as in Dutch colonial institutions is also necessary. Needless to say, at present the exploitation of this unique material, which certainly will continue to be of great importance in the future of Chinese studies, has just begun. Much of what I have to propose in the present article is of course provisional and subject to change thanks to future research.

I would like to start out by presenting the Chinese community in Jakarta and its Chinese Council in a historical perspective, before turning to its function, especially in judging marital affairs. Using a statistical approach, I will examine the relevant cases over a limited period of time, in the hope that this again will provide us with a starting point for my main subject: the position of Chinese women in colonial Jakarta.



a. The Community and the Council


           The Chinese community in Jakarta was important in many respects. During most of the colonial period, the Chinese community vastly outnumbered the other ethnic groups, such as the Javanese, Malay, Bugis, Balinese, Macassarese, Ambonese, Timorese, Bengali and Dutch. It also was by far the most wealthy one, as it wielded great economic power through a commercial network that reached from the Chinese ports of Fujian and Guangdong until Sri Lanka, and at times even to Madagascar. Its Council had far reaching powers and its jurisdiction, although mainly restricted to Jakarta, often also extended itself to Chinese living in other parts of Indonesia as well. 

The origins of the Chinese Council are linked to the founding of Jakarta in 1619 by Jan Pieterszoon Coen, with the purpose of making it the headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Company. Coen built the castle of Batavia, and surrounded it with a walled city. The Dutch were settled within the walls of the castle, whereas the Chinese were invited to settle freely within the city walls. Many came, all the more because the place had long been a Chinese trading post. Coen appointed a Chinese Headman (Kapitan[2]) and put him in charge of all civil affairs of the Chinese community. This was the beginning of the Chinese “self rule” [3] and therewith of the later Chinese Council. Indeed, during the following years, the Chinese community grew to the extent of becoming the most important and numerous among the ethnic groups within the city. As Blussé has pointed out, the township became, economically speaking, basically a Chinese colonial town under Dutch protection [4]. The number of Chinese officials appointed to govern the community also increased dramatically.

          After one century, the Chinese presence had grown not only within the city, but also in the suburbs and the surrounding country (“ommelanden”) where many Chinese traders had become settlers and started plantations (mostly of sugar). It is very difficult to estimate the number of Chinese living in the Jakarta region at these times but my estimate would put them well over twenty thousand, against a little more than one thousand Europeans. This created a problematic situation. After several measures to curb the influx of Chinese had not worked, the Dutch proceeded to what today we would call “ethnic cleansing”. In 1740, the entire Chinese population inside the walls of Jakarta (more than four thousand people) was exterminated, while many more who lived in surrounding countryside were also killed. The result was not only a protracted war with the Chinese in other townships on Java, but also a revolt of the Javanese aristocracy. The conflicts lasted until 1743. Much remains to be done about this “Chinese War” of 1740-1743. The available source material, such as, for instance, the Kai Ba lidai shiji, a very important Chinese history of early Jakarta written by a number of different authors, remains virtually unstudied. [5]


As a result of the hostilities, there was a severe disruption of the cultivation and distribution system. Soon the Dutch had no alternative but to encourage the Chinese to come again to Jakarta. [6] The Kapitan system was also reinstalled and the creation of a formal Council composed of the Kapitan and his Lieutenants enhanced this time the institution. They were given a formal office in the north of the city, near the harbor, which received the name of Gongtang 公堂, Public Hall, just like the seat of the country magistrate in China proper. An inscription dated 1861, which commemorates these events and the later developments of the institution, clearly says that the place was meant to look in all respects as prestigious as a yamen back home. [7] Indeed, for the Chinese, the Dutch East Indies was a country in itself and not perceived as a colony, and in consequence the Dutch governor-general was called “The King of Batavia”. 

The judicial functions of the Council, although mostly limited to civil affairs, were important. Moreover, among the great many cases brought before the Council for judgment or registration, family affairs do occupy a very large part, and in these domestic problems women – daughters, brides, spouses, mothers, servants, managers, courtesans and female workers – play a major role. Thank to the archives concerning these cases, the place in society of women can be thoroughly documented. I am presently engaged in the process of studying these cases in the hope of gaining an in-depth understanding of the life of Chinese women in the Indonesian society of the times.

Before we go into this however, we should have a closer look to the Jakarta Chinese in general. Too often, even in recent studies such as the very sketchy work of Remmelink on the Chinese War of 1740-1743, the Chinese immigrants are seen as the dregs of Chinese society, driven from their fatherland by war and famine, or, I quote, “the flotsam and jetsam that had washed ashore on Java.”[8] Nothing could be more remote from the truth. The Chinese that came to Jakarta from the beginning of the seventeenth century on were almost all young males from the coastal prefectures of South Fujian, with a predominance of people from Zhangzhou. In the times we are speaking of, these parts were by all standards among the more prosperous of the empire. Traditionally, emigration did not bear a particular stigma in the townships and villages of Fujian, quite on the contrary. Immigrants arrived in an orderly way, having paid, sometimes dearly, for their passage as part of a general contract that also foresaw work and shelter on arrival in Indonesia. Each ship with immigrants brought a few hundred new workers. Newcomers (xinke 新客) were received in an orderly fashion by the resident community and readily integrated in the community. The argument that they were starving peasants driven out of their homesteads by sheer necessity was however used fallaciously when, at times, the Dutch authorities tried to regulate the flux of newcomers and threatened to have them shipped back to China or disposed of elsewhere. It is safe to assume that, like in Europe in the same period, those who left their homes for a new life in the New World were, if not wealthy or upper-class people, certainly not the most poor and inapt, but young and adventurous males motivated to better themselves in a land of opportunity. The conditions of their coming to Jakarta saw to it that the township remained fairly homogeneous as a Hokkien town, although there were also Hakka or Cantonese.

It is also very clear that, if in an initial stage the immigrants were low class and illiterate, this situation changed as soon as the community became wealthier. As we can see from the archives, the leaders of the Jakarta Chinese were rather cultivated. The records are always written in an impeccable calligraphy and, but for the many Dutch and Malay expressions, in a very good literary style. Indeed, with prosperity, a whole flock of schoolmasters, Buddhist and Taoist priests, doctors and even, at a later stage, noble Manchu came to Jakarta to offer their services. As to the rich Chinese merchants, they often bought mandarin ranks of the Chinese government and dressed on occasion in the paraphernalia of their status. Thus Jakarta may have had, at times, a greater number of Chinese elite families than many a town back home.

But even if the Jakarta Chinese were certainly rather well educated, this does not mean that they were schooled in civil administration, let alone in the exercise of judicial governance. This raises one of the more interesting questions we can hope to clarify one day from the evidence of the Jakarta archives: on the basis of which judicial system did the Chinese fathers speak law? The official Ming Code or the Later Daqing Lüli 大清律例 were certainly known, but they must have been of little practical use, as these law books are essentially penal codes and have very little to say on civil law. The Gongtang did not have other written law books, nor did it use the Dutch law. We may therefore suppose that the jurisprudence of the Gongtang consisted in the kind of customary law that is embedded in the regulations of clans and lineages, and often recorded in Genealogies (jiapu) as well as in the rules adopted by commercial and vocational associations (hanghui). These references were, however, as far as I can tell, never explicitly mentioned. Whenever a decision had to be justified, the terms of "this is our Chinese custom" or similar expressions were used and repeated time and again.

Yet it must have been at times rather difficult to apply even this vague notion of "Chinese custom" to the actual situation in Jakarta. To begin with, the society of Jakarta was vastly different from that of China at those times, or, at least, what traditional Chinese society was ideally supposed to be. Secondly, in a great number of matters, the Gongtang could not just follow Chinese custom or what they understood that to be, but had to follow stipulations of the Dutch authorities in conformity with Dutch law. For instance, the rule that every person of means should make a legal will for his property was imposed, and this entailed a great deal of adjustment of the Chinese customary practice. Also Malay custom had a certain influence. The deliberations of the Council were called by the Malay term of bicara, and we find a number of other institutional terms borrowed from the same source. Chinese officials called their meetings huiyi, “assembly” or “parliament”. From the archival material we see that there is no influence of Islamic law, except in a negative sense. For instance, in the case of the above mentioned inheritance rules, the Dutch system aimed in the first place to change Islamic law, and this, as it happened, also was of importance to the Chinese as well. We will come back to this particular point later.


b. The Chinese Women


          Nowhere, in my opinion, this discrepancy between the theoretical framework of what was supposed to be Chinese custom and law and the true situation in Jakarta was more clearly noticeable than in the position and the role of women. Let us begin by looking at who they were. Chinese women in Jakarta, in contrast to the males, were nearly never born in China. As Claudine Salmon has shown in a well-documented article, early immigration of Chinese concerned almost solely male individuals, and almost no Chinese women came to South-East Asia before the end of the nineteenth century. [9] So during most of the period for which we have data, the Chinese community was made up of men. These, if their financial situation allowed it, were apt to marry indigenous women, most of them being slaves. The Chinese chose their women preferably from Bali, and also between the Buginese and Makasarese from Celebes. The reason for this preference is often sought in the fact that these women were of a lighter skin than the Javanese. The true reason is perhaps different. These islands, especially Bali, had not been converted to Islam. Therefore the women of these places could raise pigs and prepare pork dishes, whereas that would be impossible for a Muslim woman.

The important thing to note here is that children born from these mixed marriages were always considered being Chinese. Native-born children from a Chinese father were called peranakan (children of the land). Of course they retained many cultural traits from their mother’s background. However, the right of birth liberated them from bondage, even if their mother was originally a slave woman. Also, all children, whether from a wife, a concubine or a servant, were equal and free. Hence peranakan girls could not be bought and sold, but were regularly betrothed, and ideally only with Chinese men. A distinctive sign of all these native-born Chinese women was the suffix -niang (Hokkien (nio), “lady”, added to their personal names.

As to their mothers, although, in the case they had been bought, they remained slaves, they enjoyed rights of inheritance and protection against abuse. They were sometimes qualified as gin’a, literally “small children”, as an indication of their being under tutelage and not their own masters. They never were called -niang.

Among the many other particularities of Chinese women we should mention the fact that foot binding never took hold. It was of course known and in some instances could even be observed on the spot, as the few China born ladies in Jakarta came with bound feet, but the custom apparently never was adopted by the peranakan. This did not mean that there was laxity in other matters pertaining to Chinese identity. Not only in dress and in food, but also in matters of religion, language and morality, the Chinese identity was scrupulously adhered to, as shown by many examples in the above-quoted article by Claudine Salmon. History has perpetuated the memory of certain peranakan women who by their perfect filial conduct could be compared to those of pure Chinese stock. Chinese ladies were, in principle, confined to their indoor quarters, spending their considerable leisure in a society where servants were very numerous with embroidery, glass painting and games. They learned Chinese music from music masters from the Chinese mainland.

I will not go into these and other particulars again here. My aim is to use the newly available data from the Gongan bu to see what new and hard information we can obtain from them on the role of women. 

I have chosen, more or less at random, the judicial records of the years 1824 to 1827 to conduct a first survey. It is difficult to gauge how many Chinese inhabitants were in Jakarta at that time, but my guess would be something between thirty and forty thousand. During these three years, the Jakarta Council recorded no less than 364 hearings. Most cases were settled in one hearing, but others took up to six hearings to be completed.

Let us now look at the number of women involved in these judicial procedures. The first element is that among these 364 hearings, no less than 93, being more than one quarter, were directly related to women. The cases concerned not only marital affairs, but also purely economic ones.

More important even for our subject here is that on the 93 hearings involving women, a full 70 hearings, that is more than 75 per cent, it were the women who were plaintiffs, and who had brought their cases to court. In 59 hearings, the accusations concerned men, mostly husbands, but also other males. In ten hearings, women sued other women, again not only for questions related to marriage and family, but also for business affairs. Only 23 hearings, that is roughly one quarter, had men as plaintiffs, making different kinds of accusations against women, the most common being that of adultery.

On the total of 364 hearings then, those having women as plaintiffs amounted to 19.2 percent. This may seem rather small in comparison to all the other cases, in which men were plaintiffs. However, the vast majority of these latter cases did not involve women at all. When we look at the cases which involve persons of both sexes, then there were 59 hearings women were plaintiffs against men, and only 23 hearings in which men were plaintiffs against women. In other words, women sued men more then twice as often as men sued women. This significant statistic becomes even more so when we look at the numbers of cases which directly concern marital relationships. Women suing for marital affairs accounted for 38 hearings, whereas men suing for marital affairs numbered only 13. This amounts to a proportion of three to one. To fully understand the significance of these figures, we should now turn to the evidence as provided by the case histories themselves and their related contexts. I propose to try to do so systematically, by concentrating on the role of women in different situations and social functions.


c. How to Become a Chinese Lady


         As said above, according to the Judicial Records, most early immigrants in Jakarta bought Balinese women. These were commonly called gin'a 囝仔. They were shipped by Chinese merchants from their island of origin to Jakarta and then registered as bi (female slaves) with the authorities. Prices for them varied between twenty and thirty guilders, an amount corresponding to several months of salary for a manual worker. At this stage, there was no recognition concerning these women's personal rights in any form, even when they bore children. Only under certain circumstances they might be promoted to the state of concubine (qie ). This entailed a relative liberation from her bondage, inasmuch she was now part of the family and thus could no longer be sold at random. Simple slave women, on the contrary, could change hands quite frequently, and in one deposition before the court (27 May 1845), a Buginese gin’a of the age of 61 stated that she had been resold seven times. Becoming a concubine also made a woman eligible for receiving part of the inheritance, yet it did not confer Chinese status. In order to cross this border, a native woman had to be adopted by a Chinese family and receive a Chinese surname. Only then she would become a niang and eligible for formal marriage.

       All these elements crop up in a lawsuit brought before the Chinese court following a complaint by a certain Cai Jieming to the Dutch authorities (Gongan bu, August 13, 1788). Cai had previously asked to Gongtang for permission to marry a former slave woman (nubi) called Laoji 嘮吉. She was born in Batavia (Jakarta), and her name had been changed (by adoption) to Chen Xianniang 陳賢娘. In spite of his several entreaties to the Kapitan Cai Dun to receive permission to marry according to the Chinese rites, this had been refused. In his complaint, Cai Jieming stressed that the above-named lady had got rid of her native status (撤去番籍) and had already become Chinese (經已作唐) through her adoption by a Chinese gentleman by the name of You Liulang (拜游六郎為契父)[10].

       In the following legal bickering, the Council argued that they had to investigate the case in order to prevent bigamy and other transgressions, and that moreover there was a Dutch regulation forbidding the marriage between Chinese and natives (不許番唐結婚). In the end however, the Dutch authorities ruled that the adoption was regular and that Laoji now had become a Chinese lady, and the Council was instructed to allow the marriage to take place. This case not only gives a clear perception of the proceedings, but also shows the fundamental opposition of the Chinese Council to interracial marriages. This prejudice is demonstrated in many other instances, even in the case of marriages between Chinese and Dutch.[11]

       If there were difficulties then for crossing the racial divide for adult women, this did not apply for children born from a Chinese father, as these were always automatically considered to be Chinese. In a case involving the liberation of a slave woman (5 May 1790), the plaintiff stated that the owner of the woman had enjoined her to find money to buy her freedom. However, when the lady in question did find a man who wanted to buy her and set her free, and this man had already given an advance of ten percent of the price to the owner, the latter recanted and refused to let her go. The court ordered the transaction to proceed. However, it stipulated that, inasmuch the slave woman in question had had a girl baby with yet another former Chinese owner, the deed of sale did not comprise the baby in question, as the child was Chinese (係唐人血脈).

Chinese women were not bought and sold. Yet a hefty price of "engagement money (pinjin 聘金) was to be paid at the moment of a betrothal. A niang commanded a marriage gift of about three hundred guilders and even widows and divorced women could command such a price. At least half of the money was for the lady herself to be kept. In the case of widows, the lady would receive all the money that was paid for her.

An exception to this rule was made for distinguished newcomers from China. Xinke who could read and write and had a decent family background in China were very much in demand as sons-in-law. As they were normally poor, they did not have to pay any pinjin and just a pair of red candles for the ancestor altar would suffice [12].

For the ceremonies of betrothal and the marriage, Chinese custom was scrupulously adhered to. As soon as they had reached the age of fertility, Chinese girls were kept indoors. They learned embroidery, and glass painting of Chinese beauties. The latter occupation seems to have been a Jakarta specialty, and many antique shops in Jakarta still sell these paintings. In the wealthier families, girls would learn to perform music and theater from music masters who came from China. In everyday life, women would wear Javanese sarong and kebaya, but on festival days they would dress up in Chinese finery and look every bit as smart as their mainland counterparts.[13] Education remained however at a minimum, as only boys went to school and, for those who could afford it, were send to China for further education. All this is well known. From the Gongan bu however, we can learn much more, especially in those cases that entail divorce. Here we see that peranakan women stood their ground against men. They could not be divorced against their will, even if they were found guilty of adultery. They could sue their husbands for unfaithfulness. In the case of divorce, they could retain the custody of their children, etc. Here I have selected a few cases among many others that bear proof to the relatively strong position they enjoyed.


1. The case of Li Jiezhen 黎捷振 versus Ou Jianiang 歐甲娘 of 22 December 1790. Li accused his wife to spend most of her time outdoors, to be rude to her stepdaughter and to have a love affair with a young Dutchman. As proof of her misconduct, Li said that his wife had made two “foreign” trousers for her lover. He asked in consequence for divorce. The court however found that the lady Ou Jianiang did not want to divorce and the case was dismissed.


2. On 25 January 1789, the court heard the case lady Gong Xiniang 龔喜娘had brought against her husband. She had brought with her some money and also two gold bracelets, and demanded divorce. Her husband, Yang Jie 楊結 stated that he had in principle agreed to the divorce, but on the condition that she remarry another Chinese. But now he found that his wife lived with a foreigner (probably a Javanese). “If I divorce now, then she will marry this foreigner. I do not want that.” Lady Gong then promised she would not marry the foreigner. The court stated that in this case, there being a disagreement between the spouses, the lady should bring her case before the Dutch court which had special competence on interracial matters.


3. In the case of Wu Genniang 吳根娘versus her husband Lin Dujin 林度謹 (20 May 1825), the lady in question sued on grounds of neglect and adultery. She stated that Lin spent his time gambling and did not work at all, and all her entreaties had remained in vain. She being an orphan was now reduced to the state of having to live with her distant relatives. She therefore asked for divorce. Lin defended himself by saying that after they married last year, business was very bad and he himself also depended on the others for his livelihood, so he had no way of giving money to his wife. He agreed to divorce. The court was very angry with Lin, accusing him to be lazy and without ambition. His defense was deemed to be absolutely worthless, and he was found guilty of disloyal and irresponsible conduct towards a lady of an honorable family. Divorce was allowed.


4. Case of Yang Yuanniang 楊遠娘 vs. Li Tianhe 李天河 (date???). Lady Yang reports to the court that her husband wants to abandon her, and take their daughter away. The court asks to see the marriage certificate, but they do not have that. The court then makes the following judgment: if Mr. Li remains with his family and comes to terms with his wife, then he may have his daughter; if not, he can go away, but the child must remain with the mother.


5. On April 1, 1825, Lin Jinniang 林進娘turned to the court in order to sue her husband for adultery. His paramour was a prostitute. He neglected his family and did not give money for her, his legal wife, and his children. The husband, named Liao Shuyuan 廖壽元, was found to have a job in Senen (結石珍). He proposed to take his wife and children to his home there. Lady Lin refused however. Liao then told the court that lady Lin had had a child with another man, something she had hidden from him. Only when this child had died prematurely, the truth came out. When lady Lin was asked whether this was true, she said: “if my husband wants to say things in this way, I will not contradict him.” The court considered that Lady Lin had already lost her chastity and both spouses were not in harmony. So there were divorced.


6. In the dispute between Yang Chu 楊楚 and Lin Zhenniang 林貞娘 (20 October 1790), the husband accuses his wife to have run off with a Javanese, taking money and clothes with her. After some time, he succeeded in finding her and brought her home. Lady Lin explained to the court that her conduct was the result of having drunk some kind of drugged tea, which made her loose her mind and allowed her to be abducted. The Kapitan accused her of ugly and unseemly behavior and had her beaten in front of the Gongtang, as an example to others. After this was done, she was asked if she wanted to return to her husband. She said she did. Then the husband was asked whether he would take her back. He said: “yes”. In consequence, the Court issued a marriage certificate to them.


7. On 15 April 1825, Lady Lin Yingniang 林應娘 sued her husband Liang Dexiang 梁德祥 for having paid insufficiently for her betrothal (pinjin). This was her second marriage (we do not know if she was a divorcee or a widow). As the condition of her agreement, she had obtained that Liang first pay her debts, which amounted to 350 guilders, and on top of that a pinjin of 150 guilders, so a total of 500. Actually, Liang paid only 100 guilders in all. Liang protested by saying he never agreed to pay 500. Moreover, he added that before their betrothal, he had learned that lady Lin was very rich and had a lot of jewelry, and that therefore he married her. The court asked for witnesses in this case, which later was not further pursued.


          Summing up, it clearly appears, not only from the statistical evidence but also from the individual court cases, that Chinese ladies wielded a lot of clout in traditional Jakarta.  Even divorcees and widows could command a large sum, equivalent of the purchase price of at least ten female slaves, as their pinjin. The scarcity of Chinese women has been often stressed. The influx of new male immigrants made certainly for an imbalance. Yet this does not explain everything. Children were Chinese whether born from a Chinese mother or a gin’a. Certainly the Chinese niang had the advantage over the slaves and servants that they could speak Chinese and also cook Chinese food. Most important may well have been the religious factor. Chinese niang could participate in the many and obligatory forms of worship at home as well as in the temples, organize the annual festivals and maintain the worship of ancestors. They were socially useful and articulate. They also could be very important partners in business. Chinese ladies in Jakarta played a large economic role. This we can see from the cases that concern endowments and legacies.


d. Businesswomen


As we have seen, the Chinese in Jakarta were compelled by the Dutch rule that every housefather should make a legal will. This was adhered to on a large scale, yet it seems that the way the Chinese disposed of their estate was very different from the way this was done in Holland. As elsewhere in Western Europe, by the death of the father, his property normally went to his sons, with a privileged position for the eldest one, whereas the spouse only had a right of usufruct and no say in the administration of the estate. This, as has been pointed out by the Dutch scholar J.Th. Vermeulen, proved impracticable in Chinese Jakarta. Several historical examples show that widows who generally had been business partners of their husbands during the latter's lifetime became their successors when they died. This was the case not only for commercial purposes, but often also for other functions. For instance in 1648, after the death of a Chinese Kapitan called Yan Er 顏二, the Dutch governor-general and the members of the Council of Dutch Indies proposed his wife the Lady Kapitan “Maoli shi” 貓厘氏 as his successor [14]. Maoli is the Chinese transcription for Bali, so this lady had no other official identity than that of being of Balinese origin. She was duly appointed and kept the position for seven years. As Kapitan, she had her seat at the Chinese Council. “Her judgments were always very clear and fair. She certainly was an outstanding native woman!” says the contemporary record of her activities. Moreover, Lady Maoli also continued her husband's business of many years, even when her office as Kapitan was over.

We can see from many other cases that, if for a woman to become Kapitan was an exception, the fact that she would continue to run her husband's business was more of a rule. Women inherited their husband's fortune inasmuch they normally had been business partners before his death. As documented by Vermeulen on the basis of Dutch administrative records, the VOC authorities changed their own law with regard to women’s rights. Thus, in 1693, all Chinese women over the age of twenty-five enjoyed the right to administrate personally not only their own, but also their family’s property and go to the courts of justice in order to protect their interests.[15] In 1717 it was decided that all Chinese marriages as well as divorces should be duly registered with the Chinese Council in order to be legally recognized. Later, in 1756, Governor General Mossel recognized these stipulations as “Chinese law”.[16] This particular situation of Chinese women is exemplified in many cases that came before the Chinese court. Here follow some instances.


1. On 20 April 1827, a certain Mr. Huang Agui 黃阿貴 accused Lady Lin Wenniang 林文娘 of improperly withholding from him his part of a partnership. Huang had been associated in business with Lady Lin’s late husband Wang Ruiying 王瑞英. Before his death, Wang had stealthily withdrawn the sum of 2116 guilders from their partnership. After his demise, Lady Lin took over all her husband's business. Now that Huang claimed restitution of the withdrawal, Lady Lin said not to have any knowledge of it. In their arbitrage, the Court ordered both parties to produce their account books for an audit.


2. The same day, another businessman by the name of Zheng Sanfu 鄭三福accused Lady Lin Wenniang 林文娘 for an embezzlement of about 1300 guilders, which occurred in similar circumstances. Here also the court ordered an audit.


3. In a very large and multiform legal case (8 May 1826), involving the very wealthy businessman Lin Zhen 林鎮 and his partner Chen Kong 陳孔, two affairs relate to women entrepreneurs. One of the ladies involved was the proprietor of a large pawnshop while the other had a distillery. Both enterprises count among the most lucrative of Jakarta, and the sums of money the ladies did lend to Lin Zhen through the intermediary of his partner were large indeed.


4. 9 July 1824. Lady Yu Lian 余練, owner of the silk shop called Quangshenghao 泉勝號, had entrusted two years earlier a number of rolls of silk to a (male) trader for the value of 300 guilders. The latter did not pay back any money. The trader pleaded not guilty on the grounds of business being bad at the times. He was nevertheless condemned to pay up.


5. When the wealthy business tycoon Gao Gen 高根, who held rank of lieutenant in the Chinese Council and who also was the founder of the first Chinese school in Indonesia in 1775, died in 1787, his will contained the following dispositions:

– All his five slave women (one Buginese, one Balinese and three Thai ladies) were made free, and received each one hundred guilders.

– One thousand guilders were bequeathed to the son of a Dutch assistant Governor.

– Three thousand guilders were left to his mother, who lived in Xiamen.

– The administration of his entire estate, including the execution of his will, was entrusted to one of his wives, Chen Shenniang 陳審娘, who received 5000 guilders.

– To another wife Li Ruiniang 李瑞娘 a batik shop in the Chinese quarter of Jakarta was given.

– To yet another wife, Huang Zhiniang 黃志娘, who lived at Bandung (West Java), Chen bequeathed 25 guilders.

– Each of his three unmarried daughters, who were born either from regular wives or slave women, received 3000 guilders, and each got a rental house.

– Another daughter, already married, received one thousand guilders.

– Yet another slave woman, who had given him a daughter, received the proceeds of a rental house.

To the above-mentioned wife in Bandung, who on first sight was very badly treated by the will, the tycoon wrote a special letter. From it we can see that the lady in question was a very wealthy businesswoman herself, in partnership with her husband, who took care of her commercial interests in the port of Jakarta. So probably before the tycoon's death, all monetary matters had already been settled between them.

– Among his three sons in Jakarta there was one who was the son of the above-mentioned Buginese slave woman. This boy, at the time only six years old, inherited all the remaining property, including 20.000 guilders and many shops, distilleries, etc. In case this boy would die, all the property would go to another boy, now three year old, which Chen had got by the Balinese slave woman.


In conclusion, we may state that the economic independence of women was recognized by the legal system, which treated them in all financial matters as the equal of men. This raises the question in which respect they remained unequal. Did not after all the Chinese ritual institutions also apply to them? Surely the fathers of the Gongtang would like us to believe that the lijiao 禮教of China was firmly upheld in the capital of East Indies. Yet, if we look at the legal cases, which involve the position of women from the sexual point of view, another reality emerges.


e. Love and Sex


           According to the Chinese imperial law books, within a same family, no accusations of children against their parents or of any junior person towards a senior could ever be received. In Jakarta, however, things were different. Many cases that came to court involved problems related to the Chinese women’s love and sex, in a positive as well as in a negative way. As a rule, their parents, with pinjin and all the rest, betrothed Chinese niang. This did not prevent the ladies to have extra-marital affairs, without too disastrous effects, as many cases demonstrate. We have seen already above the case of Gong Xiniang 鞏喜娘 who had left her family to live with a native man. Her husband accepted divorce, but would have preferred her to choose a Chinese lover. The matter was then referred to the Dutch court. Other examples of relative liberalism in sexual transgression are shown in the following cases:


1. 3 September 1824. Li Xi 李喜, a trader who has to make a living outside Jakarta complains that as soon as he leaves the city, his wife Li Xinniang 李新娘 goes to sleep every evening in a native village and only returns in the morning. She also has taken things from the family to sell them. Li says he has always well provided for her. Li Xinniang protests that she never did anything wrong, but when not only her in-laws, but also her own servant attests her loose behavior, she accepts divorce. She is not otherwise persecuted.


2. 4 August 1790. Mr. Zhang Di 張地 reports to the Gongtang that his wife Chen Ainiang 陳愛娘 does not love him, and has returned to her mother. Each time she is taken back to her husband, she leaves again immediately. All measures, even a severe reprimand with a caning by the agents of Gongtang, does not make her change her mind. When after these disciplinary measures Chen Ainiang’s mother comes to the defense of her daughter, the old lady raises hell in the court. In order to calm her down, the judges have her slightly beaten too, but all to no avail. Thereupon the judges say to Zhang that he better divorce, and the latter agrees, saying that otherwise he fears for his life! So the judges tell him to bring all the belongings of Lin Ainiang to the court. There the lady is asked to check if everything is complete, because later reclamations will not be accepted. There is no question of repaying pinjin or other forms of indemnity to the poor husband, and the case ends here.


Even in cases of adultery, divorce is not granted if the wife does not agree. There is never any mention of repaying pinjin only in the case when, during a betrothal which has already been registered with the Gongtang, a girl happens to fall pregnant by another man and the marriage is canceled (1 September 1826). The impression that women were more respected than in China is conformed by the cases brought before the court concerning rape and sexual abuse. Here follow a few examples:


3. Lady Liu Danniang 劉耽娘went to the court on 10 September 1824 accusing her maternal uncle to try to have sex with her against her will. According to her story, he attempted to introduce himself in her bed while she was asleep. She cried for help, which resulted in the man trying to beat her. After a thorough investigation, the man was found guilty, severely berated and then imprisoned. The girl was taken away from her uncle's family.


4. Qiu Niangna (nyonya) 邱娘娜 (4 November 1825) went to court with one of her relatives as a witness, accusing her future brother in law of raping her. She had been brought up in the He family as a “little bride” and was promised to one of the younger brothers. When one day, her sister in law had quarreled with her husband and had returned to her mother, Qiu Niangna felt insecure and asked permission to go and sleep at a neighbor's house, but the brother in law did not allow it. Instead, he introduced himself at night in her bed, and under the menace of killing her in case she would make any noise, raped her. The court ordered an examination by a Dutch medical doctor. She was taken away from her future in-laws to be further brought up by her distant relatives. Later she married a Dutchman. [17]


5. A very long lawsuit of the year (final hearing on 16 January 1826) opposed a lady called Guo Sanniang 郭三娘to a Malay gentleman. Lady Guo, the wife of carpenter who had become a leper, had fallen on hard days. Her sister-in-law persuaded her to let her young daughter live with a rich local landlord, whose wife was also Chinese. Not only did the man rape the girl several times, but he also refused to let her go when her mother came to fetch her back. This case was first brought to the Dutch court. Finally the Gongtang heard the case and the girl was given back to her mother, whereas the Dutch court was entrusted with the judgment of the Malay gentleman.


6. On 6 January 1826, a lady Guo Yiniang 郭益娘, wife of Chen Guangxi 陳光喜, appeared before the court stating that she had been severely beaten by her husband. Chen explained that the night before he had had a few drinks and then wished to make love (qianquan 繾綣) to her. She refused in a disdainful way and when he insisted, she fled to the neighbors. A quarrel that degenerated into a beating ensued. During the hearing, the lady refused absolutely to return with her husband. The judges then sent for her mother who took her back with her, pending a later decision on divorce.


f. Conclusion


         This is only a preliminary investigation, a first excursion into a whole new field. To sum up we may say with some confidence that Chinese women in Jakarta seem to have enjoyed a special status and function in society, especially when compared to their sisters on the Chinese mainland. But how special indeed? The Gongtang archives are unique, and we do not have, for the moment, any similar source from the traditional Chinese yamen. True there are different collections of court cases made by Ming and Qing officials as guidebooks for administrators, and a comparative study could be useful. It would however seem safe to assume that in China only relatively big cases of family trouble would be brought before the courts in China, as family affairs would be normally regulated within the lineage organization. Also, as stated, no case of accusation of a junior family member to a senior would be receivable in court. As to business matters, these certainly were brought before the yamen officials, but material concerning them is scanty compared to the records in the Gongan bu. Also for sure women did not openly play an important role in commerce in traditional China. As to the relative sexual freedom as shown by the Gongan bu, only late Ming novels suggest something of the kind, and certainly nothing similar appears in the writing of the Qing period, when conservative Confucianism held sway.

       The case of the Chinese women in Indonesia thus appears to present overwhelming evidence in favor of a more free, independent and influential status when compared to the traditional Chinese situation. Where did this come from? As we have seen, neither the Dutch legislation in matters of the legal status of married women, nor the Islamic law can be credited with this form of relative freedom and autonomy. The foundation, whatever the official Chinese law and ideology may have been, must therefore still be Chinese. Here we may perhaps at a future stage learn more from the role of women in urban society in late imperial China from temple archives and inscriptions.

       In the meantime, we may suggest that the position of Chinese women in Jakarta has to be seen as a form of emancipation. The reason for this emancipation in colonial Indonesia should be sought, in my opinion in the economic circumstances. This was a society, not of land-bound clans and imperial officialdom, but of urban merchants. There were great opportunities to become wealthy for single individuals within their lifetime, and women as well as men profited from it.

       In her article on “Chinese Women Writers in Indonesia and their Views of Female Emancipation”, Claudine Salmon presents a ballad written in 1897 and which portrays three young Chinese ladies from Jakarta, and notes the “extraordinary independent life” they enjoyed[18]. Although we cannot ascertain that the characters in the ballad are described in an entirely realistic way, we can suppose that their position was close enough to reality so as to be credible for the average reader. In the present article, we have seen some elements that can explain this emancipation. With money also autonomy and freedom could be won, on the condition that some state of law and order was maintained. The Dutch rule and the Chinese administration did just that, and judging from the archives, the Chinese Kapitans maintained peace and rule of law with great seriousness and zeal. The result was that at least the more well to do among the women could enjoy a freedom and independence quite unlike that of their sisters in traditional China. 


[1] The present article was first presented as a lecture at the Centre d’études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences sociales in Paris in April 2000. The author wishes to express her gratitude to Dr. Claudine Salmon for her most valuable assistance in her research on the Gongguan archives.

[2] From the Dutch kapitein, captain.

[3] The first Kapitan was named Su Minggang 蘇鳴崗 or Su Mingguan 蘇鳴觀. In the latter name the word “guan ” stands for “guan ” meaning here something like “sir”. As we can see in many instances in the Gong’an bu. This corresponds to a widespread Minnan custom. Su’s position of authority was expressed, again in keeping with Chinese custom, by a pair of large lamps inscribed with a title. In this case the title was: "Kaiguo yuanxun" 開國元勳, the Glorious Founder of the Country. According to the Lidai kaiba shiji, these lamps were given to Su by Jan Pieterszoon Coen, in thanks for his assistance in bringing the Chinese to Jakarta and other services.

[4] L. Blussé: Strange Company - Chinese Settlers, Mestizo Women and the Dutch in VOC Batavia, Leiden 1988, p.74.

[5] There exist several manuscript copies of this work. One has been preserved in the library of the Sinological Institute of Leiden University. This copy appears to have originally belonged to the Bataviaasch Genootschap, as stamp on the first page indicates. The Gongguan of Jakarta owned another manuscript. The original was destroyed during the Second World War. However, a copy had been made, which was edited and published by Xu Yunqiao 許雲樵 in the Nanyang xuebao of 1953.

[6] Many of them came but refused to take up residence inside the city. However, they were now confined to a separate quarter outside the city walls, the Chinese Kampung (present day Glodok).

[7] "Ba gongtang ji"吧公堂記 in Claudine Salmon and Anthony K. K. Siu ed. Chinese Epigraphic Materials in Indonesia, p.117, vol.2, part 1, Singapore 1997 (the general editor of this publication is W. Franke).

[8] W. Remmelink: The Chinese War and the Collapse of the Javanese State, 1740-1743, Leiden 1994, p.1.

[9] Claudine Salmon: "Le rôle des femmes dans l'émigration Chinoise en Insulinde", in Archipel 16, Paris 1978, pp.161-174.

[10] This seems strange, as her own Chinese surname was Chen!

[11] See Yuan Bingling: "The Last Resort: Sino-Dutch Marital Relations Before the Chinese Council in early 19th Century Batavia", scheduled to be published in Itinerario, Leiden 2001.

[12]  See Wang Dahai, Haidao yizhi 海島逸志, p. 20, ed. by Yao Nan and Wu Lanxuan, Hongkong 1992.

[13] Liem Thin Joe 林天佑 Sanbaolong lishi (History [of the Chinese] of Semarang), Chinese translation, Guangzhou 1984, pp.145-146.

[14] According to Xu Yunqiao ed. Kaibai lidai shiji, page 15a. Kapitan Yan Er occupied his position in 1663, and this date is at variance with the account of the Kaiba lidai shiji. This question has to await further study.

[15] J.Th. Vermeulen: "Shiqi, ba shiji Helan Dong Indu gongsi zhi sifa yu Huaqiao 十七八世紀荷蘭東印度公司之司法與華僑" in Nanyang xuebao 3.1, p. 83. Singapore, 1954.

[16] J.Th. Vermeulen: Ibid.

[17] See Yuan Bingling: "The Last Resort: Sino-Dutch Marital Relations Before the Chinese Council in early 19th Century Batavia".

[18] In Archipel 28, p. 154, Paris 1984.


    “Chinese Women in Jakarta during the Colonial Period”,发表于《亚洲文化》,新加坡亚洲研究会,2002年第26期。