This article examines the rise of the chastity cult—the quintessential symbol of patriarchal suppression of female agency for modern reformers—during the sixteenth century. Despite the resultant stricter control over female sexuality, the growing dominance of the chastity cult cannot be simply construed as a product of top-down imposition. What made possible the penetrative power of chastity practice, this article argues, was a state indoctrination working in reverse. That is, the fast ascendance of the chastity cult in the late Ming was powered by various strains of activism that sought to protest and repair the failing system of chastity awards. The activist impetus greatly enhanced the centrality and influence of chastity practice in social life and, in doing so, opened the notion of chastity to contentious and sometimes subversive negotiations.

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