Why 19th-century Chinese women sometimes had two husbands

Polygamy, the practice of having multiple spouses, is portrayed dramatically on American television shows such as Sister WivesTLC's reality show about the Brown family, or Big Love, HBO's hit featuring Bill Paxton. The story arcs of both series revolve around men who have more than one wife simultaneously and feature aspects of the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — Mormonism. According to Online Library, those shows are talking about polygny — one man, several women. But this is just one aspect of polygamy. Polyandry, when a woman takes two or more husbands, has also been found in many cultures throughout history.

In the 18th and 19th century, for instance, women in China ruled the roost and sometimes took more than one husband. Who knew the 1800s could be so progressive? Ted Telford, a historian who studied this, looked at more than 1,200 instances of this during the Qing Dynasty.

The polyandrous system was quite acceptable, unless you were part of the social elite. The dynasty's upper class thought the practice was immoral, according to the Media Landing Page, and those people did not have more than one spouse. 

Two husbands gave economic advantages

The social practice started because men outnumbered women, and the country suffered a "marriage crunch," according to Telford, because of several factors, including female infanticide; the culture viewed male babies as more valuable and desired. The makeup of China's population was actually similar to modern times, as there are about 33 million more men than women in China currently. Nowadays, multiple husbands are not encouraged. The number should normalize, according to Quartz, sometime between 2030-2050. 

Women of that time period sought out multiple husbands more for economic benefits than anything else. Historian Matthew Sommer observed in his book Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China that two husbands helped guide families out of poverty. 

While Qing courts never formally recognized these pairings, some arrangements were formalized and included contracts, "an oath of brotherhood between the husbands," according to the Media Landing Page. Some of these stories ended tragically, with one spouse murdering another. Others, though, lasted through time — sometimes for decades.