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Marriage in Contemporary China and its Complexities

Traditional wedding procession in Nanluoguxiang, Beijing, China © See-ming Lee / CC BY-NC 2.0 / Flickr

The aim of this essay is to retrace the evolution of the institution of marriage after 1949 in China, with a focus on women, specifically on single women in contemporary China. I will also briefly talk about the phenomenon of “leftover women” (剩女 shengnu).

Family is the central unit in Chinese culture. To find the origins of this principle we have to go back to Confucianism, especially to the Book of Rites. This book in Chinese is called 礼 记 liji, it’s a collection of descriptions of ritual matters written during the late Warring States (5th century – 221 BCE) and former Han periods (206 BCE- 8 CE). It’s one of the five Confucian classics (五经 wujing) and one of the three ritual classics (三礼 sanli) (Ulrich, 2010). In the book, the five basic human relationships are: ruler-minister, father-son, elder brother-younger brother, husband-wife and friend-friend. Three out of five are family relationships. The importance given to family is related to the state, as it maintains control over the subjects through it (Kung, Hung & Chan, 2004). Therefore, the family was organized in order to respect the beliefs of harmony and interrelatedness typical of Confucianism. The core value of the Chinese family system in fact has always been “filial piety”, according to which the sons and daughters have to show profound respect and care for the elders. In this way, the elders depend on adult children for their support in old age, which is expected mainly from sons (Yu & Haiyan, 2009). According to the tradition, all women had to be married before turning 30, instead men’s marriage age could vary according to their financial status. In traditional China in fact marriage was based on the passage of a woman from her family of origin to the one of the husband. The family of the bride was expected to get compensation because of this transfer. Therefore, a man couldn’t get married if he wasn’t able to pay for a bride. The practice of paying for a bride was related to the patrilineal family system, which was male-centred. Thus, this system discouraged parents from raising daughters. The discrimination against girls is at the root of the imbalance in the population’s sex structure in China. As a consequence, the prices of brides on the marriage gaps increased more and more. Therefore, it was common practice for some families to purchase young girls as future brides for their sons. The idea was that parents owned their children and young people had little to say about this (Zang & Xia Zhao, 2017).

According to this structure, marriage was under control of the eldest members and was also considered a way to attain success for the families by strengthening their ties and cooperation. In fact, the practice of marriage in China has always been closely linked to the concept of guanxi 关系 as the families were bound to each other by strong kin ties. The bride usually moved to the husband’s family house and she had to live with the whole new family. Most of the time she didn’t even know the husband and in this context she had to respect the will of all the members of the husband’s family (Riley, 1994). Children were usually to marry in their teenage years and child betrothal was a very common practice in order to guarantee the continuation of the family line, ensure harmonious intergenerational relations and reduce expenditures for marriage (Davis & Friedman, 2014).

After 1949 the institution of marriage and consequently family underwent several changes. The state put a lot of effort especially in trying to change family structure and behaviour with the 1950 and 1980 Marriage Laws. The “New Marriage Law” was promulgated on the 1st of May 1950, it followed the one promulgated in the early 1930s. According to the law, marriages should be based on the free choice of the partners, on monogamy, equal rights for both sexes and on the protection of the lawful interests of women and children. It included also freedom of divorce, abolishing of polygamy, taking concubines and child marriages. It stated that couples were ordered to register their marriages and divorces at state institutions (New Marriage Law 1950, 2019). Basically this law repositioned and strengthened the state’s control over the institution of marriage. In fact, the 1950 Marriage Law recognized a marriage only after state registration and didn’t recognize long-term cohabitation as de facto marriage. Concerning divorce, this law required that all the divorces had to be registered with the local government and all petitions for divorce had to be subject to mediation by leaders of the local community and by court officers. Therefore, the state started to be involved in disputes that previously were exclusively involving family members. Moreover, the 1950 Marriage Law limited childbearing to married couples more strictly than any other previous law (Davis, 2014). The Law of Marriage launched in 1950 condemned the “feudal marriage system” typical of China which completely ignored the interests of the children. Marriage registration offices were established, the couples had to go there to be interviewed when they were about to get married in order to figure out if they were doing it voluntarily. In the years 1950-53 a propaganda campaign was launched whose aim was to mobilize the support for the Marriage Law. With the transformations that the economy was undergoing, family as a production unit was eliminated. During those years thanks to the proletarianization of the population, industrialization, and the spread of education the transition from arranged to free-choice marriages happened more quickly. However, if on the one hand China’s communist leaders had promoted more freedom for young people in choosing their mates, on the other hand they prevented them from creating a dating culture and experimenting with premarital sex (Xiaohe, Whyte, 1990). The 1980 Marriage Law reinforced the 1950’s one, bolstered the one-child policy which was introduced in 1979 and underlined the importance of favouring women and children in property distribution in case of divorce.

All these factors had a role in boosting a change in the institution of marriage in China, alongside influences from Japan and the West, post-1949 industrialization and urbanization, political campaigns carried out by the CCP between 1949-1976 and post-1978 government policies which accelerated economic growth, but also triggered demographic challenges for the country.

In contemporary China, a successful marriage is perceived as being more and more difficult to achieve. The elements mentioned before, coupled with globalization and the internet have encouraged a trend in young Chinese people towards free love and romance, when it comes to looking for a bride or a groom. Nonetheless, it is true that Chinese people still tend to give more importance to health, chastity or domestic skills over any other factor when searching for a mate. Moreover, family and friends' influence keeps being very important when they have to decide if they want to get married with their partner (Zang & Xia Zhao, 2017).

The marriage squeeze phenomenon has become more and more common in the last few decades. “Marriage squeeze refers to the phenomenon of tension, difficulties, and failure to find a spouse in the marriage market for both males and females resulting from the imbalance in the numbers of marriageable males and marriageable females at the same ages or close ages. Marriage squeeze reflects the relationship between supply and demand in the marriage market within a certain range of time and space. Once a person enters his or her marriageable age, he or she is involuntarily drawn into the marriage market, is exposed to the relationship system of supply and demand of the spouses, and then selects the spouse or is selected, compared, or matched by others'' (Huang, 2014). Female marriage squeeze exists too, a phenomenon that happens because there is an increase in the number of women who are well educated, have high income and refuse to compromise their mate selection criteria. The main causes of marriage squeeze are: sex ratio at birth, sex difference in mortality, migration, preference for couples’ age gap and changes in the age structure. Specifically, what causes the Chinese male marriage squeeze include the high sex ratio at birth, the high mortality of female infants, shrinking birth rate, traditional male - female marriage mode, the rapidly rising divorce rate and remarriage level (Huang, 2014). The result of male marriage squeeze is an excess of single men, who find it hard to meet a partner. This issue is the consequence of the 1979 one-child policy, which implied deprivation of birth rights and life rights of women, as well as the violation of women’s rights to survive, participate and be protected. Still nowadays young Chinese people feel the pressure to procreate in order to continue the family line and take care of the elders. Besides, it is mandatory for Chinese couples to obtain a birth license for childbearing and to get the legal hukou status for the child, but the unavoidable condition is for the couple to be married.

As previously mentioned, in China heterosexual marriage has been the prerequisite for family’s formation and continuity. Not only is family a unit in the building block for the modern nation-state, a harmonious family is essential to create a harmonious society and a stable polity. As a consequence, the increasing number of single people is considered alarming. From a man's point of view, the problems will be the growth of non-elective bachelorhood, an increase in age - gaps between the bride and groom or having to wait a long time before getting married (Attené, 2012). Both men and women suffer because of this condition, nevertheless Chinese society keeps being merciless mainly towards women. Since the 1950, on the one hand, Chinese women gained more economic independence, have much more freedom in their professional choices and have been offered new opportunities. However, on the other hand, economic reforms haven’t made it easier for women, as they are more exposed to economic insecurity and they have to endure a strong sexual discrimination in the labour market. To understand the extent to which Chinese single women suffer from discrimination, it’s necessary to introduce the concept of 剩女 shengnu, “leftover women”. In traditional China a woman’s identity, role and status derived from her kinship position and membership in a kinship group. Nowadays, the concept of femininity in China is still mostly associated with being a good wife and mother (Gaetano, 2010). The term leftover women (剩女 shengnu) became popular in recent years: “In 2007, the PRC Ministry of Education released an official statement to define shengnü as unmarried women over the age of 27, and added it to the national lexicon” (Zang, Xia Zhao, 2017, p. 6). In sum, it’s a state media campaign created to denigrate single women in an attempt to somehow solve the problem of the surplus men created by the one-child policy. It represents the effort to promote marriage for social stability. According to Fincher (2014), several cartoons about the “leftover women” phenomenon have been created and spread by the state media, staging highly educated and successful women that become objects of mockery. Despite the continuous pressure by the state on single women, some of them are trying to change the narrative and make it more positive (Fincher, 2014).

Marriage remains an intrinsic part of the life of Chinese people, permeating their life choices and consequently determining the course of their lives, being the influence of Confucianism still very strong on their society. “Society remains permeated by Confucian traditions, which place special value on the continuation of the family line and filial piety.[...] Chinese society offers scarcely any alternatives to marriage. Unmarried cohabitation, still very rare, is generally just a preliminary to a formal union, and very little value is placed on celibacy. Moreover, although marriage remains a necessary stage in forming a family, it generally remains, despite a relaxation of the norms in the city, the legitimate framework for sexuality. Heterosexual and monogamous marriage continues therefore to condition access to various family and social prerogatives, marking a dichotomy between married and unmarried adults.” (Attené, 2012, p. 15).

Things have changed and keep changing in a country that is evolving so fast. Opening-up to the world brings young people to confront themselves with different realities and understand that the narrative of their own culture is not the only one. This leaves many of them with the curiosity of exploring new frontiers and challenging the culture where they have been born, at the cost of letting down their own families, especially their parents, who are still closely bound to tradition and have a very hard time trying to understand the new generations. Big and more developed cities are the places where these changes are more visible. The perception and concept of marriage in Chinese society might change in the future, even though it’s hard to understand to which extent.

Ilaria Storelli is a sinologist. She gained her bachelor's degree in International Relations at Catholic University of Milan, where she started to learn Mandarin. Later on, she went to Beijing to deepen her knowledge of the language. In 2018 she earned her Master's degree in Chinese language and culture at Ca' Foscari University of Venice. In 2020 she graduated from her second Master's degree in Chinese politics at Renmin University of China's Silk Road School in Suzhou, where she lived for one year and a half. She is interested in Chinese culture and society, gender studies and the history of relations between Italy and China.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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