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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 La