Traditional Chinese marriage (Chinese: 婚姻; pinyin: hūnyīn) is a ceremonial ritual within Chinese societies that involve a marriage established by pre-arrangement between families. Within Chinese culture, romantic love was allowed, and monogamy was the norm for most ordinary citizens.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Marriage in a Confucian context
- 3 Prehistoric Chinese marriages
- 4 Historic marriage practices
- 5 Traditional marriage rituals
- 6 Modern practices
- 7 Traditional divorce process
- 8 Divorce in contemporary China
- 9 Polygamy
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes
- 12 Further reading
In more ancient writings for the word 婚姻, the former has the 昏 beside the radical 女 (pinyin: nǚ, literally "a female"). This implies that the wedding ceremony is performed in the evening, which is deemed as a time of fortune. Similarly, 姻 (pinyin: yīn) has the same pronunciation as 因 (pinyin: yīn). According to Zhang Yi's (張揖) Guangya Shigu (廣雅•釋詁), a dictionary of ancient Chinese characters, 因 (pinyin: yīn) means "friendliness", "love" and "harmony", indicating the correct way of living for a married couple.
Marriage in a Confucian context
In Confucian thought, marriage is of grave significance both to families and to society as well as being important for the cultivation of virtue. Traditionally incest has been defined as marriage between people with the same surname. From the perspective of a Confucian family, marriage brings together families of different surnames and so continues the family line of the paternal clan. This is generally why having a boy is more preferred than a girl when giving birth. Therefore, the benefits and demerits of any marriage are important to the entire family, not just the individual couples. Socially, the married couple is thought to be the basic unit of society. In Chinese history there have been many times when marriages have affected the country’s political stability and international relations. From the Han Dynasty onward, the rulers of certain powerful foreign tribes such as the Mongolians, the Manchus, the Xiongnu, and the Turks demanded women from the Imperial family. Many periods of Chinese history were dominated by the families of the wife or mother of the ruling Emperor.
Prehistoric Chinese marriages
Marriages in early societies
In traditional Chinese thinking, people in "primitive" societies did not marry, but had sexual relationships with one another indiscriminately. Such people were thought to live like animals, and they did not have the precise concept of motherhood, fatherhood, sibling, husband and wife, and gender, not to mention match-making and marriage ceremony. Part of the Confucian "civilizing mission" was to define what it meant to be a Father or a Husband, and to teach people to respect the proper relationship between family members and regulate sexual behavior.
The story about the marriage of Nüwa and Fu Xi, who were once sister and brother respectively, told about how they invented proper marriage procedures after becoming married. At that time the world was unpopulated, so the siblings wanted to get married but, at the same time, they felt ashamed. So they went up to Kunlun Shan and prayed to the heavens. They asked for permission for their marriage and said, "if you allow us to marry, please make the mist surround us." The heavens gave permission to the couple, and promptly the peak was covered in mist. It is said that in order to hide her shyness, Nüwa covered her blushing face with a fan. Nowadays in some villages in China, the brides still follow the custom and use a fan to shield their faces.
Maternal marriage and monogamy
In a maternal marriage, a male would become a son-in-law who lived in the wife’s home. This happened in the transformation of antithetic marriage into monogamy, which signified that the decline of matriarchy and the growing dominance of patriarchy in ancient China.
Historic marriage practices
Endogamy among different classes in China were practiced, the upper class like the Shi class married among themselves, while commoners married among themselves also, avoiding marriage with slaves and other ordinary people. This practice was enforced under the law.
Traditional marriage rituals
Chinese marriage became a custom between 402 and 221 BC. Despite China's long history and many different geographical areas, there are essentially six rituals, generally known as the three letters and six etiquettes (三書六禮). Unfortunately for some traditional families, the wife's mother cannot go to her son-in-law's family until one year (according to the Chinese lunar calendar or Chinese Lunar New Year) after the wedding has elapsed. However, during this one year the daughter can go back at anytime.
- Proposal: When an unmarried boy's parents found a potential daughter-in-law, they then located a matchmaker whose job was to assuage the conflict of interests and general embarrassments when discussing the possibility of marriage on the part of two families largely unknown to each other.
- Birthdates: If the selected girl and her parents did not object to the proposal, the matchmaker would match the birthdates (Chinese: 秊庚八字; pinyin: niángēng bāzì; literally "the 8 cyclic characters for year, month, day and hour of birth of a man, which determine his fate") in which suanming (Chinese fortune telling) is used to predict the future of that couple-to-be. If the result of Suan Ming was good, they then would go to the next step, submitting bride price.
- Bride price (Betrothal gifts): At this point the bridegroom's family arranged for the matchmaker to present bride price (betrothal gifts), including the betrothal letter, to the bride's family.
- Wedding gifts: The groom's family would then send an elaborate array of food, cakes, and religious items to the bride's family.
- Arranging the wedding: Before wedding ceremony, two families would arrange a wedding day according to Chinese tung shing. Selecting an auspicious day to assure a good future for the couple is as important as avoiding what is believed to be an unlucky day. In some cases there may be no auspicious dates and the couple will have to review their potential date range.
- Wedding Ceremony: The final ritual would be the actual wedding ceremony where bride and groom become a married couple, which consists of many elaborate parts:
- Wedding Procession: The wedding procession from the bride's home to the groom's home consists of a traditional band, the bride's sedan, the maids of honor's sedans (if there are maids of honor), and bride's dowry in the forms other than money.
- Welcoming the Bride: The wedding procession of the bride's family stops at the door of the groom's home. There are ceremonies to be followed to welcome the bride and her wedding procession into the groom's home, which varies from locale to locale.
- Actual Wedding Ceremonies: Equivalent to exchanging vows in the west, the couple would pay respect to the Jade Emperor, the family deities (or buddhas and bodhisattvas), paying respect to deceased ancestors, the bride and groom's parents and other elders, and paying respect to each other.
- The Wedding Banquets In Chinese society, the wedding banquet is known as xǐ-jǐu (喜酒, lit. joyful wine), and is sometimes far more important than the actual wedding itself. There are ceremonies such as bride presenting wines or tea to parents, spouse, and guests. In modern weddings, the bride generally picks red (following Chinese tradition) or white (more Western) for the wedding, but most will wear the red traditional garment for their formal wedding banquets. Traditionally, the groom is responsible for the cost of the wedding invitation sweet treats (often pastries), the banquet invitations, and the wedding itself. Wedding banquets are elaborate and consist usually of 5-10 courses, with ingredients such as shark's fin, abalone, lobster, squab, sea cucumber, swift nests, fish roe in soup or as decoration on top of a dish to symbolize fertility, and local delicacies. Traditionally, the father of the bride is responsible for the wedding banquet hosted on the bride's side and the alcohol consumed during both banquets. The wedding banquets are two separate banquets: the primary banquet is hosted once at the bride's side, the second banquet (smaller banquet) at the groom's side. While the wedding itself is often based on the couple's choices, the wedding banquets are a gesture of "thanks" and appreciation, to those that have raised the bride and groom (such as grandparents and uncles). It is also to ensure the relatives on each side meet the relatives on the other side. Thus out of respect for the elders, wedding banquets are usually done formally and traditionally, which the older generation is thought to be more comfortable with.
Before modern times, women were not allowed to choose the person they married. Instead, the family of the bride picked the prospective husband. Marriages were chosen based upon the needs of reproduction and honor, as well as the need of the father and husband.
In Mandarin Chinese, a mang nian, or 'blind year', when there are no first days of spring, such as in year 2010, a year of the Tiger, is considered an ominous time to marry or start a business. In the preceding year, there were two first days of spring.
Since the late 1990s, it has become popular to create an elaborate wedding album, often taken at a photography studio. The album usually consists of many pictures of the bride and groom taken at various locations with many different outfits. In Singapore, these outfits often include wedding outfits belonging to different cultures, including Arab and Japanese wedding outfits.
In contrast to Western wedding pictures, the Chinese wedding album will not contain pictures of the actual ceremony and wedding itself.
In recent years, Confucian wedding rituals have become popular among Chinese couples. In such ceremonies, which are a recent innovation with no historic antecedent, the bride and groom bow and pay respects to a large portrait of Confucius hanging in the banquet hall while wedding attendants and the couple themselves are dressed in traditional Chinese robes.
Before the bride and groom enter the nuptial chambers, they exchange nuptial cups and perform ceremonial bows as follows:
- first bow - Heaven and Earth
- second bow - ancestors
- third bow - parents
- fourth bow - spouse
Traditional divorce process
In traditional Chinese society, there are three major ways to dissolve a marriage.
The first one is no-fault divorce. According to the legal code of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a marriage may be dissolved due to personal incompatibility, provided that the husband writes a divorce note.
The second way (義绝) is through state-mandated annulment of marriage. This applies when one spouse commits a serious crime (variously defined, usually defined more broadly for the wife) against the other or his/her clan.
Finally, the husband may unilaterally declare a divorce. To be legally recognized, it must be based on one of the following seven reasons (七出):
- The wife lacks filial piety towards her parents-in-law (不順舅姑). This makes the parents-in-law potentially capable of breaking a marriage against both partners' wills.
- She fails to bear a son (無子).
- She is vulgar or lewd/adulterous (淫).
- She is jealous (妒). This includes objecting to her husband taking an additional wife or concubine.
- She has a vile disease (有惡疾).
- She is gossipy (口多言).
- She commits theft (竊盜). Only when she is dead.
Obviously, these reasons can be manipulated quite a bit to favor the husband and his family. There are, however, three clearly defined exceptions (三不去), under which unilateral divorce is forbidden despite the presence of any of the seven aforementioned grounds:
- She has no family to return to (有所取無所歸).
- She had observed a full, three-year mourning for a parent-in-law (與更三年喪).
- Her husband was poor when they married, and is now rich (前貧賤後富貴).
Divorce in contemporary China
After the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, the country's new Marriage Law also explicitly provided for lawful divorces. Women were permitted to divorce their husbands and many did, sparking resistance from rural males especially. Kay Ann Johnson reported that tens of thousands of women in north central China were killed for seeking divorces or committed suicide when blocked from doing so.
During the Mao era (1949–1976) divorce was rare, but in the reform era, it has become easier and more commonplace. A USC U.S.-China Institute article reports that the divorce rate in 2006 was about 1.4/1000 people, about twice what it was in 1990 and more than three times what it was in 1982. Still, the divorce rate in China is less than half what it is in the United States. One of the most important breakthroughs in the marriage institution were amendments added to the Marriage Law in 2003, which shortened the divorce-application procedure and added legitimate reasons for divorce, such as emphasizing the importance of faithfulness within a married couple. With the rising divorce rates nowadays, public discussions and governmental organs often criticize the lack of effort in marriage maintenance which many couples express. This is evident, for example in the new 'divorce buffer zones' established in the marriage registration offices in certain provinces, which is a room where the couples wait, as a stage within the divorce application procedure, and are encouraged to talk things over and consider giving their marriage another chance. However, such phenomena don't contradict the increasing permissiveness of the systems and of married couples which lead to the constant growth in divorce rates in China.
Amendments have also been made to Article 32 of the revised 2001 Marriage Law. Parties to a marriage can apply for Divorce under, and by showing, the following grounds.
Bigamy or a married person cohabiting with a third party; Domestic violence or maltreatment and desertion of one family member by another; Bad habits of gambling or drug addiction that remain incorrigible despite repeated admonition; Separation caused by incompatibility, which lasts two full years; Any other circumstances causing alienation of mutual affection.
The traditional culture does not prohibit or explicitly encourage polygyny (one man, multiple women), except as a way to obtain male children.
The scope of practice is limited by the number of available women, as well as the financial resource of the man, since he has to be able to support the women. Therefore polygyny is mostly limited to parts of the upper to middle class; while among the rest of the population monogamy can be regarded as more common. Historical written records are probably skewed with regard to the actual prevalence of polygamy, since the elite can be safely assumed to be overrepresented in them.
Sororate marriage is a custom in which a man marries his wife's sister(s). Later it is expanded to include her cousins or females from the same clan. The Chinese name is 妹媵 (妹=younger sister,媵=co-bride/concubinage). It can happen at the same time as he marries the first wife, at a later time while the wife is still alive, or after she dies. This practice was frequent among the nobility of Zhou Dynasty, with incidences occurring at later times.
Multiple wives with equal status
- Emperors of some relatively minor dynasties are known to have multiple empresses.
- Created by special circumstances. For example, during wartime a man may be separated from his wife and mistakenly believe that she had died. He remarries, and later the first wife is found to be alive. After they are reunited, both wives may be recognized.
- Qianlong Emperor of Qing dynasty began to allow polygamy for the specific purpose of siring heirs for another branch of the family (see Levirate marriage). Called "multiple inheritance" (兼祧), if a man is the only son of his father 單傳), and his uncle has no son, then with mutual agreement he may marry an additional wife. A male child from this union becomes the uncle's grandson and heir. The process can be repeated for additional uncles.
Beside the traditional desire for male children to carry on the family name, this allowance partially resolves a dilemma created by the emperor himself. He had recently banned all non-patrilineal forms of inheritance, while wanting to preserve the proper order in the Chinese kinship. Therefore, a couple without son cannot adopt one from within the extended family. They either have to adopt from outside (which was regarded by many as passing the family wealth to unrelated "outsiders"), or become heirless. The multiple inheritance marriages provided a way out when the husband's brother has a son.
Women in concubinage (妾) were treated as inferior, and expected to be subservient to the wife (if there was one). The women were not wedded in a whole formal ceremony, had less right in the relationship, and could be divorced arbitrarily. They generally came from lower social status or were bought as slaves. Women who had eloped may have also become concubines since a formal wedding requires her parents' participation.
The number of concubines was sometime regulated, which differs according to the men's rank. In ancient China, men of higher social status often supported several concubines, and Chinese Emperors almost always have dozens of, even hundreds of royal concubines.
Despite the limitations imposed on ancient Chinese concubines, history and literature have examples of concubines achieving great power and influence. For example, in one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China, The Dream of the Red Chamber (believed to be a semi-autobiographical account of author Cao Xueqin's own family life), three generations of the Jia family are supported by one favorite concubine of the Emperor.
Imperial concubines, kept by Emperors in the Forbidden City, were traditionally guarded by eunuchs to ensure that they could not be impregnated by anyone but the Emperor. Lady Yehenara, otherwise known as Dowager Empress Cixi, was arguably one of the most successful concubines in China’s history. Cixi first entered the court as a concubine to the Xianfeng Emperor and gave birth to an illegitimate male heir, who would become the Tongzhi Emperor. The Emperor passed over many legitimate male heirs and named Cixi's son the Crown Prince. She would eventually become the de facto ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China for 47 years after her son's death.
A somewhat different form of it is the so-called "two primary wives" (兩頭大). Traditionally, a married woman is expected to live with her husband's family. When the husband has to live away from his family, however, she has to stay with her in-laws and take care of them. A man who thus suffers chronic separation from his wife, such as a traveling merchant, may "marry" another woman where he lives and set up a separate household with her. Due to the geographical separation, the second woman often regards herself as a full wife for all practical matters, yet legally this marriage is not recognized, and she is treated as a concubine. In China specifically, in cases where the primary wife fails to have sons to preserve the male lineage, i.e. family name, a secondary wife is allowed by law via the sing-song girls concept.
Although Chinese law explicitly prohibits polygamy, there has been a recent surge of polygamy in mainland China. Since the opening of China's border in the 1970s, businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan started setting up "secondary wives" (二奶) in the mainland. Since then the practice has spread to local affluent men. It's condemned social-wide but many people continue the practice nonetheless, causing great conflicts and traumas in his family, the same as what happens on people of western countries.
Some juries in China consider married people who leave home to live with their lovers to have committed bigamy. However most law cases filed were before 2000, and currently the situation is really no different from those of western countries. People will not get prosecuted for "bigamy" for out-of-marriage relationships as long as he doesn't really register another marriage, but might be required to cede more possessions in divorce cases with his former wife.
Polyandry, the practice of one woman having multiple husbands, is traditionally considered by Han as immoral, prohibited by law, and uncommon in practice. However, historically there have been instances in which a man in poverty rents or pawns his wife temporarily. However amongst other Chinese ethnicities polyandry existed and exists especially in mountainous areas.
In a subsistence economy, when available land was unable to support more than one family, dividing it between surviving sons would eventually lead to a situation in which none would have the resources to survive; in such a situation a family would together marry a wife, who would be the wife of all the brothers in the family. Polyandry in certain Tibetan autonomous areas in modern China remains legal. This however only applies to the ethnic minority Tibetans of the region and not other ethnic groups.
- Southern Chinese wedding
- Chinese social relations
- Chinese culture
- Confucian view of marriage
- Wedding reception in Chinese societies
- Red envelope
- New Marriage Law
- Shanghai marriage market
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- Jennifer 8. Lee, The New York Times, Sunday 8 January 2010 p. ST-15 (Sunday Styles)
- Davis, Edward (2005). Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture. Taylor & Francis. pp. 897–899. ISBN 9780415241298.
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- USC US-China Institute, "Divorce is increasingly common" http://www.china.usc.edu/ShowAverageDay.aspx?articleID=592
- Romantic Materialism (the development of the marriage institution and related norms in China), Thinking Chinese, October 2011
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- China.org.cn criminal law
- Guide to China Divorce and Seperation
- Wolf, Arthur P. and Chieh-shan Huang. 1985. Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845-1945. Stanford University Press. This is the most sophisticated anthropological account of Chinese marriage.
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- Wolf, Margery. 1985. Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China. Stanford University Press.
- Alford, William P., "Have You Eaten, Have You Divorced? Debating the Meaning of Freedom in Marriage in China", in Realms of Freedom in Modern China (William C. Kirby ed., Stanford University Press, 2004).