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Newlyweds in the 1930s

Marriages have traditionally been arranged by the couple's parents. Today, young people can often choose whom they want to marry themselves. Still it it is common for young people to use matchmakers. Chinese have traditionally taken a pragmatic approach to marriage, even in their own choices of spouses, with practical considerations often carrying as much weight if not more than romantic considerations. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In the old days, marriages and weddings were worked out by families, following rules laid out by ancient traditions. In the Communist era, these details were often worked out by neighborhood councils and work units. These days, families have reasserted their control but individuals getting married probably have more say in marriage matters than they ever had before.According to a Chinese legend, couples destined to marry have invisible red strings, connecting them, tied around their ankles when they are young children. As they grow older the strings gets shorter and shorter until it is time for them to wed. Nothing can severe the strings "not distance, changing circumstances, or love. Marriage is their destiny."

For Westerners, marriage choices tend to be based on individual notions of love or romance, or at least that is how we see it. But in much of China, marriage is, first and foremost, about family and community. Asians as a whole have traditionally regarded marriages as a bonding of families rather than individuals. People are not seen in the Christian view as individual children of God but rather as members of a family. These ideas are at least partly rooted in ancestor worship and Confucianism. Weddings in Buddhist areas have traditionally been secular affairs not endorsed the Buddhist clergy. Marriages are not religious events in Buddhism.

According to Chinese custom a man should marry a woman who is several years younger than him and should have less education. As a result women over thirty, especially educated ones, traditionally have had only a slim chance of getting married. For the Chinese, the preferred partner is also Chinese. Chinese parents usually dislike non-Chinese for in-laws. This prejudice mainly stems from their values and the belief that these differ from those of outsiders. Thus, inter-racial marriages are often frowned up. [Source: Jonathan Dionisio, July 13, 2009,; New York Times, July 19, 2013 ]

Restraints that can delay a wedding, or even lead to the cancellation of marriage plans are the cost and availability of housing and sometimes the cost of the wedding itself if the parents insist on too lavish of a wedding or too large a guest list. Polls show that couples are having premarital sex and living together before marriage more often than in the past. In Shenzhen it is fairly common for couples to live together before marriage or engage in relations just for sex...Articles in a local woman's paper there have headlines like "I AM NOT A LADY," "ONE NIGHT LOVE" and "A TRAP SET BY AN OLD MAN."

Websites and Sources: Marriage: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinatown ConnectionChinatown Connection ; Travel China Guide ; Agate Travel : Dating Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection

Marriage Statistics for China

According to statistics released in February 2021 by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, only 8.1 million couples got married in 2020, a 12 percent drop from 2019 and steep decline from 2013, when 13.4 million couples tied the knot. [Source: Jiayun Feng, SupChina, March 19, 2021]

Marriages per 1000 people: 9.5 (compared to 6.1 in the United States and 2.5 in Argentina). The figure for China was the highest in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), a group of mostly developed countries, in the early 2010s. [Source: OECD, 2012]

Age at first marriage: 27.1 for men and 24.9 for women (compared to 33.4 for men and 31.2 for women in Finland and 22.1 for men and 17.9 for women on Nepal) [Source: Wikipedia and Wikipedia , 2017]

Legal Age for marriage: 20 for women and 22 for men. These ages are higher than many other countries.[Source: United Nations Data, 2011]

A survey in China found that half the men who had sex with men also had sex with women and third of them were married. A survey released in July 2013 by Peking University found a drastic change in the cohabitation rate of couples before marriage: It was 1.8 percent in 1970, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, but had risen to 32.6 percent by 2000. [Source: New York Times, July 19, 2013 ]

About 8.3 million couples were married in China in 2003, only a 3 percent increase from the year before. The average age for marriage in 2001 was 24 for men and 23 for women. In the cities today the average age is approaching 30.In a survey in 2006 by a dating web site, 25 percent of Chinese brides said they regretted getting married, saying they would have preferred a different husband or staying single. Another survey found that a quarter of the urban, unmarried women wanted to marry but not have children. About 11 percent said they would prefer to stay single. Many men get more excited about getting a cell phone than they do about getting engaged.

In 1989, nationwide official statistics show that 9,851,000 couple applied for marriage; 9,348,000 couples, about 95 percent, were approved and given a marriage certificate. In the same year, 1,307,000 couples applied for divorce; 752,000, about 58 percent, were approved and given divorce certificates. The marriage rate was 16.8 per 1,000 persons and the divorce rate 1.35 per 1,000 persons. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

Marriage Rate in China Drops

Despite Chinese government efforts to get encourage young people to get married and have kids this is not happened as a generation without houses or work-life balance and little saved up cash also doesn’t want marriage. Jiayun Feng wrote in SupChina: “China’s marriage rate fell to its lowest level in nearly two decades last year, and experts think that the number will likely sink even further as Chinese people in Generation Z start to reach childbearing age.” Only 8.1 million couples tied the knot in 2020, a 12 percent drop from 2019, and a super-steep drop from the 13.4 million couples who got married in 2013. Most Chinese media reports attributed the decline in marriage rates to a drop in the number of people of marriageable age after decades of the one-child policy, harshly enforced since in 1979. [Source: Jiayun Feng, SupChina, March 19, 2021]

“Although China relaxed its restrictions on births in 2015, allowing all married couples to have two children, many couples have not chosen to do so. To make things worse, the birth control program, coupled with an age-old preference for sons, has created an excess of 30 million males, who are facing a hard time looking for partners.

“But beyond demographic changes, the declining marriage rate also speaks volumes about a shift of attitudes among young adults in China, who no longer see marriage as an inevitable milestone. And then there’s the problem of money: According to a survey (in Chinese) by Zhilian Zhaopin, a popular job recruitment site in China, 43.5 percent of the women who responded said that they didn’t want to get married anytime soon because they feared that marriage would “reduce their life quality,” whereas over half of the men who took part in the survey cited “financial insecurities” as the main reason they were single.

“Also, it turns out, Chinese people aren’t super-excited about the idea of having children, either. China’s birth rates have been steadily falling for years now, mostly because — you guessed it — kids are expensive and a growing number of happy, independent Chinese women no longer think of a husband as a “must-have” in life. And to the dismay of many government officials who had hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders would lead to a baby boom, it appears that the opposite is far more likely.

“Obviously, there are no convenient fixes to this demographic crisis. For instance, you can’t force people to get married and have babies. But in a frantic effort to save marriage, China seems to have found a viable solution to the problem, and that is to make divorce a lengthy, complicated process.

Traditional Ideas About Marriage in China

Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “Marrying outside the same surname group was demanded by law as well as the custom in ancient China. The husband-wife relationship was strictly held to be supplementary and subordinate to the parents-son relationship. Love was irrelevant. A filial son would devote everything to his parents at the expense of his marital and other relationships. If there were a quarrel between his wife and his parents, he would have no alternative but to side with his parents, even to the extent of divorcing his wife. Marriage was for the purpose of providing heirs for the family and continuing the father-son line, so the husband/wife tie was not one of affection but of duty. Should affection develop, display of it before other family member was disapproved of socially. No upright man showed signs of intimacy in public, not even with his wife. It was regarded as licentious for female to display their personal charms. [Source: Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: To us, marriage seems suitable for persons who have attained, not merely years of puberty, but a certain maturity of development compatible with the new relations which they now assume. We regard the man and wife as the basis and centre of a new family, and there is ancient and adequate authority for the doctrine that they should leave father and mother. In China it is altogether otherwise. The boy and girl who are married are not a new family, but the latest branch in a tall family tree, independent of which they have no corporate existence.” [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Among parents, the father was supreme. Although there is some evidence that China was at one time in prehistory dominated by matrilineal tribes, patriarchal structures were firmly established by the dawn of the historical era. The family name, or surname (which precedes the personal name in Chinese, perhaps symbolizing the priority of family over individual), was passed through the male line. Married women effectively entered the families of their husbands and were “lost” to their natal families. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Kinship was more than a matter of birth, it could also be forged through marriage. China was relentlessly “exogamous”: that is, two people of the same surname could not marry no matter how distant their relation, even if there was no known relation at all. A marriage was first and foremost a contract between two independent corporate groups. For this reason, the selection of marriage partners was always viewed as a family rather than as an individual matter. Love and romance were well known phenomena, but largely separate from marriage. Marriages were arranged by the parents so as to yield the greatest benefit to the extended family; the bride and groom were often not even consulted before the engagement. The divorce rate was low. /+/

“The political nature of marriage lay behind the “polygamous” nature of Chinese society. Men of wealth and status not only could afford to support more than one wife, they remained in demand even after marrying several women because they continued to be viewed principally as sources of power and patronage, rather than as sources of loyal affection. From the point of view of women, being one of a group of wives and “ concubines” (secondary mates) was not only inherently demeaning, it fostered bitter competition. Only one woman could be designated as the “principal wife,” whose son would be the principal heir, but that designation could be shifted by the husband at any time. In wealthy families, this made for a grisly psychology, and in high political circles where a throne was at stake it made assassination a popular sport.” /+/

Traditional Chinese Marriages

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Bride groom's family in the 1930s

In the late imperial era there were four kinds of marriages: 1) major marriages between a young man and women, involving the payment of a bride-price and a dowry paid by both the groom and bride’s family; 2) minor marriages, in which girls were betrothed at a young age and brought up as a “daughter” in her future husband’s family; 3) uxorilocal marriage, in which a man was transferred to a young woman’s household; and 4) delayed-transfer, in which a woman remained in her family after marriage until her first child was born

In the minor marriages, the girl was forced to have sex with her foster brother when they became teenagers. This custom was mainly done in the south as a way to avoid costly bride-price and dowry payments. Uxorilocal marriage was a way of provided a son for a family that didn’t have any. Delayed transfer marriages were practiced mainly in Guangdong, where the custom was widely practiced by ethic minorities living there.

Confucian customs emphasized moral purity. According to Confucian teaching a woman was supposed to only get married once in her lifetime. Young widows who refused to marry again were often memorialized with their names inscribed on the walls of a temple. Confucius said that individuals with the same name could not marry.

In China there is a tradition of a man making a gift to woman’s family in exchange for marriage. In traditional marriages, the bride’s spouse was chosen by her father. The marriage process began with an exchange of letters between the father of the groom and the father of the bride, followed by an exchange of presents such as golden chopsticks, food and animals.

Types of Marriage in Imperial China (Until 1912)

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “In late imperial China, parents or other seniors inevitably arranged their children's first marriages. Surname exogamy was absolute in most areas, and village exogamy was often, though not always, the rule. There were four types of marriage widely practiced in late imperial times. 1) Major marriage was a patrilocal union between a young adult woman and a young adult man; this was the normative form everywhere and the model form almost everywhere. It involved both a bride-price (some or all of which would return to the couple as an indirect dowry) and a dowry in furniture, household items, clothing, jewelry, and money, paid for partly out of the groom's family's contribution and partly out of the bride's family's own funds. In the ideal major marriage, bride and groom laid eyes on each other for the first time at their wedding ceremony; this ideal was not always observed. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia/ China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

“2) Minor marriage involved the transfer of a young girl (anywhere from a few days old to 8 or 10 years old, depending on the region and the individual case) from her natal family to her prospective husband's family, where she was raised as a low-status daughter of that family and then forced into a conjugal union with her "foster brother" when she was in her late teens. This form of marriage, practiced mainly in certain parts of the south, had the advantages of avoiding costly bride-price and dowry payments and of binding the bride more closely to her husband's family. It had the disadvantages of having low prestige and often a lack of sexual attraction between the partners, especially if the bride had been brought in very young. |~|

“3) Uxorilocal marriage involved the transfer of a man to a woman's household and was practiced mainly in the south and in situations where a couple with no sons needed either a laborer to work their land, descendants to continue the family line, or both. In some areas, an uxorilocal son-in-law changed his surname to that of the wife's family; in others, he kept his surname, and the children were divided between the two surnames according to a prenuptial contract. In many areas of the north, uxorilocal marriage was not practiced at all; in some parts of the south and southwest, it accounted for as much as 10 to 20 percent of all unions. In the absence of uxorilocal marriage, or as a complement to it, the alternative was adoption of an agnate or, in some cases, of an unrelated boy. |~|

“4) Delayed-transfer marriage was practiced primarily in Guangdong, and involved a woman's remaining in her natal home after her marriage, sometimes until the birth of a child and sometimes permanently. This custom was common among many non-Han peoples in the south and southwest and may have influenced Han practice in these areas. At the same time, delayed-transfer marriage was most common in areas where women had economic autonomy because of their wage-earning power in the silk industry; perhaps a combination of these factors accounts for this highly localized practice. In addition to marriage, the wealthiest Han men in the late imperial and Republican periods often took concubines, sexual partners whose status was less than that of a wife and whose children were legally children of the wife rather than of their birth mothers. Since concubines were social and sexual ornaments not expected to do domestic labor, only the richest men could consider concubinage. Multiple wives, as opposed to concubines, were not ordinarily permitted to Han men. |~|

Reforms and Changes of Marriage in China in the 20th Century

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “In late imperial times, men could remarry after the death or (rarely) divorce of a wife; widows were normatively discouraged from remarrying, but often remarried anyway because of economic straits. By law, a remarrying widow would have to leave her children with her husband's family, because they belonged to his patriline. Reform of marriage practices has been a keystone of social reformers' programs from the late nineteenth century on." In 1931, the Kuomintang Civil Code attempted to impose equality of women and the right of free choice in marriage. "The early efforts of Republican governments were successful only among educated urban classes, but in the PRC and in contemporary Taiwan, change has been much greater. The prohibition against same-surname marriages seems to have disappeared.[Source: Stevan Harrell,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia/ China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender”: “Arranged marriage and multiple-wife households were characteristic of traditional marriage in China before 1949. Social and economic compatibilities were considered important factors for a stable marriage, personality traits or physical attributes less so. In Modern China, young people from urban areas, often well-educated, make deliberate choices to avoid arranged marriages The first law stating that marriage should be based on the free-choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal rights of both sexes, and on the protection of the lawful interests of women and children, was not enacted until 1950. The law prohibited bigamy, concubinage, child betrothal, or any interference with the remarriage of widows, and prohibited giving money or gifts to entice someone into a marriage. These principles were part of the PRC Marriage Law, drafted in the 1980s. [Source: Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Marriage Law of 1950 guarantees everyone the freedom to choose his or her marriage partner. Nevertheless, especially in the countryside, there are few opportunities to meet potential mates. Rural China offers little privacy for courtship, and in villages there is little public tolerance for flirting or even extended conversation between unmarried men and women. Introductions and gobetweens continue to play a major role in the arrangement of marriages. In most cases each of the young people, and their parents, has an effective veto over any proposed match. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the past, marriage was seen as the concern of families as well as of the two parties to the match. Families united by marriage were expected to be of equivalent status, or the groom's family to be of somewhat higher status. This aspect of marriage patterns has continued while the definitions of status have changed. Because inherited wealth has been eliminated as a significant factor, evaluation has shifted to estimates of earning power and future prosperity. The most desirable husbands have been administrative cadres, party members, and employees of large state enterprises. Conversely, men from poor villages have had difficulty finding wives. From the early 1950s to the late 1970s, when hereditary class labels were very significant, anyone with a "counterrevolutionary" background, that is, anyone previously identified with the landlord or even rich peasant class, was a bad prospect for marriage. Such pariahs often had no choice but to marry the offspring of other families with "bad" class backgrounds. At the other end of the social scale, there appears to be a high level of intermarriage among the children of high-level cadres.

A number of traditional attitudes toward the family have survived without being questioned. It is taken for granted that everyone should marry, and marriage remains part of the definition of normal adult status. Marriage is expected to be permanent. That marriage requires a woman to move into her husband's family and to become a daughter-in-law as well as a wife is still largely accepted. The norm of patrilineal descent and the assumption that it is sons who bear the primary responsibility for their aged parents remain. The party and government have devoted great effort to controlling the number of births and have attempted to limit the number of children per couple. But the authorities have not attempted to control population growth by suggesting that some people should not marry at all.

Marriage Laws in China

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Marriage laws poster
Although China has a long history of polygamy, in contemporary mainland China, only monogamy is legal and morally permissible except to a limited degree among some minorities such as Tibetans who still practice polyandry (a woman with multiple husbands). On May 1, 1950, the new Marriage Law was promulgated. It stated that “The New-Democratic marriage system, which is based on the free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal rights of both sexes, and on the protection of the lawful interests of women and children, shall be put into effect,” and that “Bigamy, concubinage, child betrothal, interference with the remarriage of widows, and the exaction of money or gifts in connection with marriage, shall be prohibited.” The revised marriage law of 1980 followed the same principles as the 1950 law. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

The Marriage Law of 1950 in the People's Republic prohibited underage marriage, arranged marriage, minor marriage, bride-price, and concubinage and gave women full rights to divorce. The law banned many of the practices associated with traditional marriages: multiple wives and the sale of sons or daughters for marriage purposes. Monogamy was strictly enforced. Adulterers were often dealt with harshly. Individuals with leprosy and other diseases were considered unfit for marriage. Although not every aspect of the law have become universal practice, in urban China people usually marry by mutual consent and reside according to individual preference [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia/ China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Article 9 of the Chinese marriage code says that "Husband and wife enjoy equal status in the home." Article 12 states that "Husband and wife are in duty bound to practice family planning." There are other articles which states that cousins can not marry. In the Mao era, couples were often required to get permission from their employers before they could get married. In October 2003, some rules were eased on getting married. Among the laws that were eliminated was the one that required couples to get permission from their employers before they could get married.

Marriage in the Mao Era

In the Mao era, couples were often required to get permission from their employers before they could get married. Marriages were often arranged by neighborhood and work committees rather than by parents. Under these terms many Chinese were able to seek out mates in their community or work place and seek approval of authorities. In other cases authorities told people who they would marry. In the Mao era there were not many university graduates around. A factory workers with a stable job and salary was viewed as a good catch. These days a prospective husband is expected to have as a minimum of a decent apartment, a car and 100,000 yuan ($14,640) in the bank.

Brook Larmer wrote in the New York Times, “A generation ago, China was one of the world’s most equal nations, in both gender and wealth. Most people were poor, and tight controls over housing, employment, travel and family life simplified the search for a suitable match — what the Chinese call mendang hudui, meaning roughly “family doors of equal size.” Like many Chinese who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Ms. Yu married a man from her factory work unit, with their local Communist Party boss as informal matchmaker. As recently as 1990, researchers found that a vast majority of residents in two of China’s largest cities dated just one person before marriage: their prospective spouse. [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, March 19, 2013 ^-^]

In the article “Between State and Service Industry: Group and Collective Weddings in Communist Shanghai, 1949–1956 in the journal Twentieth-Century China, Jennifer E. Altehenger investigates the Shanghai wedding industry in the early 1950s by combing through municipal archives to dissect the ways in which commercial wedding shops rebranded their businesses as they learned about the cultural goals of the new Maoist regime. Meanwhile, officials conducted their own debates about how to standardize wedding ceremonies and induce people to register their marriages. Together, for their own reasons, commercial firms and government units promoted group or collective weddings. The response among the people of Shanghai, however, was lukewarm. [Source: Between State and Service Industry: Group and Collective Weddings in Communist Shanghai, 1949–1956 Jennifer E. Altehenger Twentieth-Century China, Vol. 40, No. 1: 48-68]

Even though arranged marriages were banned as feudalistic and divorce was discouraged, Mao married three times using an intermediary to seek the approval of his father. The decline of the government's power over people's lives after the Deng economic reforms has resulted in both a revival of traditional marriage customs and the introduction of Western ideas.

Hypergamy and Pressure to Get Married in China

Yong Cai, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told, “In most societies of the Western world, there is always at least 10-15 percent of the population that remains single, but in China, until the 1980s, that percentage was always less than 1 percent.” [Source: Roseann Lake,, March 12, 2012]

Roseann Lake wrote in, Basically, marriage in China has the equivalent social force of a steamroller. It’s simply what one does. There are Chinese work units that have an in-house matchmaker who is tasked with pairing off single employees. Almost every day of the week, there are marriage markets in parks around the country where parents and grandparents gather to flip through tomes and tomes of Xeroxed copies listing the names, occupations and salaries of available singles with whom they might be able to pair off their progeny. “We talk about helicopter parents in the U.S., but when it comes to marriage in China, I’d say parents are air hawks,” says Berlin Fang, a cross-cultural commentator. ‘sometimes they even drop a few bombs.”

“In addition Lake wrote, “In China, there’s a deep-seated tradition of marriage hypergamy which mandates that a woman must marry up. This generally works out, as it allows the Chinese man to feel superior, and the woman to jump a social class or two. [Source: Roseann Lake,, March 12, 2012]

Urban Marriage in China

Families play less of a role in marriage choices in cities than in the countryside, at least in part because the family itself is not the unit promising long-term security and benefits to its members. By the late 1970s, perhaps half of all urban marriages were the result of introductions by workmates, relatives, or parents. The marriage age in cities has been later than that in the countryside, which reflects greater compliance with state rules and guidelines as well as social and economic factors common to many other countries. People in cities and those with secondary and postsecondary education or professional jobs tend to marry later than farmers. In China it is felt that marriage is appropriate only for those who have jobs and thus are in a position to be full members of society. Peasant youth, who have an automatic claim on a share of the collective fields and the family house, qualify, but college students or urban youths who are "waiting for assignment" to a lifetime job do not. In any case, work-unit approval is necessary for marriage. [Source: Library of Congress]

Urban weddings are usually smaller and more subdued than their rural counterparts, which reflects the diminished role of the families in the process. More guests will be workmates or friends of the bride and groom than distant kin or associates of the parents. The wedding ceremony focuses on the bride and groom as a couple rather than on their status as members of families. Similarly, a brief honeymoon trip rather than a three-day celebration in which the entire village plays a part is an increasingly common practice. Long engagements are common in cities, sometimes because the couple is waiting for housing to become available.

Child Marriage in China

Marriages between children and teenagers still occur. In 2016, CNN reported: “Thirteen and just married, Jie looks at her wedding picture framed in white. Next to it, incongruously, are stickers from the Pixar movie "Cars." Jie married her 16-year-old husband three days after they met during the Lunar New Year in 2014. Not long after, she was pregnant. It sounds like a scene from China's feudal past, when early marriage was customary, especially for girls, but teenage brides and grooms aren't uncommon in some poor and rural parts of the country's hinterland. [Source: CNN, April 14, 2016]

“The reasons are complex — as economic pressures, shifting social attitudes and changing population dynamics revive a practice that China's Communist leaders had hoped to stamp out. Photographer Muyi Xiao met Jie and her husband Wen in the southwestern province of Yunnan in 2014. Jie was the youngest of a number of young Chinese newlyweds she profiled with a fellowship form the Magnum Foundation. "Every girl I saw in these villages got married before they were 18 and some of them were extremely young," says Xiao. "It's like something they think is normal to do — it comes from the teachers, from the parents, from the kids." “Jie didn't want to fall pregnant so soon after getting married but didn't know about birth control. Xiao, who traveled in the region for 18 days, said the marriages didn't appear to be the result of parental pressure, nor a kneejerk response to an unexpected pregnancy. "I didn't see any forced marriage. The kids are happy, they say they fell in love."

In China, the legal age for marriage is 22 for men and 20 for women but there's no specific penalty for breaching the law, according to Jiang Quanbao, a professor from Xi'an Jiaotong University. He says in rural areas many recognize a marriage as long as a couple holds a ceremony and banquet; official registration would take place once the couple were of age. “But tales of young love have been ringing alarm bells. In February 2016, pictures of a wedding held for two 16-year-old went viral on social networks and received widespread coverage in state media as debate raged over whether they could really be in love.

Many rural parents are keen for their children to tie the knot before they go off to work in factory towns — a common fate for many — and this is especially true for sons who may face a struggle to find a partner, says Jiang, the professor. The one-child policy and a traditional preference for sons has caused a massive gender imbalance in the Chinese countryside. "In some poor areas, getting married early is like a guarantee so they can avoid being bachelors forever," said Jiang.

“Xiao blames a lack of sex education and that many children in villages grow up without the supervision of one or both their parents — part of China's "left behind" generation whose parents go off to work in factory towns and richer cities. "They watch a lot of romantic dramas but they don't have much sex education. No one told them that having sex isn't the right thing to do." But Xiao's warm-hearted images don't pass judgment. They show couples that, for the moment at least, look very much in love.

History of Child Marriage in China

According to “Growing Up Sexually: “In the period till 771 BC, menarche indicated marriageable age; the minimum age was radically raised by Han Confucians. During the Ming period there was again early betrothal (Van Gulik,. 12th-century Yüan Ts’ai warned for childhood engagements. In 1855, Huc commented that “nothing is more common than to arrange a marriage during the infancies of the parties, or even before their birth”. Nevius (1868) noted that, “In cases where infanticide is common, males predominate to such an extent that it is difficult for parents to obtain wives for their sons, and they often make arrangements with a family which has an infant daughter to spare her life and betroth her to their son”. Smith (1899) speaks of early betrothal, early marriage, and even “rearing-marriage” (adoption by parents-in-law; cf. infra). However, “in contrast to India, child marriages were exceptional in China, although the betrothal of small and even unborn children, while illegal, was common. According to Fei, arrangements for marriage were made at age six or seven.[Source: “Growing Up Sexually, Volume” I by D. F. Janssen, World Reference Atlas, 2004]

In ancient China, betrothal of unborn children was forbidden, but between families of long established friendship the custom was quite common. The usual age for affiancing children was between seven and fourteen. For an elaborate description of the custom of infant betrothal as practised before 1911 in the conservative I-ch’ang districts. The minimum age for marriage was not laid down in the Colonial system. However, it seems to follow from Section 375 of the Penal Code that thirteen is the lowest at which a woman can fully enter marriage; if she is below that age, her husband commits rape when having sexual intercourse with her. Freedman states: “There does not appear to have ever been a tradition among the Chinese to marry very young girls and child betrothal did not lead to sexual relations until the wife was mature”, contrary to the (unlawful) antenatal betrothal by Chinese peasants in Singapore. The 1931 Code placed minimum ages at sixteen for girls and eighteen for boys.

“The Marriage Law of 1950" promulgated after the Communists came to power in 1949 “bans child betrothal..” However, in more impoverished rural areas the reorganisation of farm labour in the household responsibility system combined with the perceived shortage of marriage partners has resulted in the revival of child betrothal arrangements. For the rural population, marriage is not a personal matter that involves emotional commitment and romantic affection but a family responsibility of prolonging their paternal line. Therefore, in many families, the marriage of their son is a family affair and every member will have to work hard and save every penny for the dowry. If it is necessary, a family may sell its daughters to raise money to purchase a wife or to exchange with another family for a daughter-in-law. Arranged baby marriage also exists in many rural areas”.

“Minor marriage, or adopting in a daughter-in-law (yangsinvu; M: tongyang xifu), was the logical extreme of childhood betrothal. Some families chose to adopt in an infant girl, often to be nursed at the future mother-in-law's breast, because it eliminated the high cost of a major marriage and minimized the potential conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law that threatened family harmony and scarred so many women's lives. Of the 70 marriages into Willow Pond [Village (a pseudonym), a rice-farming community on the Yangtze Delta, 50 kilometers west of Shanghai] before 1955 (when the last yangsinvu marriage occurred), thirteen (or 19 per cent) were minor marriages”.

Child Marriage in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““The details of customs in various localities differ widely, so that generalisations here as elsewhere are precarious, but the principles are doubtless substantially the same. The age at which marriages take places in China is very much earlier than that in Western lands, though we* have never heard of anything in China at all comparable to the terrible child-marriages of India. But in some regions, it is the fashion to marry the boys at the age of from fifteen to twenty or even younger, while the' girls to whom they are married are several years their seniors. No one will give any explanation of this eccentricity, unless it be that contained in a popular proverb about the man who buys a donkey and rides on its neck instead of close to .the tail, in Chinese fashion — namely, that " he likes that way best." But in the case of adult brides yoked to adolescent bride-grooms, the reasons for the practice are easy to be understood, when once ascertained. It is the family of the boy, that " holds up its head," and that of the girl must take such terms as it can get. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894; Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang,a village in Shandong.]

In 1899, Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: The age at which marriage takes place is far from being a fixed one, but is often in the vicinity of sixteen. The customs observed vary widely, in some rural districts they frequently consist in nothing more exciting than the playing by a band of music in the evening before his marriage, and a visit on the part of the young man to each house in the village where he makes his prostration, much as at New Year, and is henceforth to be considered a full-grown man, and is protected to some extent from snubs because he is “only a child.” [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“It is by no means uncommon for boys to be married at the age of ten, although this is regarded as a trifle premature. The physical, intellectual, or moral development of the parties concerned has nothing whatever to do with the matter of their marriage, which is an affair controlled by wholly different considerations. Sometimes it is hastened because an old grandmother is in feeble health and insists upon seeing the main business of life done up before she is called away. Sometimes the motive is to settle the division of a piece of property so that it shall be impossible for the elder heirs to retreat from the settlement. Quite as often the real motive for hastening the wedding is the felt need in the boy’s family of an additional servant, which need will be supplied by the introduction of a new bride. It is for this reason that so many Chinese women are older than their husbands. When they are betrothed, the bigger they are the better, because they can do all the more work.

“To a Chinese, there is no more sense of incongruity in marrying a little slip of a boy, simply because he is young, and perhaps not more than half the size of his bride, than there would be in playing checkers with buttons, and then crowning the first button that happened to get to the king-row. What signified whether the button is a small one or a large one, since it has reached the last row, and has now a set of moves of its own, a fact which must be recognized by doubling itself. It is not otherwise with the Chinese boy. He is a double button, it is true, but he is nothing but a button still, and a small one, and is only an insignificant part of a wide and complicated game.

“During the celebration of a Chinese wedding it does not strike the spectator that the bridegroom is the centre of interest, and the bride is so only for the time being, and in consequence of the curiosity which is felt to see what sort of a bargain the family has made in getting her. The young man is ordered out of the apartment where he has been kept in ambush — according to the custom in some regions — like an ox for the sacrifice. He is to fall upon his knees at a word of command, and kotow with intermittent sequence to a great variety of persons, until his knees are stiff and his legs lame. His eyes are fixed upon the ground, as if in deepest humility, and the most awkward Chinese youth will perform the details of this trying ordeal with a natural grace, with which the most well-bred Occidental youth could scarcely hope to vie, and which he assuredly could not hope to surpass.

Bride Kidnapping and Polygamy in China

Marriages between cousins and close relatives still occur. “Marriage on weekends” describes couples that live apart on weekdays to maintain their independence. Young male and female members of the Zhuang, Dong, Bouyeu, Miao, Yao, Yi, Va and Jiangpo tribes are permitted to enjoy a "golden period of life" in which premarital sex is allowed and even encouraged. See Minorities

George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ In some cases, a young girl may be “bought” by a richer family to be the servant to the rich boy, becoming either his wife or his concubine. Two women pregnant at the same time would sometimes promise their children in marriage (if both were boys or both girls the children would be brought up as brothers or as sisters). It was customary for parents to betroth their children at the age of around ten or twelve, with the marriage being finalized when the girl was about fifteen and the man around twenty. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]

Curiously, forms of marriage by capture have been recorded in the twentieth century. In 1995, newspaper reports said that in a Lunar New Year crackdown in China, two hundred women who had been abducted to be sold as brides to farmers were rescued from only one province in China [Source: Manchester Guardian, January 19 1995]

In China polygamy (husband with multiple wives] was allowed, as was concubinage. The description of polygamy in China suggests that this was not true polygamy because the law did not allow a man to take a second wife while his first wife was still alive. But he was allowed to take concubines over whom the legal wife had power and authority. The children of concubines had the same legal rights as the children of wives.) [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]

Ghost Marriage in China

In Chinese tradition, a ghost marriage (in Chinese "spirit marriage") is a marriage in which one or both parties are deceased. Chinese ghost marriage was usually set up by the family of the deceased and performed for a number of reasons, including: the marriage of a couple previously engaged before one member’s death, to integrate an unmarried daughter into a patrilineage, to ensure the family line is continued, or to maintain that no younger brother is married before an elder brother. Other forms of ghost marriage are practiced worldwide, from Sudan, to India, to France since 1959. The origins of Chinese ghost marriage are largely unknown, and reports of it being practiced today can still be found.[Source: Wikipedia]

Ghost marriages are often set up by request of the spirit of the deceased, who, upon "finding itself without a spouse in the other world," causes misfortune for its natal family, the family of its betrothed, or for the family of the deceased’s married sisters. "This usually takes the form of sickness by one or more family members. When the sickness is not cured by ordinary means, the family turns to divination and learns of the plight of the ghost through a séance."

More benignly, a spirit may appear to a family member in a dream and request a spouse. Marjorie Topley, in "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese: A Further Note," relates the story of one fourteen-year old Cantonese boy who died. A month later he appeared to his mother in a dream saying that he wished to marry a girl who had recently died in Ipoh, Perak. The son did not reveal her name, but his mother used a Cantonese female spirit medium and "through her the boy gave the name of the girl together with her place of birth and age, and details of her horoscope which were subsequently found to be compatible with his."

Because Chinese custom dictates that younger brothers should not marry before their elder brothers, a ghost marriage for an older, deceased brother may be arranged just prior to a younger brother’s wedding to avoid "incurring the disfavour of his brother’s ghost." Additionally, in the days of immigration, ghost marriages were used as a means to "cement a bond of friendship between two families." However, there have been no recent cases reported.

Image Sources: 1) 1930s pictures, Night Revels, University of Washington; 2) Posters, Landsberger Posters ; Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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