Chinese Marriage and Family Life in the 19th and 20th Century

        There is a story about an elderly Chinese woman, Madame Zhang, that illustrates the old concepts of Chinese marriage and family life.  Madame Zhang, in her twenties, marries a rich merchant in accordance with her parents' wishes.  Unfortunately, she does not know what lies ahead of her.  Many years later, her husband takes a concubine, who has been a maid of the family, to have a son because she had borne no child, except a daughter.  Later, her husband dies, and she lives a single life with her daughter afterward (Qian).  Madame Zhang is part of the old, traditional, nineteenth century way of marriage and family life in China.  The concepts of marriage and family have changed since Madame Zhang’s time.  There are many factors that have brought about these changes, such as The Marriage Laws of 1950 and 1980, plus other factors as well as changes in family structure.

        In the nineteenth century, the marriage process was taken care of mainly by the parents.  They were the ones who arranged the marriage for their children (Harell 444).  There was no choice in the matter because this was the way marriage was handled (Arkush 73).  The Chinese felt that marriage was a family matter, and not something personal. They felt that the marriage of two people was too important to be left to the fickle whims and emotions of their children (Arkush 73).

        Four types of marriages existed in the nineteenth century: major, minor, uxorilocal, and delayed-transfer.  Major marriage involved a “patrilocal union” between a young adult woman and a male, who in most cases, had never met before.  Minor marriage was the transference of a girl, around the ages of 8-10, from her natal family to her prospective spouse’s family.  The two, the boy and the girl, were then forced into conjugal union with each other later in their teens.  The third type, uxorilocal, was similar to minor marriage, with the exception that the man was transferred to the woman’s home.  This was practiced in cases where the woman’s household did not have a male laborer and/or a descendant to continue the family line.  In a delayed-transfer marriage, the woman remained in her natal home after marriage, or until the birth of the first child, or permanently.  This type was common in areas where women had “economic autonomy” because of high earnings and power in the silk industry.  The major marriage was the normative form, and the others were practiced according to the circumstances of the two participating families (Harell 444).

        In the nineteenth century, marriage was considered an economic or status transaction between two families (Hershatter and Honig 138).  Even as late as the 1930s, of 360 surveyed marriages only one reported that the parents had asked for the consent of the young man (Arkush 73).  “Romantic love was no part of what a husband and wife expected in a marriage“ (Arkush 73).  Marriage was a way of promoting the expansion of the “male-defined” family (Davis 90).  The woman was married into the husband’s family as a primary means of providing sons to continue the patriarchal lineage (Davis 90).  Also, in many cases in pre-Liberation China, once the woman was married, her ties to her natal family and village were severed, leaving her with no allies (Hershatter and Honig  167).

        The Marriage Law of 1950 reformed the traditional form of marriage practiced in nineteenth- century China.  The Marriage Law of 1950 prohibited underage, arranged, minor, or bride-price marriage, and concubinage (Harell 445).  This law also gave women the full right to divorce (Harell 445).  This was a very important aspect of the law, because a woman was looked down upon if she were to divorce her husband, or remarry if she was a widow (Harell 445).  If a woman did chose to remarry, she would lose her children and her reputation, because this was considered licentious.  Therefore, many women, in order to maintain an untarnished reputation, sacrificed happiness and suffered through the marriage, or lived in widowhood for the rest of their lives.  The major reasons for the creation of this law were to minimize the economic involvement between the two families involved, and to create a union between equal individuals, rather than a complex economic and status transaction between families (Honig and Hershatter 138).

         Thirty years later, another Marriage Law was created to further reform the old marriage practices of China.  The Marriage Law of 1980 had many requirements: 1) the marriage had to be voluntary on both parts, 2) the marriage had to be between non-related individuals, and 3) the couple had to be together in person to receive licensure (Hershatter and Honig 138).  Many of these requirements were made to ensure that the marriage was a free choice for both parties and was not arranged by anyone (Hershatter and Honig 138).

         China has changed the concept of marriage from its traditional ideals to a more modern and worldly accepted ideal.  Marriage is now considered to be a personal matter involving mutual consent of the bride and the groom.  It is a union based on love, not tradition, economics, or status (6: 444).  Also, in the marriages of the twentieth century, there is a difference in alliances.  In the past, marriage signified the passage of a woman from her natal family to the family of the groom.  Now it is a union of two people who love each other, and the creation of a new household (Davis 90).

        The nature of family life has undergone various changes in the twentieth century as well.  In the nineteenth century, the family was seen as “the basic and most important unit of Chinese society . . . to which the individual owed his first allegiance”  (Bodde 24).  While this ideal remains today, it is not as strong as it once was because many families are separated by many miles due to varying circumstances.  Many years ago, the family consisted of a very large number of people: parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.  This was because, in many cases, once children were married they stayed in the family home (Harell 444).  But today, many married couples move to their own home, although in some cases, couples may reside with their parents because of convenience (Harell 444).  Even though, the number of bigger families has decreased, the Chinese family still is very unified (Zhu).

        There has also been a change in family roles in the twentieth century.  Family life for children in the nineteenth century was different from what it is like for the children of the twentieth century.  Children of the nineteenth century did not have to be as concerned with education as they do today (Harell 445).  In the nineteenth century, the age of seven marked a changing period in a child’s life, whether a boy or a girl.  The children packed away their childhood to learn what would be their lifelong daily duties as an adults (Harell 445).  The girls learned how to perform household duties and maintain modesty (Harell 445).  The boys learned farming and other practical skills, conventional morality, and classical Confucian thought (Harell 445). But with the rise of the twentieth century, childhood was drastically altered by the spread of education and a decline in fertility (Harell 445).  Children could no longer be a significant source of labor to the family (Harell 445).  They could only provide “social mobility through [their] educational advancement” (Harell 445).  Therefore, the children were given more time for studies and pushed to do well in school.

        Also, since the implementation of a universal one-child family in China, higher expectations are placed upon the children (Davis 94).  As in the nineteenth century, the children learn that they are not an “isolated individual, but a link between their forefathers and their own children to come” (Yu-shan 5).  This means that the children have a duty to bring honor to the family by becoming something worthy (Yu-shan 5).  This ideal is present in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The difference exists in how the children choose to obtain what is considered worthy for the family. Higher expectations are also placed upon the child in the twentieth century, because a family can only have one child to pass on its family name (Harell 445).

        Other changes in family roles are seen with the husband and wife.  In the nineteenth century, the man was the one who had absolute authority (Harell 445).  The woman’s position was below that of her husband, and sometimes of her son.  Her main duty was to be a bearer of children, preferably sons (Harell 445).  If a woman were to bear a son, then that would gain her respect and strengthen her family position, because she was providing a great benefit to the family name (Harell 445).  But today, these two roles have been changed.  The woman has achieved a higher position, while the male’s authority has decreased.  The Marriage Laws protect women and give them equal rights with the men in society and family.  Now the husband and wife share family responsibilities.

        Now, if Madame Zhang were getting married in the twentieth century, then her story would be very different.  She probably would not marry the same man, unless she had a true affection for him.  The Marriage Law of 1980 would not permit the two to marry unless it was voluntary on on both parts and a union of love.  The man that she would have eventually chosen, would not obtain a concubine because that is prohibited under the Marriage Law of 1950.  Thus he would be satisfied with whatever children she could provide for children.  It can be seen through Madame Zhang’s story that, indeed, the traditional ways of marriage and family life maintained in the nineteenth century have changed in the twentieth century because of the Marriage Laws of 1950 and 1980, and changes in family sturcture.

Works Cited

Arkush, R. David.  “Love and Marriage in North Chinese Peasant Operas.”  Unofficial China:
         Popular Culture and Thought in the People’s Republic.  Eds. Perry Link, Richard
         Madsen, and Paul G. Pickowicz.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1989.  72-87.

Bodde, Derk.  “Dominant Ideas.”  China.  Ed. Harley F. MacNair.  Berkley: California UP, 1946.

Davis, Deborah.  “My Mother’s House.”  Unofficial China: Popular Culture and Thought in the
         People’s Republic.  Eds. Perry Link, Richard Madsen, and Paul G. Pickowicz.  Boulder:
         Westview Press, 1989.  72-87.

Diamond, Norma, and Paul Friedrich, eds.   Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and
         Eurasia/China.  Vol 6. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1994.  10 vols.

Hershatter, Gail and Emily Honig.  Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980’s.  Stanford:
         Stanford UP, 1988.

Qian, Jingzia <jqian>  “Woman’s Family Position in Ancient China.”  17 September
         1998.  <>  8 October 1998.

Yu-shan, Han.  “Molding Forces.”  China.  Ed. Harley F. MacNair.  Berkley: California UP, 1946.

Zhu, Min.  <mzhu>  “Living Together--Something About Chinese Families.”  29
         September 1998.  <>  8 October 1998.

Revised December 8, 1998
Victoria Guarisco
Randolph-Macon Women's College
Lynchburg, VA

Background courtesy of Hee Yun's Grahpics Collection