Love and Marriage: Social Regulations

views updated

Love and Marriage: Social Regulations




Multiple Marriage. In imperial China a man was allowed to have only one wife, but he could have multiple concubines. Such a polygamous institution prevailed not only among the wealthy and powerful but also in ordinary families. An official wedding ceremony sealed the union between a man and his wife, and laws established by the Tang dynasty (618-907) prohibited bigamy, yet the same man was allowed to possess other women as concubines. Because of this legal difference, there was a huge stratification in social standing among the wife and the concubines in terms of status and privileges within the family. Concubines were called the Xia Qi (second wife), Xiao Qi (minor wife), or Ce Shi (companion).

Sons. The desire for male children to perpetuate the family name and to have descendants to burn incense before the ancestral tablets after one’s death had an immense influence on people’s minds. By the established social customs a man whose first wife was childless could marry a second wife, but only with the consent of his first wife. In the family hierarchy, the secondary wife, even if she bore children, was lower in status than the first wife, to whom she must submit under all circumstances. The secondary wife’s inferior position showed in her wedding ceremony, in which she was not allowed to worship “heaven and earth” together with her husband, which was an essential part of the marriage ceremony of the first, or primary, wife.

Concubines. In Tang times, except for the emperor him-self, laws determined the number of concubines that a government official could possess. Officials of first rank could have ten concubines; eight, six, four, and three concubines were permitted to officials of second to fifth ranks, respectively. Economic prosperity in Tang times also made it common for well-to-do men to have one wife and one concubine. For some wealthy families the masters of the house also kept several “singing” or “dancing” women for their entertainment, whose status in the family was lower than concubines but higher than female housemaids. These women suffered from constant physical and emotional abuse by their masters. Yet, Tang Lu Shu Yi (Tang Laws) protected such privileges of the masters and were lenient in assessing penalties. Masters often went unpunished, or were slightly punished, if they raped or killed their entertainment women or maids.

Marriage Law. Males and females of the same family name were customarily forbidden to intermarry. Cousins who did not share the same ancestral name could marry but usually only in cases of the children of sisters on the maternal side. One important passage in Tang marriage law clearly prohibited bigamy and marriages among close kinship members as well as between brothers and sisters with the same mother but different fathers. These rules were adopted by following dynasties, fostering a strong taboo in late imperial China. Tang marriage law was indicative of gender discrimi-nation in the marriage relationship. A widow could be punished if she remarried before the conclusion of the designated mourning period after the death of her husband, but a man who decided to remarry during the mourning period of his wife’s death could do so unpunished. Women who injured their husbands received much heavier punishments than husbands did for abusing their wives.


By all accounts divorce was a privilege of the husband and was referred to as Xiu Qi (dismissing a wife), Legally a woman could not divorce her husband; the idea of a wife doing so, for whatever reason, was considered absurd and preposterous. Socially, divorce was shameful for a woman but not for a man. A man’s commitment to his parents carried more weight than that to his wife. It became highly justifiable that a man divorce a wife who disrespected his parents and disrupted the family harmony. Chen Yi, an eminent scholar-official of the Song dynasty (960-1279), discusses the ethics of divorce with his students in the following passage:

Someone asked, “Is it proper to divorce a wife?”

[Ch’eng I] answered, “When a wife is not worthy, there is no harm in divorcing her. For instance, [Confucius’ grandson] Tzu-su once divorced his wife. The current custom is to look on divorce as something ugly, so people are reluctant to engage in it. The ancients were different. Wives who were not good were sent away. It is just that people today make this into a big thing and bear it silently without revealing it. Sometimes there is some hidden sin, which is handled quietly, or even tolerated, which just fosters wrongdoing and thus obviously is bad. Cultivating the self and disciplining the family are the most urgent tasks for men. Best is to first cultivate oneself and then discipline one’s family.

[The disciple] also said, “What about the cases among the ancients of divorcing wives hastily for something not very bad like scolding the dog in front of one’s mother-in-law, or serving a pear that wasn’t ripe?”

[Ch’eng I] answered, “This was the way the ancients practiced generosity. In ancient times if someone severed a friendship, he did not say anything bad [about the former friend], and a gentleman could not bear to expel his wife for a great sin, so sent her away for a minor fault. Consider the one who scolded the dog in front of [her husband’s] mother. There was nothing so serious in this incident, but some other day there [must have been] a major reason, so [the husband] used this pretext to divorce her.”

Someone asked, “If she was expelled for this petty reason, how could there have been no objections? What about the fact that outsiders would not have been able to tell who was right and who was not?”

[Ch’eng I] replied, “She would know her own faults. If she can correct them herself, fine. Why must other people know? Those with insight will understand. Anyone who must expose his wife’s wrongdoing is simply a shallow fellow. A gentleman is not Eke this. Most people when they talk try to make the other party look wrong and themselves look right. Gentlemen have a forgiving attitude.”

Someone commented, “There is an old saying, In divorcing a wife, make it so she can remarry; in severing a friend-ship, make it so he can make new friends.’ Is this the idea?”

[Ch’eng I] said, “Yes.”

Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Song Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 257-258.

Validity of Marriage. Tang law made clear that betrothal gifts served as the social acceptance of marriage. Drawn from the classic Liji (Canon of Rites), which stated that “without receipt of the betrothal gifts there is no con-tact and no affinity,” these rules stated that, once these presents were received, the girl’s family could be prosecuted if it broke off the engagement. Presenting and accepting gifts was essential to the betrothal ceremony; one was not married legally without some token transfer of objects from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. By contrast, the validity of marriage did not depend on the bride’s bringing any-thing to the marriage. Nor were objects she brought to her new home termed gifts; they were simply her possessions. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), as in Tang times, betrothal gifts continued to be considered proof of a valid marriage. In the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), however, the imperial government required paperwork—an agreement signed by either the matchmaker or marriage officiant—to verify a valid marriage. This period was probably the only time in imperial Chinese history that such written proof of marriage was required. One possible explanation for this change is that, because of the territorial expansion of this era, interethnic marriages became more common, and the written agreement therefore served as a means to minimize cultural misunderstandings. Yet, in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and thereafter, again no paperwork was required to certify a marriage.

Marriage Age. The first official attempt to regulate marriage ages for males and females occurred during the Tang dynasty. During the reign of Taizong the imperial court declared that the appropriate marriage age for males was twenty; for females it was fifteen. The marriage age was later reduced to fifteen for males and thirteen for females. Fluctuations in the acceptable marriage age were mainly caused by societal needs. Tang efforts to regulate marriages had an enduring impact on the stability of the family institution, and the same policy was adopted by later dynasties and continued through imperial Chinese history. For instance, Song marriage laws prohibited bigamy for both men and women and punished violators; men were still, however, allowed to keep concubines, which was not considered a crime. One conspicuous change during the Song dynasty was that marriage regulations became more formalized with the codification of basic legal procedures.

Arranged Marriage. By law as well as by custom, arranged marriage was the principal form of sexual union throughout the history of imperial China. A marriage set up through a matchmaker, with the consent of the parents (or guardians if one’s parents had died), was by law unchallengeable. Custom led to the popular belief, which ran deep in people’s psyches, that one’s fate determined the match. It was thought that Heaven decided who was to be one’s husband or wife and that the match was made by a “red silk thread”—the heavenly power beyond human comprehension.

Victims. From a sociological perspective the prevalence and persistence of arranged marriages was a derivation of the patriarchal family institution, which controlled unions between young males and females and limited their freedom for mate selection. Those who suffered most from the institution were females. They became victims of an unequal patriarchal system characterized by polygamy. Wealthy merchants, landlords, scholars, and officials commonly kept concubines or second wives of lower social ori-gins in addition to their primary wife, who usually came from a social status similar to her husband’s. For families of moderate incomes a secondary wife was acquired only if the first wife was found to be infertile some years after marriage. Poorer men simply could not afford to have more than one wife. Lower-class families often supplied girls when parents could not afford to marry off their daughters and were instead forced to sell them to wealthy families. These girls, who often worked as housemaids, were at the bottom of familial stratification and lived a life of blood and tears. They were often economically exploited and physically abused by their masters.

Child Brides. Two extreme forms of arranged marriage existed from the Song era. One was the “Child Bride”—a situation in which parents arranged a marriage for their child even before she reached the prime age. Child brides came to be customary in lower-class families. The popularity of the child-bride arrangement was caused by several social factors. First, for a husband’s family, spending a small amount of money to buy a daughter-in-law-to-be guaranteed a marriage for their son and at the same time added a helping hand to family chores. For a wife’s family, marrying their daughter early saved them from having to accumulate a dowry, which could become a heavy financial burden.

Death Wedding Custom. The other extreme form of arranged marriage was known as the “Death Wedding”—a situation in which a man and woman were to be married, but either individual died before the ceremony, and the survivor was encouraged (or pressured) to kill himself or herself in order to be buried alongside the intended spouse as if they had been married. Women more often than men were forced to sacrifice their lives in such a manner. Arranged marriages, such as the child bride and death wed-ding, continued to be practiced well into the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

Early Betrothal. The “Little Bride” was another popular custom of arranged marriage in many regions of China. A young girl, often from a poor family, was betrothed at an extremely young age. She was given away or sold to her future in-laws when she was one or two years old. A matchmaker was employed to arrange a formal engagement, as if the boy and girl were advanced in age. Then the girl was taken to the boy’s home to be brought up together with her future husband. While growing up the girl was treated as slave labor until she was eventually married to the man. On the wedding day no red bridal chair was used, because she had already become a member of her husband’s family.

Four Virtues. Being a woman (and a wife) in imperial China was not easy, because she was compelled to comply with “three subordinations” and “four virtues” as advised in the classics of Confucianism. An ideal wife was expected to be subordinate to her father before her marriage, subordinate

to her husband after marriage, and subordinate to her son after he took over the household by succeeding his father. The four virtues were: serving parents-in-law and husband with fidelity; bringing up children with love and attending to household chores with industriousness and thrift; being polite and soft in speech and never saying more than was necessary; and keeping good deference and demeanor. “When a good wife sits, she sits gracefully without crossing her knees; when she stands, she stands without planting her feet wide apart.” It was considered proper for the husband to set the pace and for the wife to follow. The wife’s duty was to assist her husband and never to rule over him, because, according to Confucian doctrine, a family dominated by the wife would inevitably decline. The most popular classic instructions for women’s ethics were the Nu Jie (Book of Women’s Fidelity) and Nu Run Yu (Book of Women’s Ethics). The former consists of eighteen chapters covering the essentials of women’s behavior from girlhood to motherhood. The latter has twelve chapters that instruct women about fidelity and obedience to their husbands and about taking care of households and educating their children. A wife’s failure to live up to these expectations often led to divorce.

Seven Reasons. The Song imperial government issued a legal code, based on prevailing ethics, that punished a wife who left her husband without his agreement. A husband, however, could expel or sell his wife for any of seven socially and legally acceptable reasons. They were: mis-treatment of parents-in-law; the inability to bear children, which was thought to be unfilial—Confucius claimed that “There are three ways of being unfilial and of these not begetting descendants is the most serious”; adultery; excessive jealousy, including preventing a husband from having a concubine; complaining (to the extent that family stability was threatened); theft; and having a virulent disease (such as leprosy). In most cases a husband did not have to go to any government service to be granted a divorce; he simply went to his wife’s parents’ house to present a document of divorce, and the procedure was complete. The husband’s decision, however, usually required the approval of his parents or elders in the kin-clan.

Dismissed. A dismissed wife was sent back to her birth home, which was considered a great disgrace to her parents. Similarly, a divorce reflected shame upon a husband’s family, and therefore a husband would usually do everything possible to keep his wife under his control rather than dismiss her. As a result, long-term oppression and humiliation often led a married woman to attempt suicide; suicidal behavior was even more common among women who served as second wives or concubines. A husband who divorced his wife at his will, or without so-called legitimate reasons, was often condemned by public opinion and might even be punished by the imperial courts. A popular historical tale features the ungrateful Chen Shi-Mei, a government official who was punished for deserting his wife, who had helped him before he was honored with an official appointment after passing the civil service examination and who also had served Chen’s parents well until they died.


The following story has been repeated for hundreds of years, to deliver a cultural message among the Chinese: that the engagement of parties in marriage is unalterable by fate.

In the time of the Tang dynasty, Ui-ko was once a guest in the city of Sung. He observed an old man by the light of the moon reading a book, who addressed him thus: “this is the register of the engagements in marriage for all the places under the heavens.” He also said to him, “In my pocket I have red cords, with which I tie the feet of those who are to become husband and wife. When this cord had been tied, though the parties are of unfriendly families, or of different nations, it is impossible to change their destiny. Your future wife,” said the old man, “is the child of the old woman who sells vegetables in yonder shop at the north.” In a few days Ui-ko went to see her, and found the old woman had in her arms a girl about a year old, and exceedingly ugly. He hired a man, who went and (as he supposed) killed the girl. Four-teen years afterward, in the country of Siong-chiu, was a prefect whose family name was Mo, surnamed Tai, who gave Ui-ko in marriage a girl who he affirmed was his own daughter. She was very beautiful. On her eyebrow she always wore an artificial flower. Ui-ko constantly asking her why she wore the flower, she at length said, “I am the daughter of the prefect’s brother. My father died in the city of Sung when I was but an infant. My nurse was an old woman who sold vegetables. One day she took me with her out into the streets, when a robber struck me. The scar of the wound is still left on my eyebrow.”

Source: Justus Doolittle, Social Life of the Chinese, volume 1 (New York: Harper, 1865), pp. 68-69.


Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Song Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Paul S. Ropp, ed., Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

Hui-chen Wang, The Traditional Chinese Clan Rules (Locust Valley, N.Y.: Augustin, 1959).