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Mate Selection and Marriage

Mate Selection and Marriage


Matrimony. Following the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), Chinese society developed in distinctly aristocratic directions. Family status and dowries were two determining factors of the institution of marriage during the Tang dynasty (618-907). A relatively small number of families were preeminent in social and political life. People also celebrated the top-ranking families of the aristocracy, or Wang Zhu (esteemed families), in preceding dynasties. Even when descendants of these families were poor and of low political rank, they were esteemed for their pedigree of the past. In elite marriages, family status and pedigree became the basic criteria for the selection of a potential spouse.

Finance. Marriage in imperial China normally involved some financial outlay by both the husband’s and wife’s families and therefore caused some redistribution of wealth. Starting from the Han dynasty, but being well established throughout China by the Tang dynasty, the status of a man’s family could be established by the value of gifts given to the family of the bride, who normally prepared a dowry for her as well. Moreover, along with the admiration for aristocratic pedigrees came an inflation in the value of the betrothal gifts the highest-ranking families could expect to receive when they married off their daughters. During this period betrothal gifts could include fields and animals.

Individual Talent. Sometime in the second half of the Tang dynasty, along with systematic efforts by the state to formalize the civil service examination system, marriages that had solely emphasized family status and financial standing were gradually replaced by ones that focused on an individual’s talent. Thereafter, this quality, rather than family status, carried more weight in mate selection, although the latter criterion remained an important consideration to some families. In a relatively open society such as Tang China, not only was a man’s intelligence appreciated in society, but a woman’s talents also attracted educated men, though women were barred from taking the civil ser-vice examinations.

Transition. A further decline of marriages arranged by family status occurred during the Song dynasty (960-1279). There was a social trend that “where you come from is no longer the basis of official appointment, neither your family status is for match-making in marriage.” If a girl was a descendant of an esteemed family but was poor, she might not be able to marry in her prime. It became possible, however, for wealthy merchant families, though not having glorious aristocratic roots, to marry their children into noble houses and to attract men who passed the civil service examinations in the top group as their sons-in-law. Many high-ranking Song officials married their daughters to talented young officials who came from modest family backgrounds. Two factors contributed to this transition: an improved agrarian economy that helped produce more wealth and thus reduced the economic gaps among social groups and, on the other hand, an open, merit-based civil service examination system that allowed men of lower social class to obtain governmental positions. A story recorded in the Song Shi Zhuoxing Zhuan (History of the Song Dynasty) indicates that in Northern Song times (960-1125) a young man named Liu was engaged to a girl from a poor family. After Liu obtained \htjinshi, the highest degree awarded in the national civil service examination, he changed his social status overnight. The girl’s parents asked Liu to break the engagement with their daughter because they thought she no longer matched his status, but he refused to do so and married the girl.

Dowries. While the family pedigree stopped being a top priority in determining a suitable partner in Song times, marriage practices changed again when society demanded that a bride’s family provide a sizable dowry. Those families that presented large dowries became socially admired, a trend not seen in previous dynasties, when the groom’s family was largely responsible for providing gifts. Prior to this time, a bride’s family was not obliged to present gifts to the groom’s family, although the bride would be sent with clothes and personal items such as jewelry packed in cases, and she could be supplied with female attendants who might serve as her maids or her husband’s concubines (especially in unions between aristocratic families). There were many stories about both upper- and lower-class fami-lies that searched for daughters-in-law who could bring larger dowries. In upper-class marriages, however, this motivation was by no means a simple economic need; it also came with political connotations. Marriages sealed with transfers of wealth and property brought prestige and connections. It became a distinctive tradition that tangible wealth and intangible benefits of honor and connections worked well together in elite marriages.


Patricia Buckley Ebrey and James L. Watson, eds., Kinship Organization in Late Imperial China, 1000-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Maurice Freedman, Rites and Duties, Or Chinese Marriage: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered 26 January 1967 (London: London School of Economics, Bell, 1967).

Rubie S. Watson and Ebrey, eds., Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

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