Han - Marriage and Family



Marriage. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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 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. Although not all the ideals embodied in this law have become universal practice, in urban China people usually marry in their mid-twenties by mutual consent and reside virilocally, neolocally, or uxorilocally according to individual preference and availability of housing. Spartan weddings of the collectivist era have given way to lavish banquets and huge dowries, at least among those who have benefited economically from the Reforms. In rural China spouses still often depend on relatives or neighbors to introduce them, but they know each other before the wedding and can call the plans off if they do not get along. With the increased prosperity of much of the countryside, bride-price and dowry have risen dramatically since the 1970s. The prohibition against same-surname marriages seems to have disappeared.

In Taiwan, love marriage is the ideal in theory and practice, and there is little difference between urban and rural practice in that wealthy, densely networked society. Wedding banquets are lavish, and dowries include such things as cars and real estate. Marital residence, as in mainland cities, depends on individual circumstances and preferences, though there is still some pressure to reside patrilocally. Minor marriage, while not illegal, no longer exists.


Domestic Unit. The Han domestic unit was usually coterminous with the property-holding unit. Its developmental cycle was the result of the processes of virilocal marriage and family division. Sons and their wives were expected to reside with the parents until the parents' death, at which time the sons would divide their household and property. If a couple had more than one son, their household would progress from nuclear (a married couple with children, recently separated from the husband's brothers) to stem (the couple with sons, unmarried daughters, and the wife and children of one son), to joint (the couple with sons, their wives, and their children), and back to nuclear when the original couple died and their sons divided their household and property. Demographic differences, of course, meant that not every family went through all the phases of this cycle in every generation—a couple with only one son, for example, could never be the head of a joint family, and an eldest son whose own son had children while his parents were still alive would never head a nuclear family. Censuses of local communities usually show from 5 to 20 percent joint families at any one time, with the balance about equally divided between nuclear and stem families.

This familial configuration produced a constellation of alliances and rivalries. Sons, for example, often resented the absolute authority of their fathers, but cultural norms of filial devotion prevented them from expressing this resentment. Sons and their mothers, by contrast, often remained close throughout their lifetimes, making the position of the son's wife, a potential rival for her husband's affection, a very difficult one, especially in the early years of her marriage. Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law rivalry is a recurrent theme of literature and folklore. Brothers, because of their increasing loyalty to their wives, developed rivalries over the course of their adult lives, culminating in almost inevitable family division when their parents died or sometimes before.

In recent times, the developmental cycle has simplified in most cases. In urban mainland China, the nationalization of property and housing has removed the economic hold parents once had over their adult children. The emotional ties remain, and they can be satisfied through a network of linked nuclear and stem families, who share child care, meals, and sometimes financial resources, but who do not coreside. In rural areas, collectivization of property spelled the end of joint families, but one son continues to reside with the parents after his marriage. In Taiwan many families have become geographically extended, retaining some common property rights though often scattered over a series of houses and/or flats. In addition, the rapidly declining birthrates in both areas mean that the personnel to form joint families are rarely available anymore; this trend will become even more acute in the future.

Inheritance. In traditional Chinese law, inheritance was equal and patrilineal. Daughters received dowry upon marriage, but at most periods this did not include land or other real property. In some areas, the eldest son received a slightly larger share than his brothers; in others, the eldest son's eldest son received a small share. In the absence of a son, a daughter inherited rather than a distant male agnate; such an heiress often married uxorilocally.

Daughters in Taiwan under the Republic now have an equal share in inheritance by law, but they usually waive this right formally when they marry. Daughters also have such a right in the People's Republic, but until very recently there has been no significant property to inherit, and little documentation is available on current practices there.

Socialization. Little is known of socialization in earlier periods of Chinese history, but in traditional rural communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries people had many children; they acted affectionately toward small children although they did not lavish immense attention on them due to alternative obligations. Mothers were primary caretakers, while older sisters, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, and other relatives often took a secondary part. People generally indulged boys more than girls, since boys were the link to the future of the family line as well as potential sources of security in old age. Where resources were short, girls might be neglected or even killed at birth if they could not readily be adopted by a wealthier family.

When children reached the age of 7 or so, there was somewhat of a hardening of attitudes, as indulgence and care gave way to discipline, which meant learning farming or other practical skills and conventional morality for most boys, learning household skills and modesty for most girls, and learning the classical Confucian texts for boys of elite families or aspiring to be of the scholar-elite. From this age on, father-son tensions developed.

In the twentieth century, childhood has been altered in important ways by the spread of education (almost universal for a few years, at least, in mainland China in the late 1980s, and completely universal for both sexes through at least grade six or nine in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) and by the decline in fertility. Children cannot be significant sources of labor, but they can provide hope of social mobility through educational advancement, outside of remote areas of the rural mainland. They must therefore be pushed to do well in school, but also must be afforded time to study. The decline in fertility means more attention to the individual child and also higher expectations. Mainland Chinese psychologists have recently started studies of the "little emperors and empresses" that many people think today's only children have become.




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