Your continued donations keep Wikipedia running!    

Chinese marriage

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Traditionally marriage in ethnic Chinese societies (Chinese: 婚姻; pinyin: hūn yīn) has been an arrangement between families. Originally Chinese culture allowed for romantic love and monogamy was the norm.



Ideographically, 婚 (pinyin: hūn) is identical to 昏 (pinyin: hūn, literally meaning “evening” or “dusk”). In more ancient writings, though the former has the radical 女 (pinyin: nǔ, which literally means “a female”). This implies that courting couples met in the evening. Similarly, 姻 (pinyin: yīn) is the same as 因 (pinyin: yīn). According to Zhang Yi‘s (張揖) Guangya Shigu (廣雅•釋詁), a dictionary of ancient Chinese characters, 因 (pinyin: yīn) means “friendliness”, “love” and “harmony”, indicating that correct way of living for a married couple.

Marriage in a Confucian Context

In Confucian thought, marriage is of grave significance both to families and to society. Traditionally incest has been defined as marriage between people with the same surname. From the perspective of a Confucian family, marriage brings together families of different surnames and so continues the family line of the paternal clan. This is generally why having a boy is more preferred than a girl when giving birth. Therefore, the benefits and demerits of any marriage are important to the entire family, not just the individual couples. Socially, the married couple is thought to be the basic unit of society. In Chinese history there have been many times when marriages have affected the country’s political stability and international relations. From the Han Dynasty the rulers of certain powerful foreign tribes such as the Mongolians, the Manchus, the Xiongnu, and the Turks demanded women from the Imperial family. Many periods of Chinese history were dominated by the families of the wife or mother of the ruling Emperor. Thus marriage can be related to politics.

Prehistoric Chinese marriages

Marriages in Early Societies

In traditional Chinese thinking people in “primitive” societies did not marry, but had sexual relationships with one and other indiscriminately. Such people were thought to live like other animals, and they did not have the precise concept of motherhood, fatherhood, sibling, husband and wife, and gender, not to mention match-making and marriage ceremony. Part of the Confucian “civilizing mission” was to define what it meant to be a Father or a Husband, and to teach people to respect the proper relationship between family members and regulate sexual behavior.

Sibling marriages

Sibling marriage, although forbidden in Chinese culture, was reported to a minor extent in very early Chinese mythology. There was a story about the marriage of Nüwa and Fu Xi, who were once sister and brother respectively. At that time the world was unpopulated. The siblings wanted to get married but, at the same time, they felt ashamed. So they went up to Kunlun Shan and prayed to Heaven. They asked for Heaven’s permission for their marriage and said, “if You allow us to marry, please make the mist surround us.” Heaven gave permission to the couple, and promptly the peak was covered in mist. It is said that in order to hide her shyness, Nüwa covered her blushing face with a fan. Nowadays in some villages in China, the brides still follow the custom and use a fan to shield their faces.

Inter-clan marriage and antithetic marriage

In Chinese society males should not marry females of the same surname (this have been largely disregarded in recent era as the Chinese population expanded to such an extent that people who hold the same surname might have little or no relation with each other at all). This is seen as incest and it is thought there is a risk that abnormal births might result. Marriage of a son to close relatives of his mother, however, is not seen as incest. Different clans might have more than one surname. Historically, there were numerous important clans living along the Yellow River in the ancient China, like the tribe of Huang Di with the common surname Ji and that of Yan Di with the surname Jiang. Because marriage to one’s maternal relatives was not thought of as incest these families sometimes intermarried from one generation to another.

Over time Chinese people became more geographically mobile. Couples were married in what is called an extra-clan marriage, or better known as antithetic marriage. This occurred in the midst of the New Stone Age, i.e. around 5000 BC. According to modern Chinese scholars of a Marxist persuasion Matriarchy prevailed in society at that time, therefore husbands needed to move to, and live with, their wives’ families. Yet individuals remained members of their biological families. When a couple died, the husband and the wife were buried separately in the respective clan’s graveyard. Offspring would be buried with their mother. Antithetic marriage still happens in modern China. In Yunnan, males and females in the minority group known as Nakhi form temporary couples, and they call each other “Ahchu” rather than “husband and wife”. The male “Ahchu”s live and work in the home of the female “Ahchu”s.

Maternal marriage and Monogamy

In a maternal marriage, a male would become a son-in-law who lived in the wife’s home. The husband would also need to change his surname into his wife’s one. This happened in the transformation of antithetic marriage into monogamy, which signifying that the decline of matriarchy and the growing dominance of patriarchy in the ancient China.

Traditional Marriage Rituals

Chinese marriage became a custom between 402-221 B.C. Despite China’s long history and many different geographical areas, there are basically six rituals.

  • Proposal: When an unmarried boy’s parents find a potential daughter-in-law. They then located a matchmaker whose job was to assuage the conflict of interests and general embarrassments on the part of two families largely unknown to each other when discussing the possibility of marriage.
  • Birthday Matching: If the potential daughter-in-law’s family did not object to the proposal the matchmaker would then compare the couples birthdates. If according to Chinese astrology the couple is compatible they would then proceed to the next step.
  • Betrothal Gifts: At this point the bridegroom’s family arranges for the matchmaker to present betrothal gifts, including the betrothal letter, to the bride’s family.
  • Presenting Wedding Gifts: Wedding gifts would vary widely depending on local customs and family wealth. Food and other delicacies were typical gifts.
  • Picking the Wedding Day: The Chinese calendar is consulted for an auspicious day.
  • Wedding Ceremony: The final ritual is the actual wedding ceremony where bride and groom become a married couple.

Before 1949, women were not allowed to choose the person they married. Instead, the family of the bride picked the prospective husband. Marriages were chosen based upon the needs of reproduction and honor, as well as the needs of the father and husband.

Traditional Divorce Process

In traditional Chinese society, there are three major ways to dissolve a marriage.

The first one is no-fault divorce. According to the legal code of Tang Dynasty (618-907), a marriage may be dissolved due to personal incompatibility, provided that the husband writes a divorce note.

The second way (义绝) is through a state-mandated annulment of marriage. This applies to when one spouse commits a serious crime (variously defined, usually defined more broadly for the wife) against the other or his/her clan.

Finally, the husband may unilaterally declare a divorce. To be legally recognized, however, it must be based on one of the following 7 reasons (七出):

  • The wife lacks filial piety towards her in-laws (不順父母). This makes the in-laws capable of breaking a marriage against both partner’s will.
  • She fails to bear a son (无子).
  • She is vulgar or lewd/adulterous (淫).
  • She is jealous (妒). This includes objecting to her husband taking an additional wife or concubine.
  • She has vile disease (有恶疾).
  • She is gossipy (口多言).
  • She commits theft (窃盗).

Obviously, these reasons can be stretched quite a bit to suit the husband and his family. However there are 3 clearly defined exceptions (三不去), under which the unilateral divorce is disallowed:

  • She has no family to return to (有所取无所归).
  • She had observed a full 3-year mourning for an in-law (与更三年丧).
  • Her husband was poor when they married, and now is rich (前贫贱后富贵).

The above law about unilateral divorce was in force from Tang Dynasty to its final abolition by the government of Republic of China in 1930.


This section discusses the social and legal aspects of polygamy, mostly polygyny (one man, multiple women), in traditional Chinese society. The traditional culture does not prohibit or explicitly encourage polygyny (except as a way to obtain male children).

The scope of practice is limited by the number of available women, as well as the financial resource of the man, since he has to be able to support the women. Therefore polygyny is mostly limited to parts of the upper to middle class; while among the rest of the population monogamy can be regarded as the norm. Historical written records is probably skewed with regard to the actual prevalence of polygamy, since the elite can be safely assumed to be overrepresented in them.

Sororate marriage

Sororate marriage is a custom in which a man marries his wife’s sister(s). Later it is expanded to include her cousins or females from the same clan. The Chinese name is 娣媵 (娣=younger sister,媵=co-bride). It can happen at the same time as he marries the first wife, at a later time while the wife is still alive, or after she dies. This practice was frequent among the nobility of Zhou Dynasty, with incidences occurring at later times.

Multiple wives with equal status

  • Emperors of some relatively minor dynasties are known to have multiple empresses.
  • Created by special circumstances. For example, during wartime a man may be separated from his wife and mistakenly believe that she had died. He remarries, and later the first wife is found to be alive. After they are reunited, both wives may be recognized.
  • Qianlong Emperor of Qing dynasty began to allow polygamy for the specific purpose of siring heirs for another branch of the family. Called “multiple inheritance” (兼祧), if a man is the only son of his father (单传), and his uncle has no son, then with mutual agreement he may marry an additional wife. A male child from this union becomes the uncle’s grandson and heir. The process can be repeated for additional uncles.

    Beside the traditional desire for male children to carry on the family name, this allowance partially resolves a dilemma created by the emperor himself. He had recently banned all non-patrilineal forms of inheritance, while wanting to preserve the proper order in the Chinese kinship. Therefore, a couple without son cannot adopt one from within the extended family. They either have to adopt from outside (which was regarded by many as passing the family wealth to unrelated “outsiders”), or become heirless. The multiple inheritance marriages provided a way out when the husband’s brother has a son.


Women in concubinage (妾) are treated as inferior, and expected to be subservient to the wife (if there is one). The women were not wedded in a ceremony, had less right in the relationship, and may be divorced arbitrarily. They generally come from lower social status or were bought as slaves. Women who had eloped may also become concubines since a formal wedding requires her parents’ participation.

The number of concubines is sometime regulated, which differs according to the men’s rank. Emperors almost always have multiple royal concubines.

A somewhat different form of it is the so-called “two primary wives” (两头大). Traditionally, a married woman is expected to live with her husband’s family. When the husband has to live away from his family, however, she has to stay with her in-laws and take care of them. Men who thus suffer chronic separation from their wives, such as traveling merchants, may “marry” another woman where he lives and set up a separate household with her. Due to the geographical separation, the second woman often regards herself as a full wife for all practical matters. Yet legally this marriage is not recognized, and she is treated as a concubine.

The above practice has influenced the recent surge of polygamy in mainland China. Since the opening of China’s border in the 1970s, businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan started setting up “secondary wives” (二奶) in mainland. Since then it has spread to local affluent men[1].


Polyandry, the practice of one woman having multiple husbands, is traditionally considered immoral, prohibited by law, and uncommon in practice. However, there are incidences in which a man in poverty rents or pawns his wife temporarily.


  1. ^ China’s New Concubines.

See also

Personal tools