Marriage in feudal China

By Hu Hongxia, Shanghai Star. 2001-02-22
A display of a wedding ceremony from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) at a folk custom museum in Suzhou. Unlike the sculpture bride with her face partly revealed for the benefit of curious visitors, a real bride would have her face completely veiled in a red square silk cloth.

ZHANG Yimou's movie "Raise the Red Lanterns," provides Westerners a glimpse of the polygamy that existed in China.

Men could have as many wives or concubines as they liked and could afford, but women were never allowed to have sex with someone other than her husbands.

In feudal China, men had liberty to divorce their wives for reasons ranging from infidelity, laziness, loss of manners, to being issueless or even inability to curry favour with with her parents-in-law. But the wife never had the right to divorce the husband.

Women were always reduced to their husbands' private properties, toys for sex and tools to bear children and work.

Marriage in feudal China did not allow personal freedom, while free courtship was regarded as promiscuity and was condemned.

There were three kinds of marriages - kidnap marriage, monetary marriage and betrothal marriage.

In a kidnap marriage, the girl was kidnapped to a man's home and forced to marry him. Since the rice has been cooked as the Chinese called it, which means the she has lost her virginity, she submitted to becoming his wife.

The most famous kidnap marriage in China was probably the one of Zhou Wenbin, a famous scholar in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Zhou disguised himself as a charming young woman, and a local tyrant nicknamed Tiger Wang was so overwhelmed by the beauty of Zhou that he kidnapped him to his home.

Tiger Wang was serious and sent Zhou to his younger sister's chamber for two nights before the wedding, where Zhou revealed himself to the pretty Miss Wang.

If a single man and a single woman stayed one night together, whether they had sex or not, they were generally to have committed the act and there was no option for the woman but to marry him.

In this case, Miss Wang was lucky to have met the handsome, talented Zhou and they fell in love and later got married.

In a monetary marriage, girls were sold as products to become men's wives. If a family was in bad need of money or they owe a debt to a rich family, they would marry their daughters to the creditors' families.

But the most common practice was the betrothal marriage.

If a man fell in love with a girl, or his parents wanted him to marry her, they would send a matchmaker to the girl's home.

Only marriages with parents' consent and matchmaking were regarded as legal ones, otherwise the marriage between man and woman were never recognized by their families, relatives and the whole society.

In addition to these, there was another kind of exchange marriages between the poor families. They sometimes exchanged the girls so that their brothers could have wives.

Hu Hongxia is the assistant to Liu Dalin, curator of the Ancient Chinese Sex Culture Museum.

Address: 8th floor, 479 Nanjing Donglu next to Hotel Sofitel Hyland.

Tel: 6351-4381

Copyright by Shanghai Star.