China

Love, Romance, Duty: Marriage in Chinese Culture

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Yesterday I stumbled upon an interesting blog. A girl asked for advice on whether she should stay together with the man she loved, or break up with him because he wasn’t well off. It was the same dilemma I talked about in one of my earlier posts: Is bread more important than love?

Someone replied to her question, saying: “結婚是兩個家庭的事,不是兩個人的事”, which translates as: “Marriage is a matter between two families, not between two people.”

Although this person’s opinion cannot be considered as universally accepted by all Chinese, it nevertheless shows one of the most distinctive traits of Chinese culture. To Westerners who are not familiar with China or Taiwan, it is very hard to understand this point, because our own concept of love and marriage is exactly the opposite. We see marriage as a union of two individuals who decide that they want to spend their lives together.

I decided to write this blog post to share with you my experience on this issue and to give Westerners who  live in East Asia and/or who have a relationship with an Asian man or woman some basic tools to understand situations which may appear to them confusing.

Traditional Marriage In Chinese Civilization Until 1949

In Chinese culture, marriage was not based on love or romance, but it was a transaction between two families in which a woman was transferred to her husband’s family. For women, the maximum marriage age was 30, while that of the man varied depending on his financial status. Buying and selling women into marriage and forcing widows into marriage were common practices, as well as match-making. Arranged marriages where bride and bridegroom did not meet until the wedding ceremony were also widespread. (Zang 2012, Chapter 4). Before 1949, around half of all marriages were arranged by parents.

Adult men and women were initiated into adulthood at the age of respectively 20 and 15, with ceremonies called guanli (冠禮) for males and jili (笄禮) for females, after which they were considered eligible for marriage. (ibid., Chapter 3/ and source).

The marriage ceremonies, the dowry and the exchange of gifts as well as gatherings for family and friends, often held in public places, were of great importance. These rituals show the desire of Chinese people to exhibit their social status, giving them more “face” and esteem in the community.

One important criterion in the choice of the partners was the principle of ‘one door matches another door’, i.e. that the future husband and wife needed to have similar social status. If the social status of the partners was too different, a marriage was thought to be bound to failure.

Marriage In Contemporary Chinese Society

Traditional social structures have in the past decades eroded due to economic transformation and the contact with Western ideas. Nevertheless, a great deal of the notions I described above, albeit in a new and often mitigated form, can be still found today.

The most important one is the phenomenon which I would call “shared decision-making”. Although parents don’t arrange marriages for their children any longer, nevertheless parental influence has remained very strong, and the approval of the family is a major factor in the choice of a partner.

However, shared decision-making is a broader phenomenon that goes beyond parental authority. For instance, a survey has showed that Chinese people are likely to ask both their parents and their friends for advice and that their opinion has a great impact in the decision-making process of individuals. I would like to point out that the concept of shared decision-making has nothing to do – as it is often erroneously assumed – with ideas such as “group altruism” or “thinking about others”.

I will explain in a future post why shared decision-making is not a consequence of altruism or of self-sacrifice for the sake of others, but rather the product of social pressure, status expectations and external reference standards. As a matter of fact, the misconception that group thinking is morally motivated has been a great source of misunderstandings among East and West.

Shared decision-making might be rather puzzling for Westerners. As far as I am concerned, it took me quite a long time – and a lot of exhausting quarrels – to realize why my girlfriend seemed unwilling to spend much time alone with me and instead kept on introducing me to her friends.

While to me the beginning of a relationship was basically a period in which we should have known each other better, in which we should have talked, shared thoughts and done things together, for her it was a period in which her social environment had to accept me and evaluate if I was as a good partner for her. Being together was not only a matter between me and her, in which our mutual understanding was the necessary precondition. What other people thought meant to her at least as much, and probably even more, than what she herself thought and felt.

To me, on the contrary, the opinion of parents and friends is definitely less important than my own. I would never let my parents decide on whether I should be with the woman I love. But this idea is far away from Chinese understanding of marriage.

In fact, in Chinese culture love and romance are still minor factors in the choice of a partner. Truth be told, I have never been to a place where love and marriage are so disconnected from each other, and where love is looked down upon with a certain degree of contempt, as something acceptable in adolescence, but dangerous as the age of marriage approaches. Parents inculcate in their children the need to take into account a range of material concerns, such as social status, job, flat etc.

For instance, it is believed fundamental for the man to have a flat and to earn more than the woman. Parents warn their daughters not to marry a man who earns less than them. Appearance, family background, education, and even origin (for example, foreign men are seen by some as a good match), are all important criteria.

External conditions are therefore more important than the feelings between the partners. An interesting phenomenon which derives from these premises is that partners don’t focus so much on knowing the individual they have in front of them, but on whether he or she matches these criteria. There is often no transition from acquaintance to friendship and then to partnership.

Getting together can be a very quick and straightforward process. For instance, if a girl has no boyfriend, she might start looking for one. Given that East Asians have long working hours and a tight social environment, meeting new people of the opposite sex is not as easy as for their Western counterparts. They will therefore decide rather quickly, after considering their and their environment’s expectations, if someone is suitable or not.

If the criteria don’t match, the partnership may be dissolved. I often heard of girls who broke up with their boyfriends because they didn’t have a flat, or because they didn’t want to get married soon. I also heard from men who did the same, either because the girl didn’t want to get married soon, or because she wanted to go travelling etc.

It is thus not surprising that match-making is a widespread way of finding marriage candidates. To Western people, it might seem strange to find a marriage partner through match-making, because this presupposed that getting married is a purpose per se and the partner is rather subordinated to the main target. We usually tend to think that one should first find a partner and afterwards begin to think about marriage. Again, in Chinese culture it’s the objective and the criteria which are more important than mutual understanding, dialogue, or love.

“One study (Jackson, Chen, Guo, and Gao 2006) found that fairytale ideals were a major theme for young American adults but not for young Chinese adults. Another study (Buss et al. 1990) examined thirty-seven countries and found that the Chinese sample differed from other international samples in paying more attention to health, chastity, and domestic skills but giving less value to traits such as mutual attraction, dependability, and sociability.” (Ibid., Chapter 4)

Love and romance are confined to the pre-marital age in which they are viewed as acceptable. It is also common for people to go abroad and experience love and romance in a foreign context. On the other hand, it is rare that this love and romance will turn into a marriage if the preconditions set by parents and society are not at least partly met.

Questioning Duty

In Chinese civilization, marriage is one of the duties associated with the notion of filial piety. A good son has to get married and preferably give the family a male heir that can continue the family lineage.

Since I was born is a rather poor part of Europe where traditional values are still quite strong, I had the chance to live in a society where family bonds are still very important. The relationship between my father and my grandfather, for example, reminds me of that between parents and children in China.

My grand-father had great authority in the family. He wanted a male heir to continue the family surname, and he wanted me – his grandson- to have the same given name as him. My father could have said no, of course, but not only didn’t he dare, but he didn’t even think of questioning social rules. The authority of my grandfather and the widespread – almost totalitarian – customs of the society made it unthinkable for a young male to remain single and childless. It would have been considered a great disgrace to him and his family.

When my father was young, however, the erosion of old religious and social values that had begun long ago in other parts of the Western world was already under way. I happen to belong to a generation that has already experienced this erosion to the full.

It is quite interesting to read today what French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote two centuries ago. Tocqueville was an aristocrat by birth, but he lived in a time of transition from aristocracy to democracy. He visited the United States of America in 1831 and in 1835 he published “Democracy in America”, in which he expounded his observations on the American political system and society. In chapter VIII of Book III Tocqueville explains:

It has been universally remarked, that in our time the several members of a family stand upon an entirely new footing towards each other; that the distance which formerly separated a father from his sons has been lessened; and that paternal authority, if not destroyed, is at least impaired. Something analogous to this, but even more striking, may be observed in the United States.

In America the family, in the Roman and aristocratic signification of the word, does not exist. All that remains of it are a few vestiges in the first years of childhood, when the father exercises, without opposition, that absolute domestic authority, which the feebleness of his children renders necessary, and which their interest, as well as his own incontestable superiority, warrants.

But as soon as the young American approaches manhood, the ties of filial obedience are relaxed day by day: master of his thoughts, he is soon master of his conduct. In America there is, strictly speaking, no adolescence: at the close of boyhood the man appears, and begins to trace out his own path. It would be an error to suppose that this is preceded by a domestic struggle, in which the son has obtained by a sort of moral violence the liberty that his father refused him.

The same habits, the same principles which impel the one to assert his independence, predispose the other to consider the use of that independence as an incontestable right. The former does not exhibit any of those rancorous or irregular passions which disturb men long after they have shaken off an established authority; the latter feels none of that bitter and angry regret which is apt to survive a bygone power.

The father foresees the limits of his authority long beforehand, and when the time arrives he surrenders it without a struggle: the son looks forward to the exact period at which he will be his own master; and he enters upon his freedom without precipitation and without effort, as a possession which is his own and which no one seeks to wrest from him (Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America – Volume 2, p. 155).

Though I do not completely agree that the crisis of parental authority is only a consequence of the political system, it can be seen that the pattern of development which Tocqueville “photographed” in 1835 has steadily progressed until today. The right to be independent and to make one’s own decisions have been part of my own education. I believe that most Western parents accept the principle that they must let their children decide for themselves.

Children would not accept the parental imperative anyway. Whatever principles parents may regard as true, children would question the authority of a duty that cannot be explained in universal terms.

Here lies the major difference between the notion of marriage in East and West. The influence of social standards, upon which the authority of parents is based, are not (generally speaking) questioned by children. Social standards permeate education and expectations so much, that it is truly hard to challenge them without getting the feeling of being alone and risking to be seen as a loser. The power of tradition resides in the fact that its guidance offers an apparently certain way of dealing with important decisions. It is therefore the attempt to avoid the risk of responsibility and failure, and let external influence relieve from this burden. Yet it gives people another burden: that of the constant fight between mind and heart, between the wisdom of common practices and opinions which appeal to the mind, and the voice coming from the heart.

In my view, the idea that parents’ and friends’ guidance helps make right decisions is highly illusionary. How are they supposed to know better? I often saw people in Asia misled by wrong advice. Imagine that a woman breaks up with the man she loves and marries a man who her parents and friends think will be a good partner. What if after getting married the two of them are unhappy? What if they don’t get along, or even hate each other? Are the ones who gave bad advice going to take responsibility and say sorry? Probably not.

Neither marriages based on love and romance, nor marriages based on material considerations are free from the risk of failure. In Chinese culture, job, flat and status, and even fortune-telling, which is often used by couples before marriage, aim at excluding any kind of risk, to make sure that marriage will work. But I have my doubts whether in human life there are means to prevent families to fall apart. It is true that high divorce rates in the West suggest that the institution of marriage has become very unstable and the West is thus not a good example. Yet a marriage whose appearance is kept by pretending that everything is all right is hardly any better, especially if the sacrifice of happiness is its price.

Sources:

Zang Xiaofei: Understanding Chinese Society

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America


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14 replies »

  1. OMG, where do you get these ideas? I think you have a time machine in Taiwan.But I am glad you use “Chinese culture” instead of “Taiwanese culture”!

    We Taiwanese(parents and friends) only like to ask you “how much do you earn per month”?

    Lily

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  2. Hi Lily,

    by saying Chinese culture I meant Chinese and Taiwanese culture alike, because I was trying to talk about marriage in the Chinese-speaking world in general terms. Your words make me think you dislike China and see China as backward compared to Taiwan, but my impression may be wrong.

    “We Taiwanese(parents and friends) only like to ask you “how much do you earn per month”?”

    Well, I think now you're assuming that you know exactly what every Taiwanese does. Personally, I have met many people that view material conditions as important prerequisites for marriage. For example, I know Taiwanese guys who think they should get a good job and then find a girl, and who think that the better job they have the better chances they have to find a good girl; I've heard of parents who care a lot about the financial condition of their future son-in-law and push their children to marry a certain person instead of another; I've met girls who want to marry a rich guy, or who don't marry a guy because he has no flat or hasn't got a good job or earns less than them, etc.

    Now, of course I am not talking about every single case, because every person is different. But as far as my experience is concerned, these phenomena exist and are quite widespread. To be honest, I have seldom met anyone in Taiwan who gets married for pure love. That is not bad per se, and I'm not suggesting in any way that Western culture is better or anything of the sort. But it's things that is worth talking about when we discuss cultural differences.

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  3. Good articles as usual. Chinese is always gonna be chinese wherever they are, even in Indonesia. My mother always did the same, ” You have to looking for a rich man” and even my aunty did the same. When I got a westerner boy friend, she seems like disagree, but one day I got a chinese man, she told me ,”The most important is you got a Thong Nyin (Chinese, in Hakka language). Well, marriage is a HUGE thing, it isn't between you and your partner, it's about Family time. You can't make any desicion if your mum or you daddy disagree about your partner choices. Your family desicion is your desicion, if you against them, you have to be ready with the consequencys. Even the chinese parents already changes in their opinion about marriage, but mostly they only accepted a chinese man or woman to be a new member of family. My family is same. Especially my father. He dislike a western man. He wanted a same race to be my husband, but he is moderat enough and gave me a freedom to choice, as long as not western. Family is the most important thing for Asian including Indonesia. I don't feel surprised about it. You can't handle your family opinion if you weren't strong enough to be independent like I did.

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  4. I must commend that it is a well written article. You were able to distinguish the Western and Chinese Culture thoroughly.

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  5. hi, i have a Chinese boyfriend and everything he does shows how much he loves me. I helped him in finding a business location and I have been with him as he said that the business is “ours”. However, while the building is almost done and we are only a few weeks away to start-up the business, he told me that he is getting married to a chinese girl because they got pre-arrangement 3 years ago. It had been very timely that the Chinese girl who lives in China went here in the Philippines when the building was almost done and his relatives were forcing him to marry the girl. He cannot say no to his relatives as he told me “we cannot do anything about it because it is a fixed marriage”. That hurt me so much. But, while their preparation is on-going, he still calls me and we still go out. I am afraid to know if he loves his “pre-arranged fiancee” already or if he truly loves me more than her because we spend more time together and we have experienced true love and real relationship.

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  6. @anonymous

    thanks for sharing your experience. This is really a sad story. If you don't mind, I'd like to tell you my opinion about it. As I said in some posts, in traditional Chinese marriage love and marriage are two different things. Your boyfriend might get married with that girl because of 'family concerns'.

    At the same time, he wants to have a girlfriend for love and fun. I find his behaviour very bad and not honest. Unfortunately, I have seen many examples of this kind. That is why I always wonder why Chinese or Taiwanese often say that they are more responsible or more 'selfless' than Westerners.

    I wish you all the best.

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  7. Hi Aris, thank you so much for your comment. You’re right. He could be marrying the girl due to family concerns. The family of the girl owns two hardware business- in China and in Manila. The relatives of the girl have hardware stores too in Divisoria. The building that we worked for is a hardware store as his second branch because he and his brother already owns one. His relatives are in a hardware business too.

    Thus, everything is about money and business. And maybe, there is a set-up going on to put me out of his life.

    For a year, I am the only one whom my boyfriend depended on to put up his own business. He told me that we needed to rush to find a location and when we found one last January, I resigned from my job last March and helped him during the building construction last April and May. I believed that I am the only one in his life since we were together the whole day and no one texted or called him. It was only during the first week of June when he told me the truth and three weeks later, the family of the girl arrived in Manila and as he said would stay until they get married. Things happened very quick. A week after the girl arrived, they got family gatherings. On the second week, he said he needed to buy Buddhist stuff for the relatives. On the third week, he went to Hongkong to tell his Mom’s relatives that he would be getting married. It hurt me a lot when he told me that he would ask the girl to put up the display and that they would live in the building that we worked hard for together.
    My boyfriend has been so caring and loving. We cried hard together a lot of times when we talked about the arrangement. He would come to me crying and telling me that his relatives were asking about the planned marriage. Though maybe he knew that he will get married to a Chinese, I believed that he knew nothing that the wedding plans would be happening very soon.

    My questions are: Did somebody in his family intentionally plan to expedite the wedding arrangement when they learned about our relationship and was his girlfriend’s family and his relatives only waiting for him to be able to put up his business? (BTW, his mom is already gone. I asked him too if he was the one who proposed to the girl. Surprisingly, he told me that it was the girl’s parents who told him that they shall get married. His Dad is a friend of the girl’s mom.)

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  8. I honored my girlfriend's(she is my wife now)parents and mine by telling them we are dating. (Prove we were mature enough.)
    They can give us any kind of suggestions and I will respect that. Until now, my mother-in-law still regards me as her son; my parents love my wife much more than their daughter. I didn't follow our parents' any commands or expectations because they trust a man who know how to respect others will also know how to love.

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  9. Alright, now to turn this a bit on its ear, in this post you acknowledge that non-Chinese men can be considered a suitable mate. As a female of NorthWestern European heritage (paper-white complexion, big, round blue eyes, etc.) I am struggling to gain acceptance from my boyfriend's super traditional parents and finding little to grease the wheels. (His dad is Chinese, Han of unknown specificity, and his mom is Laotian, raised in Thailand). Even his Asian ex wasn't 'Asian' enough for their tastes. The bf couldn't care less, which is great, as I do plan to keep him, rather than his folks, but I'd like a fighting chance at garnering their favor! Both parents have lived in the USA for well over 30 years, and he has always had a preference for caucasian women, but mom and dad are adamant that a white girl won't do. There is obviously nothing to be done about my ancestry, but I am actually quite open to learning new customs and have lived with a Taiwanese family for more than 18 months in the past. I'm still a novice, but I'm better versed than most of my contemporaries. I worry that his mom will never warm up enough to let me show her that I'm not the American girl she expects me to be. Thoughts? Advice? Why is it so acceptable for an Asian female to marry outside the culture, but so taboo for a male to do the same? One other friend has run into the same trouble with the parents of her Chinese fiance.

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  10. Hi Maggie,

    thanks a lot for your sharing your experience and welcome here : )

    Well, I would like to give you one single advice: be careful and listen to your heart. Let me explain.

    The first thing you should try to do is to understand Chinese culture, understand the values your boyfriend's family espouse, and then think about how far you can go. I know some Western people who marry into Asian families; some of them are happy; others, however, have been too enthusiastic at the beginning, have idealised Chinese family life, and have 'bought' (if you allow me to use this expression) everything they have been told by Asians themselves. Do not trust blindly what people tell you, because in all cultures I am familiar with people tend to idealise and justify their own system of values.

    I personally respect Chinese traditions, but I do not follow them. There are compromises I cannot make, because I don't want to lie to myself. When I was with my ex girlfriend, there was a voice inside me that told me I wasn't happy, that something which I was forced to accept in order to be with her was making me feel bad; for a while, I ignored this voice, but then it just became too loud.

    You should make your decisions for yourself and I'm not trying to influence you; I just hope you will be truthful to yourself and know exactly how far you can go in compromising with his parents. After all, they are not gods and you have no reason to allow them to look down on you or to ask you to change yourself.

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  11. This is just one opinion from far far away. Take whatever piece fit and throw the rest away.

    Maggie in the minds of his parents you represent an enormous liability and an existentialist threat to their family.

    They are afraid you will marry, have children and then kick their son to the curb living in his house with (your new boyfriend), half his income and their grand children.

    They know you will not be submissive or cooperative like an Asian woman would in case of divorce. As a white woman (from the power class) you are very likely (more than 50%) to divorce and worse likely to exercise all of your legal rights in a divorce which will effectively destroy their family.
    A submissive and less powerful woman will create stability by staying in her place under him in divorce or in marriage (when he cheats, gambles, is gay or inevitably finds some other way to screw up).

    Only Christian and Post Christian thinkers

    Only Christian/Post Christian thinking has the fantasy that a social order can be flat and equal or perpetuates the idea that a man and a woman to be “partners” or “equals”
    in marriage. Everyone except White people know that societies are a hierarchy you either rule or are ruled. So to understand how his parents think you should think more in terms of power and domination and where you rank in the family hierarchy.

    Like

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