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.
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.
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