Marriage in China


The article by David Wright is reprinted from SACU's China Now magazine (1989).


Since Liberation, people have been encouraged to delay marriage, partly out of consideration for the ill-effects of childbirth on young women, partly because later marriage tends to lower the birth rate. Since 1981, the minimum age for marriage has been 22 for men and 20 for women.

The main criterion for choosing a partner, according to a 1983 survey carried out in Sichuan Province is that he or she should be of good character, with political, social, intellectual and physical considerations playing a very minor role.

Matchmaking in the traditional sense is rare now in the cities, but friends and colleagues may play a part in smoothing the way for a couple to meet. The free choice of one's marriage partner is becoming increasingly accepted (although outside pressures still exist), as is a quiet wedding. Lavish Weddings were strongly discouraged in the first thirty years of the People's Republic, but since the reforms of the early 1980s some of the more extravagant customs of the past have re-appeared in some places, with arrays of wedding gifts and large sums of money being exchanged, but such ostentation is officially frowned on.

© Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library


The Marriage Law of 1981 stipulates the right to divorce, but compared to Western countries it is still a relatively rare phenomenon. Nevertheless, there is a marked increase in the divorce rate. The commonest causes of divorce are said to be: hasty marriage, preoccupation with money, affairs, ill treatment of wives, accommodation problems, criminal behaviour and physiological problems. The vast majority (over 80 percent) of the petitioners are women, and over half the divorced couples are childless. Divorce is much commoner amongst the young: over 50 percent of divorcees are between 25 and 30, and a further 27 percent between 31.


The Chinese word for 'marriage' is hunyin. The bride's father was called hun, and the groom's father yin. Both characters contain nu, the woman radical. bazi means 'eight characters', and refers to the eight characters used to record the exact hour, day, month and year of the birth. They were used for fortune-telling (and in witchcraft), and played an important role in deciding whether a couple should marry.

Civilised divorces

Young couples in Beijing increasingly prefer 'civilised' divorces, carried out via street committees, to the more formal, and more costly, judicial divorces, according to a recent report in Guangzhou Wenzhaibao (22.12.88). The do-it-yourself divorce only costs 2 yuan, whereas one carried out through the People's Courts costs between 30 and 50 yuan. Over 3,000 couples in Beijing availed themselves of this 'civilised' method, and of these couples 554 were from the rural areas of Beijing municipality.

Whereas in the past the litigants saw each other as enemies, the new system has given rise to many positive effects, such as the holding of 'divorce banquets' , 'divorce trips', giving up of property to the other party, visiting one another during holidays, and vying with one another to look after the children.


Almost everyone got married in the traditional society. The family needed children partly for economic reasons, to continue the line, and to ensure that there would be sacrifices to their parents after their deaths.

The match-maker would first determine the bazi (see above) of the girl, whom she would take to the family of an eligible boy, who would lay the red paper with the bazi before the Kitchen God. The boy's family would then consult a fortune-teller about the compatibility of the girl and boy. In the event of there being several girls who wanted to marry the boy, the family would have to choose: a bad choice could later be blamed on the matchmaker or on Fate, manifested in the bazi horoscopes.

After the engagement was announced, betrothal gifts were given to the bride's family, and a dowry sent. After the wedding ceremony, the couple would settle in the groom's house. The young bride would be expected to work under the instruction of her mother-in-law, and the cruel mother-in-law is a frequent theme in Chinese literature.

Even if the son died, he could still be married. In such cases his place in the wedding ceremony would be taken by a white cockerel. After this 'ghost' marriage, the woman could adopt a son, who would then be able to transmit the family's surname down to future generations.


There were alternatives to marriage other than a religious vocation. In some parts of South China there was a tradition of marriage resistance among young women. Often these women organised themselves into sisterhoods and took vows before the gods never to wed. They held a hairdressing ceremony, like the one held before a girl's marriage, to signal their arrival at social maturity, and this led them to be called 'women who dress their own hair'. Other young women did actually marry, but never went to live with their husbands. One of the reasons this custom persisted was because industrialisation of the local economy, based on rearing silkworms, raised the status of unmarried women workers who were able to support themselves - and their parents and siblings - with their earnings.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 130, Page 31, 1989

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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