For most of Chinese history, marriage was arranged by parents. This tradition has its roots in the strong belief that marriage is a family affair and should involve households of similar socioeconomic statuses (mengdang hudui or ‘matching doors’). Pragmatism is central to the mate-selection process, which tends to emphasize the matching and trade-off of attributes between prospective spouses. Though the 1950 Marriage Law outlawed arranged marriage, even today it is still customary for ‘introducers’ (jieshao ren) or ‘matchmakers’ (meiren) to facilitate the mate-selection process, especially in the countryside.
In rural China, in particular, marriage is governed by patrilocal exogamy, whereby the daughter moves out from the natal family and joins the husband’s family. This tradition is in part a byproduct of the notion that marriage requires and legitimizes the transfer of a woman’s membership and labour. To the natal family, the daughter’s labour is forever lost, as described by the old Chinese saying, ‘daughters married out are like spilled water’. This discourages the natal family from investing in the education of girls relative to their male siblings. A brideprice is usually offered by the husband’s family as a practical and symbolic compensation to the natal family for raising the daughter. Parents of sons are eager to recruit the labour of daughters-in-law, and this in part accounts for the prevalence of early marriage. The natal family is also eager to arrange for the marriage of a daughter as early as possible, lest she become too old to get married and continue to be a burden to the family. Thus, the dowry tradition is considered a gift to the husband’s family for taking up the responsibility for the daughter. Even today, in rural China, girls are expected to be married young. After the daughter reaches twenty years old, parents are eager to see to it that arrangements be made to find her a husband.
The Confucian ideology that governs gender roles stresses the importance of marriage to women. The notion that a woman’s well-being or happiness (xing fu) depends on her marriage has been one of the major cornerstones of gender roles and relations in China. Marriage has always been considered an inevitable and indispensable life-event, hence the old saying ‘when boys and girls reach adulthood they should get married’ (nanda danghun nüda dang jia).
The centrality of marriage to women’s well-being is perhaps most prominent in the countryside. While peasant men may improve their social and economic mobility by joining the military, going to school, and becoming cadres, most peasant women have few alternatives other than marriage for escaping poverty and achieving upward mobility. Though the majority of marriage migration takes place to nearby villages, increased volumes of long-distance marriage migration from inland China to coastal provinces show that spatial hypergamy is gaining prominence.
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Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.